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Just three years ago, Ramon Arias had his pick of lawyers for jobs at the San Francisco Legal Assistance Foundation. He recalls being flooded with 60 to 80 applications for a single opening. Times, however, have changed. In recent months, Arias has been trying to fill four attorney slots at Bay Area Legal Aid. And he has received just five or six applications for each job. “I’ve been in legal services for 22 years,” Arias says. “We’ve always talked about the difficulty of filling and retaining positions. This is a new phenomenon for legal aid.” Astronomical housing prices, competition with higher-paying private firms itching for legal talent and the cost of law school loans have combined to make low-paying public interest jobs a tough sell in the San Francisco Bay Area. To be sure, some attorneys are taking the plunge. Local law schools are still churning out public interest attorneys at a clip of about 5 percent of graduates per year. And nationally, legal aid positions and public interest jobs at issue-driven nonprofits are still highly coveted despite the pay, says David Stern of the National Association of Public Interest Law. But Arias says the Bay Area has “reached a point where many can’t afford to work in the public interest. Where in the past, people wanted to come here because of a long tradition of public interest work and quality of life, at least for us, it has become a hindrance.” Robert Kim, an attorney at the Northern California chapter of the ACLU, says “going into public interest has always meant a sacrifice.” But, Kim says, “It’s so expensive in San Francisco that the financial strain is compounded.” Kim says he’s no different than other public interest lawyers in the city. He’s got the debt — from Boston College Law School — and says he wouldn’t know what to do if he ever got evicted from his apartment. “I keep thinking this is tough,” he says. At the Sacramento office of Legal Services of Northern California, staff attorney Brian Augusta figures he’s lucky to have found a job in his hometown, where the living is less expensive. “The cost of living in the Bay Area is so high, it’s hard to follow your heart,” said Augusta, who graduated from California’s Santa Clara University School of Law last year. He says he’s not sure if he would have been able to make it on the same salary in the San Francisco Bay Area. The only thing that allows Augusta, a new father and the primary source of income for his family, to keep working in legal aid is his law school’s loan reimbursement program. But for some of Augusta’s school buddies, even that’s not enough. He said their hearts were in public interest, but they also applied to private firms. “And when they got the salaries from public interest [groups] and looked at the salaries from private firms, they went the other way.” Loan reimbursement programs for public interest law grads typically only go so far. And some schools have better programs than others. Stanford, New York University, Columbia, Harvard and Yale are considered the best, offering nearly 100 percent reimbursement, says Stern of NAPIL. Of 179 law schools in the country, between 50 and 60 have loan reimbursement programs, he says. Students can apply for a handful of public interest fellowships to get their foot in the door of a nonprofit, hoping to stay on after gaining some experience. NAPIL offers 76 fellowships, and there are 25 Skadden fellowships awarded each year. But for groups like Bay Area Legal Aid, fellows only augment staff attorneys. The organization doesn’t use fellows to fill vacancies in its four offices in Oakland, Richmond, San Francisco and San Jose. “We need to raise salaries,” says Arias. Arias is hoping to tap private firms for more money. Five percent of the group’s $5.5 million budget comes from private donations, most of it from San Francisco private lawyers “who most understand and value what we need,” Arias says. But some are critical of private firm giving, saying donations have not increased even as firms are taking in record profits. “Nonprofit legal organizations are under a lot of strain and hoping that some of the wealth that has been created can somehow come to this community in ways that it hasn’t,” says Joan Graff, president of the Legal Aid Society of San Francisco/Employment Law Center. And while Arias is used to asking for money, for the first time it won’t be to increase services. “It’s not a matter of increasing anything anymore, it’s a matter of remaining intact. I’m confident the Bay Area legal community will be there to support us,” he says. But he is also a little worried, too: “Because the need for financial services and more money has been a long-standing mantra. Now saying that it’s an urgent need — I don’t know if its going to ring as strong as it should.”

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