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When asked about a career in public interest law, law students often express their desire to work in the field but then quickly dismiss the idea due to their educational debt burden and the dismally low salaries paid to most public interest lawyers. Some think this is a convenient excuse for many students to avoid using their law degree in a socially responsible manner and that these students reveal their true nature by becoming a member of the professional class — receiving a six-figure annual salary at a law firm protecting the interests of corporations and fellow members of the capitalist elite. Others students surely are sincere in their desire to do more, but are scared of their debt burden. (The rationality of this mind-set is a debate for another time.) This may seem like an intractable problem given the current trend of skyrocketing tuition and floundering public interest salaries, but there is hope. Many law schools around the nation are developing and funding programs to buck this trend and find new ways for law graduates to finance careers in public interest law. According to a study done by the National Association for Public Interest Law regarding the current state of Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAPs), law school tuition has more than doubled during the 10 years between 1987 and 1997. (The average private law school tuition has increased from $9,048 to $19,256, and the average public law school tuition has increased from $2,810 to $7,035.) In the face of increasing law school tuition, private law firms have increased their starting salaries dramatically (with some of the biggest firms paying more than $125,000 to associates right out of law school), but public interest employers are unable to significantly increase their salaries at similar rates, especially if they want to continue providing services to as many clients as possible. In 2000, the National Jurist Magazinenamed the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law one of the top twenty public interest law schools in the nation. Students at Cardozo may be surprised by this ranking considering almost no one ever claims that Cardozo is a public interest law school. The fact of the matter is that Cardozo does have some great public interest programs which Cardozo students should be proud of, especially in light of the fact that many schools have absolutely nothing to offer in way of public interest law programs. Cardozo has a strong clinical program, a career counselor dedicated to public interest law in the Center for Professional Development, an excellent public interest summer stipend program (one of the best of its type in the nation, funded by the annual Goods and Services Auction held by the Student Bar Association) and a nominal Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP). A high ranking on this arbitrary scale does not mean that Cardozo should be complacent in developing new public interest programs or strengthening ones that already exist. Cardozo has a responsibility to live up to this ranking. One program that has gained Cardozo this ranking is the LRAP program, a program that needs strengthening and could be revolutionized with a certain amount of effort and commitment. LRAPs, as well as public interest scholarship programs, are established to help law school alumni afford a career in public interest law by helping to pay educational debt. These programs provide assistance by providing forgivable loans, loan forgiveness and as is the case at Cardozo, provide grants to recipients. Today, there are 47 law schools and four state LRAP programs (in 1986 there were only five LRAPs). In 1999 these programs paid out more than $7 million. Unfortunately (or fortunately for those who attend the most generous schools), 70 percent of all the funds distributed from LRAP programs go to the graduates of six law schools: Yale Law School, Harvard Law School, Stanford University Law School, Georgetown University Law Center, Columbia University Law School and New York University Law School. Cardozo’s New York City neighbors NYU and Columbia give out $1,091,579 and $748,179 respectively. Five states also have LRAP programs: Arizona, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire and North Carolina. Over the past five years there has been a significant increase in funds distributed through LRAPs (from about $3 million in 1994 to more than $7 million in 1999). Brooklyn Law school has significantly increased the funding for their LRAP since 1994, from $12,158 in funds disbursed in 1993-4 to $149,721 in 1998-9. The Cardozo LRAP was started in 1992 when an endowment was set up to fund the program. This endowment generates approximately $26,000 a year. This puts Cardozo 25th out of 48 programs in dollars distributed in 1999, a ranking which reflects more the weakness of other programs rather than a strength in Cardozo’s. The Cardozo program provides a one-time grant to applicants who apply within three years of graduation. Due to limited resources, past recipients are not eligible to re-apply. Those earning $40,000 or less in their first year of employment and those in their second or third year whose current salary, adjusted backwards to the date of initial employment in light of the Consumer Price Index, is $40,000 or less. Other factors such as the applicant’s net worth, spousal income, and number of dependents are taken into consideration. In addition the applicant must have an accumulated educational debt burden of $50,000 or more. The applicant must be employed in a job which is full time, related to the law and is of a public interest nature. “Public interest” jobs include legal aid societies, public defenders’ offices, district attorneys’ offices, legal services’ offices, governmental agencies, private nonprofit organizations dedicated to public interest law, international human rights organizations, and clinical law teaching jobs. The number and the amount of these grants have varied, ranging from five to 17 grants per year of up to a maximum of $3,000. This past year 13 awards were given in the amount of $2,000 each. Recently, Rutgers law school students approved of a referendum which increased their student activity fee by $50 annually in order to create an LRAP program. This new activity fee generates more than $37,000 annually. This grassroots approach is exactly the strategy that is most effective for increases in these programs. Much like Cardozo’s Public Interest Auction, the program gets its money from students, is organized by students and directly benefits students. The Cardozo Public Interest Law Students Association (PILSA) and the Coalition for a Diversified Law School, along with other student groups, plan on bringing this strategy to Cardozo this semester. An annual increase of $50 in the student activity fee for LRAPs will almost triple the amount of funding for the Cardozo LRAP program. The first step in the campaign will be to introduce a resolution to the Student Bar Association Senate supporting a $50 annual increase in the student activity fee in order to increase funding for the Cardozo LRAP (the current activity fee stands at $100 annually). Next will be a push to get every student to sign a petition pledging their support for the increase. The final step will be the most difficult: to convince the administration that the students want this increase, that this program is undeniably important and that not only will it benefit those who receive the assistance but the law school as a whole. By strengthening the LRAP, Cardozo will attract a higher caliber of applicants, solidify its position as a top public interest law school, and increase its prestige in the legal community by supporting good public interest work. Aside from the activity fee campaign, PILSA intends to start a “Give a Day, Give a Damn!” program. This program reaches out to alumni and asks them to give one day’s salary to the LRAP program. One day’s salary for an associate at a big firm may not seem like much to that associate but to a person practicing public interest law that one day’s salary can make the difference in being able to meet one’s debt payments. PILSA is hoping the school’s development office is cooperative in providing alumni contact information in order to make this an effective effort. Additionally, this spring PILSA is proud to present a very special fund-raiser for the Cardozo LRAP program. King Missile III, best know for their single “Detachable Penis,” led by our very own John S. Hall (class of 2001) will be playing a benefit concert from which all proceeds go to the LRAP. Be on the lookout for date and location. PILSA invites anyone who wants to help out in these efforts or has other ideas to contact us at [email protected] Peter A. Kempner is the co-chair of the Public Interest Law Students Association of Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law.

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