Four dollars a gallon is an appreciable bite of a $58,000 annual salary. So Stacey Schesser, a 2006 graduate of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law and now deputy attorney general for the state of California, sold her car.

These days, she white knuckles the accelerator of a small scooter up the hills of San Francisco.

Schesser has regrets about not buying a scooter with a bit more horsepower for climbing those famous hills. But she has no regrets about accepting a public service job paying a bit more than a third of the $160,000 salary that her graduating classmates earn at private law firms.

In just two years, she has represented the state on 132 habeas writs filed by inmates. Unlike her lavishly paid fellow graduates, Schesser is regularly arguing cases in the state’s superior and appellate courts.

“Law firm work is great pay, but a lot of document review. I wanted to be inspired by what I do,” she said. “My choice reflects who I am. I don’t enjoy structure or micromanagement. Here, I have significant autonomy over my cases and manage everything.”

Many aspiring lawyers enter law school motivated by a call to public service that they ultimately cannot afford to answer.

Although recent government incentives have made public interest work such as Schesser’s a more feasible choice, many in the profession say that law schools have more to do in helping students to answer the call.

In Schesser’s case, her rent gobbles about half her take-home pay, leaving nothing for the $802 per month payment on her $71,500 law school debt.

She literally could not afford her job if not for the University of California, Berkeley Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP), which presents her with a $4,500 check every six months, offsetting almost her entire loan repayment.

“If I had to pay that $800 every month, I’d be at a law firm,” Schesser said.

A survey in 2005 by Equal Justice Works, an advocate for programs encouraging public service legal careers, found that only 18 of 100 law schools with LRAP programs were assisting 20 or more graduates in public service jobs. About half of the nation’s law schools have no loan assistance program for graduates in public service and, aside from a few elite schools, the programs are “typically not very generous,” said Heather Jarvis, manager of Equal Justice Works’ law school advocacy program.

Jarvis and many law students desiring public service careers are heartened by the recently enacted College Cost Reduction and Access Act (CCRAA), which caps monthly loan payments to a percentage of income for lawyers in public service and forgives loans entirely after 10 years in the public sector.

“The CCRAA is the most important development in public service law in a generation,” Jarvis said.

The CCRAA is a boon to law schools that are long on commitment to public service but working with a fraction of the money needed for effective LRAPs, said Emily Spieler, dean of the Northeastern University School of Law.

About one in four Northeastern law graduates take public service jobs, and a nearly equal number take clerkships, despite formidable monthly school loan payments.

Northeastern’s $200,000 per year loan assistance has always seemed puny compared to need, but the school is revising the program to work in combination with the CCRAA.

Spieler said it appears the law will allow Northeastern to offer a far more generous LRAP for little more than the school now allocates.

“With the new federal legislation, we can get pretty close to addressing real need with $200,000 to $300,000 per year,” Spieler said. “We are looking at Yale and Harvard as models, which was unthinkable without the federal legislation.”

Loan program nationalized

The CCRAA, in effect, creates a universal LRAP program that will allow students a broader choice of law schools, said Carol Spruill, associate dean at Duke Law School.

“Some people who know they are going into public service will choose schools that are less expensive, have more financial aid or a generous LRAP,” Spruill said. “The College Cost Reduction Act allows students to attend more expensive schools, and all law schools that don’t have LRAP will have one.”

The CCRAA was bolstered further, at least for some public service attorneys, by the Higher Education Opportunity Act signed last month by President Bush. The law provides public defenders and prosecutors at the state or local level with up to $60,000 in loan assistance over a period of six years total. Legal aid lawyers are eligible for up to $40,000 under the law.

It’s now up to the schools

The number of law students who choose the public sector as a result of the new law is almost certain to increase, but whether they do so marginally or significantly will depend in large part on how much law schools do to build on the new federal programs, Jarvis said.

