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Entering his final year at Georgetown University Law Center, Josh Kern finds himself in a job market where the pay disparity between public interest work and law firms has never been greater. With associate salaries starting as high as $135,000 — plus bonuses — Kern is still seriously considering a public interest job paying around $40,000. “It is so much easier to get law firm jobs right now and so hard to get the public interest jobs,” Kern says. “So what some people are saying is, ‘I’ll do the law firm for a couple of years and then reconsider.’ Most people who go to law school don’t see themselves working for big firms. They want to change the world.” But changing the world is tough if you can’t afford food or housing. With median law school debt hovering at $80,000, many law students are finding the big bucks increasingly hard to resist. At American University’s Washington College of Law, which is known for its strong public interest curriculum, the number of students heading off to law firms rose to 45 percent in 1999, up from 40 percent in 1997. At the same time, 5 percent of the class took public interest jobs, down from 8 percent in 1998 and 6 percent in 1997. “Obviously it is very difficult, no matter how committed you might be to public sector or public interest work, to not even consider a law firm job because the salaries are so much higher,” says K. Jill Barr, director of career services at American. “In some cases, they are three or four times higher, and with the debt burden it is very hard for [students] no matter where their heart lies.” Law school career officials like Barr say it is still early to weigh the real impact of the higher salaries because statistics for the class of 2000 won’t be available until early next year. SHOWING THEM THE MONEY Three years ago, the going rate for a first-year associate at a top D.C. firm was around $75,000, and entry-level public service jobs paid an average of $30,000, according to the National Association for Law Placement. Since then, starting law firm salaries have jumped $50,000, while public service salaries have risen just $2,000. But despite the promise of fat law firm paychecks, some school officials say they have seen little slackening of interest in public interest and public sector jobs. The real problem, they say, lies in the perennial shortage of these jobs. “I haven’t seen much of a difference,” says Kristen McManus, director of the office of legal career services at Catholic University’s Columbus School of Law. “Typically, when [students] come to law school they know whether public interest is what they want to do. I am not seeing people saying, ‘Wow, the money is so good maybe I should go into private practice.’ “ At Catholic, nearly 45 percent of 1999′s graduating class went to work at private law firms, up from the 39 percent who headed to firms in 1998, but down from the nearly 47 percent who took firm jobs in 1997. In 1999, 3.1 percent of the class took public sector jobs, compared with 1.6 percent in 1998 and 2.8 percent in 1997. “A fair number of students are voicing concerns over the ramifications of billable-hour requirements,” resulting from the skyrocketing salary levels, says McManus. “They are taking those requirements into account and not just looking at salaries.” The number of students entering private practice from George Mason University School of Law has held steady at 45 percent since 1997, says Victoria Huber, assistant dean and director of career development and alumni services. “We have not seen people flocking to firms because of high salaries,” she says. “We only hear questions about what the higher salaries mean” in terms of billable hours and pro bono work. George Mason graduates have not traditionally sought public interest work, although between 20 percent and 30 percent of the school’s graduates go into state and federal government practice. Last year, 1 percent of graduates took public interest jobs — the same as 1998, but down from an unusually high 5 percent in 1997. At Georgetown, which typically sends a far larger portion of its graduates into private practice than other local schools, the numbers entering law firms rose to 72 percent in 1999, compared with 66 percent in 1997. Georgetown reports that 2 percent of its 1999 graduates took public interest jobs, down slightly from 3 percent in 1998 and 3.3 percent in 1997. “I don’t think the salaries are drawing huge numbers of students away from other sectors,” says Abbie Willard, assistant dean for career services at Georgetown. For the past 20 years, she says, the number of Georgetown students taking law firm jobs has ranged from 66 percent to 72 percent. She attributes the recent rise in students going to law firms not to salaries, but to the phenomenal strength of the private sector legal market. However, Willard says, the rising salaries are having an impact on students who haven’t made up their minds about which path to choose, and on those who carry large debts. “It is much more difficult for them to decline the private sector because the salaries are so enticing,” Willard says. For example, she says, a student who wants to pursue securities law can expect to earn three times more in a starting job at a law firm than at the Securities and Exchange Commission. “That makes it very, very difficult for the student with financial constraints” to turn down the law firm, she says. Willard says she is concerned about the negative impact these rising salaries will have on the quality of life at law firms. “Clearly, it is leading employers to hire fewer new associates, and they are expected to hit the ground running,” she says. DOWNWARDLY MOBILE Deven McGraw, a Georgetown Law Center graduate saddled with $125,000 in student loan debt, took a job with Boston’s Ropes & Gray after graduating in 1995. She believes the higher salaries are causing people to postpone moving from law firm jobs into government or public interest jobs. In McGraw’s case, she was about to start her fifth year at Ropes & Gray, and had pared her debt in half, when a public sector job she’d had her eye on opened up in the Massachusetts governor’s office. “That was my first pay cut,” she says, laughing. McGraw just took her second pay cut by accepting a two-year teaching fellowship at a federal legislation clinic at Georgetown that pays in the low $30,000s, or about $80,000 less than she was making at Ropes & Gray. After accepting the fellowship, McGraw figured she would have no trouble interesting one of her former colleagues at Ropes & Gray in her Massachusetts position, which involved analyzing health care issues for the governor. To her surprise, no one wanted to leave. “They wanted to spend a little more time making that kind of money,” McGraw says. “Nobody was thinking they were never going to do it, they were just postponing it.” McGraw says she never could have afforded to go straight into public interest work, but she doesn’t think the ever-widening gap in salaries will have much impact. “The salaries were always better at law firms,” she says. David Stern, executive director of the National Association for Public Interest Law in Washington, says that so far he has not seen the effect of rising law firm salaries on public interest careers. “We will know a lot more in the next month or so because that is when we get all of our fellowship applications,” Stern says. Stern’s association funds several hundred public interest law fellowships and internships each year with money raised primarily from law firms and corporations. Interest in the fellowships is keen, he says, noting that his group typically gets 200 applications for each fellowship. Over the years, the quality of students applying for the fellowships has risen, Stern says. “This is very prestigious. It used to be that people kind of looked down their noses at people interested in doing public interest work. Now the quality of applicants is as good as the people who go to big firms.” Yet even Stern is feeling the pressure. The association moved up its deadlines this year so it can be on the same decision-making track as law firms. “Last year, we had a lot of fellowship applicants who dropped out because they had offers from big firms,” and could not wait, Stern says. “I would get calls from students who said, ‘I’m graduating with $110,000 in debt, and I’ve got an offer from a law firm. How likely is it that I will get the fellowship?’ ” Richard Roe, a Georgetown professor who directs the Law Center’s Street Law Clinic, says he had 50 applicants of “ extraordinary caliber” for his most recent fellowship opening. “The one I chose could easily have gone into corporate practice,” he says. “The only thing limiting the numbers going into public interest work is the availability of public interest positions,” Roe says. “There are a large number of students who come to law school looking for justice and meaning in their lives.” Claudia MacLachlan is a freelance writer in Washington and a regular contributor to Legal Times.

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