Affording Public Interest Law

A few years after I had graduated law school, my husband (also a public interest lawyer) and I were sitting at an upscale restaurant in New York City with another couple who were both lawyers working at big law firms. As we drank our second glasses of wine, one of them asked me about my work. I began telling them about a case I was litigating against the consul general of a foreign state who had subjected one of his domestic employees to indentured servitude. There were many twists and turns in the story involving diplomatic immunity and the State Department and an opposing counsel prone to violent outbursts when he was losing.

The couple listened intently. At the end of the story, the wife said, “your work sounds so interesting and important. I am so jealous.” “Many people transition from law firms to public interest jobs,” I said and I started to talk about the people I knew who had made the switch. But she shook her head and said, “we could never afford it. It’s so expensive to live in the city.”

I paused at that point, unsure of what to say. My husband and I lived in Park Slope, hardly a bad neighborhood. We had recently taken a two-week trip to Italy. We had a car – a luxury in New York City – and we ate out at fancy restaurants regularly. We were at that very moment eating in the same fancy restaurant as our friends. I wanted to say, “well, we manage do to it,” but I didn’t, because it seemed, well, rude. The conversation moved on, but her comment stayed with me. Why did that couple think it was impossible for them to consider taking lower paid jobs they would have enjoyed more?

The first reason, of course, is student loans. The average law school graduate has $118,000 in loans at graduation. Many students believe that they must take the highest paying job they get to pay off their loans.

But this isn’t always the case. As I explained in a previous post, many law schools have loan repayment programs for graduates who take public interest jobs. This could mean you only need to repay a fraction of your loans. Moreover, most loans have extended loan repayment plans that can lower your monthly payment. I ended up changing my 10-year repayment plan to a 15-year payment plan, and then paid them off in 12 years. The lower monthly payment was very helpful at the beginning of my career when my salary was lowest. You may be hesitant to do this, but people regularly take out 30-year mortgages. No one tells them to go get a higher paying job so they can pay it off in fifteen.

Finally, even low-paying public interest jobs pay more than equivalent non-legal jobs, because organizations must offer a higher salary to attract good candidates. Entry-level public interest law jobs pay an average of $50,000, more in expensive places like New York City. I made $56,000 my first year, and made $65,000 after three years. Experienced attorneys can make even more. In larger cities, public interest salaries top out in the six figures. Compare that to median salaries – $35,000 in the United States and $39,500 in New York City. If more than half of New York City can live on less than your entry-level salary, you can too.

When people say they can’t afford to live on this salary, I think one of two things is going on. First, there may be some individual circumstances that make it difficult. If you are supporting a large family, are a single parent, or have expensive health problems, your financial needs will be greater. Geographic area also matters a lot. Money stretches a lot farther in places other than San Francisco and New York. (On the other hand, I knew a single mom in New York City who was a public interest lawyer and she managed just fine.)

But most of the time, when people say they can’t afford to live on a public interest salary, what they mean is that they could not sustain their current spending habits. That might include renting an expensive loft apartment or paying a hefty mortgage, eschewing public transit for nice cars or expensive taxi rides, staying at five-star resorts or buying a vacation home, wearing luxury clothes and jewelry, and spending a lot on fine wines and other expensive hobbies.

It’s true that you will be hard-pressed to afford all of these things on a public-interest salary. And I am not here to tell you not to want those things. If someone wanted to give me a luxury vacation or an expensive bottle of wine, I would not turn it down. But you should be aware of the trade-offs you are making in order to earn enough to live that lifestyle.

So the next time you hear yourself saying that you couldn’t live on a public interest salary, ask yourself if it’s you or the golden handcuffs talking.

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