“Every law school has an obligation to graduate lawyers with a sense of public service,” she said. “The promise of full loan forgiveness after 10 years is very encouraging for a public service career, but the need remains for well designed LRAPs that work in concert with the federal program.”

Clearly, heavily endowed law schools are in the best position to pitch in and assist students pursuing public interest work. For example, New York University School of Law has doubled the number of Root-Tilden-Kern Scholarships. The program pays full tuition for top students committed to public service. The school also has boosted its LRAP, said Kendra Simes, assistant dean for student financial services.

During the past six years, the number of students has increased as they have become more confident that they can handle their loans even on modest salaries, Simes said. She noted the average graduation debt of a New York University law student is $120,000.

Philip Schrag, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center who has written about the CCRAA, said that the law is intended to encourage attorneys to not just take jobs in public service, but to spend their career in public service.

The promise of loan forgiveness in 10 years is sweetened, he said, with an “income-based repayment” rate that caps monthly loan payments to about 11% of gross pay.

“The program is supposed to allow people a long-term career in public service without living like paupers,” Schrag said. “If you don’t stick it out for 10 years, you will have to repay all that money.”

At Yale Law School, about 80% of first-year students are active in public service clinics, and about a third of graduates in recent years have worked in public service jobs during the first five years of their law careers, said Harold Hongju Koh, dean of the school.

In April, Yale Law School raised the base salary that graduates in public service can earn without having to pay back their law school loans from $46,500 to $60,000. It also increased from $18,000 to $30,000 the amount of undergraduate loans that graduates can include in the LRAP program and doubled, from 14 to 28, the number of one-year fellowships in public service law available to graduates.

In some cases, fellowships will be extended a second year. The goal, said Koh, is to remove debt payments as a career-deciding factor.

“It is common to graduate with a $100,000 debt, or more, plus undergraduate and maybe other graduate school loans. The number can be huge,” Koh said. “If they take a job to pay the loans, then the means are driving the ends. With our program, they don’t have to choose their job based on what they will be paid but what they want to do.”

Mike Wishnie, a 1993 Yale Law School graduate who now teaches there, left the school with $100,000 in debt. He said the debt did not trouble him because of Yale Law School’s generous support for graduates who undertake careers in public service.

After graduation he was awarded a fellowship from the Skadden Fellowship Foundation, a program organized by New York-based firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom that supports lawyers who choose public service.

Wishnie represented low-income workers in New York, served three clerkships, worked for the Brooklyn, N.Y., office of the Legal Aid Society and was a professor at New York University School of Law and a co-director of the Arthur Garfield Hays Civil Liberties Program.

“It was not easy living in New York City with a wife working in the arts, one child and another on the way, but with Yale’s loan forgiveness program it was possible,” Wishnie said.

Koh said Wishnie’s experience building a career in public service law, despite big debts, led Yale to bolster its loan repayment and forgiveness program.

At Harvard Law School, the psychological burden of a six-figure law school debt prompted the school earlier this year to waive the $40,000 third-year tuition for graduates who enter public service.

The move was in addition to its low-income protection program, which enables a graduate working for $45,000 per year to pay only $50 monthly toward loans.

“Loan assistance repayment programs work, but that enormous debt is a psychological barrier [to public service],” said Ken Lafler, director of financial aid at Harvard. “With this program, students who are worried about going into public service with $120,000 in loans, now it is $80,000.”

Shortage of jobs also an issue

But providing assistance to graduates does not address the entire issue, said Chris Edley, dean of the Berkeley School of Law. He is the architect of the loan repayment plan that allowed Schesser to afford her job in the California attorney general’s office.

Edley said the focus on loan forgiveness for public service jobs has obscured the acute shortage of those jobs.

“There are not enough public service jobs for the lawyers who want them,” he said. “That is the real obstacle to having a larger portion of our students in public service.

He added: “Congress is getting off easy wrapping itself in glory for passing debt forgiveness while slashing legal aid funding.”