How Much Debt Is Too Much Debt?

If you follow law twitter, you may have seen the recent news: Columbia recently became the first law school to pass the $110,000 mark for tuition and living expenses per year. That means that a student who does not get any financial aid could leave law school with almost $400,000 in loans (when you take into account interest accrued during law school). Most students won’t pay the sticker price, but even so this is a ridiculous amount of money, especially for students wanting to do public interest law. Unless your school has an excellent loan forgiveness program, you will be paying back your loans for a very long time. Or you will abandon your public interest dreams and become a corporate lawyer because you are forced to. These are not good outcomes.

That is not to say that public interest students should never take out loans. There are many circumstances in which it makes sense. But you should not take out loans until you calculate what your monthly payment will be, what loan repayment options you will have, and how much you are likely to earn. If the numbers don’t add up, you need another plan. That plan might be waiting another admission cycle and retaking the LSAT so that you can compete for merit scholarships, going to a lower-ranked school that offers you financial aid, or avoiding law school altogether. The time to consider these options is before you enroll, not when your first bill arrives six months after you graduate.

There needs to be a revolution in law school financing. The current system is broken. The average debt burden has doubled in the last 20 years and is still growing. It is unsustainable, particularly for public interest students who could never count on high salaries. Your job as a law school applicant is not to get crushed by the system. I think that being a public interest lawyer is one of the best jobs in the world, but no job is worth $400,000 in debt. If that’s your only option, you should think seriously about whether law school is right for you.

Announcing “Becoming a Public Interest Lawyer”

You may have noticed that I have not published a post in awhile. The reason is that I have been working on book based on this blog. It’s called Becoming a Public Interest Lawyer and it will be published soon. Unless there are supply chain issues, it will be out in September 2022. It is a comprehensive guide for aspiring public interest lawyers and is particularly geared towards pre-law and law students. I hope it will be useful and I will need your help getting it in the hands of people who could benefit from it. As soon as I have an order link, I will post it here. Once you read it, please drop me a note with your thoughts.

I will continue to write on this blog, but it will transition to a space where I can invite other public interest lawyers and law students to share their wisdom and where I can provide more topical information about public interesting lawyering. I hope you remain a reader!

Private Public Interest Law Firms

So far, I have discussed non-profit organizations, government jobs, and social entrepreneurship as different ways to practice public interest law. Today, I want to discuss private public interest law firms.

At core, most private law firms are mercenary – they work for whomever will pay their rates. There may be limits to this, of course. Corporate law firms can and do turn down work that would require them to advocate for repugnant clients or take abhorrent legal positions (especially if such work would exact a reputational cost), but that is not primarily the way they make decisions about what work to take on. And, regardless of whether they can turn down repugnant clients, they often don’t. Just look at the list of well-regarded law firms that represented former President Trump in his pernicious and quixotic quest to overturn the democratic results of the 2020 election.

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How to Transition to Public Interest Law Later in Your Career

Often when I talk to students, I hear some variation of the following: “I am going to go work at a law firm to pay off my loans for a few years and then I will go do public interest work.” When I hear this, I try to let students know the obstacles they will encounter. It is not as easy as they think it will be.

From the students’ perspective, this decision makes a lot of sense. What’s the harm in going to work at a law firm for a couple of years when you can pay off your debt, get some good legal experience, and still spend most of your career in public interest? What is a few years in the grand scheme of things!

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How to Avoid Burnout

It’s the time of year when law students are finishing their final exams and many are returning home for a few weeks of R&R before spring semester starts. This year, my students seemed more stressed than usual, probably in part because the pandemic won’t seem to go away. We powered through for awhile, but many people – including me! – are hitting a breaking point.

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