Lawyer Pay

Are Public Interest, Public Sector Careers Worth Law School Cost? NALP Sees 'Economic Disincentives'

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Are public interest careers a good choice for lawyers who borrow heavily to finance the cost of a law school education?

NALP, the Association for Legal Career Professionals, raises the question. Salaries in public interest and public sector careers have kept pace with inflation for the last eight years—but the cost of a law school education rose at a much higher rate, NALP says in a press release detailing median salaries in the professions.

The median entry-level salary is almost $43,000 for legal services attorneys, $45,000 for public interest lawyers in groups with issue-driven missions, $50,500 for public defenders, and $50,000 for local prosecutors, NALP says.

The median pay for those with 11 to 15 years of experience is about $65,000 for legal services lawyers, $75,000 for public interest lawyers, $78,600 for public defenders, and almost $76,700 for local prosecutors. The salaries are for lawyers whose positions primarily involve law practice rather than organizational management.

NALP points out that median first-year pay is about $80,000 at law firms of 50 or fewer attorneys, and $160,000 at many large firms in big cities, an amount “beyond what even the most experienced attorneys can reasonably expect at a public interest organization.”

In a statement, NALP executive director James Leipold noted that the cost of a legal education and average student debt have outpaced inflation and the rise in public interest salaries. The consumer price index rose about 22 percent during the period, while public interest starting salaries rose between 23 percent (at public interest groups) and 29 percent (for public defenders).

“Despite favorable changes in the federal loan repayment options available to law school graduates working in the public interest, there are still significant economic disincentives at play as law students consider whether or not to pursue public interest legal careers,” he said.

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