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The University of Washington School of Law has a tidy $33 million on the plus-side of the ledger, thanks to a recent gift from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation is making the donation, which will pay out over 80 years, to launch a program to provide full scholarships to five new students each year who demonstrate a commitment to a career in public service. Besides covering expenses for the legal education of 400 students during the life of the gift, it is also designed to raise awareness of the need for talented students to pursue jobs in public service. “We believe very deeply that it will become the prototype for more public giving and private giving to support service in the public interest,” said W.H. “Joe” Knight Jr., dean of the law school. The Gates Foundation gave the money last month as a surprise birthday present for the father of Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates, William H. Gates Sr., who graduated from the law school in 1950 and is a regent of the university. He also serves as co-chairman of the Gates Foundation. The scholarships, which will pay for living expenses and for tuition that runs to about $22,000 per year for nonresident students, will help individuals who want to pursue careers in public service but who may be precluded from doing so because of the debt that a law school education creates. The University of Washington Public Interest Law Association estimates that law students graduate owing more than $70,000 in loans, while the median starting salary in public interest is $37,500. The association also finds that the number of new lawyers entering public interest has declined from 5.4% to 2.9% in the last 25 years. Although attorneys are needed in all areas of public service law, they are needed most in legal services organizations that represent low-income individuals in civil actions, said David Stern, chief executive officer of Equal Justice Works, a Washington nonprofit group that promotes public interest work for law students and lawyers. More to come? Stern expects that a gift from a source as well known as the Gates Foundation will “inspire other donors to realize the debt obstacle and similarly inspire them to give grants.” The University of Washington’s new program is part of a trend of assisting students who want to become public interest lawyers. According to Equal Justice Works, the number of loan-repayment assistance programs at law schools has grown from 47 five years ago to 90 currently. In addition, in 2000, students received $7.5 million in loan-assistance money, and by 2003, that amount had escalated to $10.6 million, Stern said. The $33.3 million gift that funds the William H. Gates Sr. Public Service Law Scholarship program will pay for the full cost of tuition, books and supplies, and room and board. It also will help pay for seminars and internships and collaborative public interest initiatives with other law schools in Washington. A selection committee will choose the recipients in April. Candidates must demonstrate a commitment to public service law and academic achievement. The committee will consider financial need as a tie-breaker. The school expects graduates who abandon public services or who earn salaries higher than those prevailing in public service law to repay the scholarships as if they were loans. The University of Washington School of Law has 550 students in its juris doctorate program. The gift is the largest scholarship the university has received, Knight said.

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