The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) has issued its latest round of sobering job news, and this time the depressing statistics focus on public-interest lawyer salaries.

Median entry-level public-sector and public-interest lawyer salaries have grown by between 23 and 29 percent since NALP began tracking them in 2004, but that increase has barely kept pace with the rising Consumer Price Index—meaning that local prosecutors, public defenders and other public-interest attorneys are essentially earning wages comparable to thosepaid to lawyers who entered the field close to a decade earlier. Additionally, most of that salary growth occurred before the 2008 recession. Growth in public-interest pay since then has been modest, NALP said.

“During the same period, the cost of legal education and the average amount of law school student loan debt have both risen at a much higher pace—which means that despite favorable changes in the federal loan repayment options available to law school graduates working in the public interest, there are still significant economic disadvantages at play as law students consider whether or not to pursue public-interest legal careers,” NALP executive director James Leipold said.

The College Cost Reduction & Access Act, which went into effect in 2009, caps monthly student loan payments according to the borrower’s income and forgives student debt balances after designated periods of time. That period is 10 years for graduates who stay in public-interest jobs, although critics have raised questions about the program’s sustainability.

According to the NALP report, new public defenders can expect to earn a median salary of about $50,500, while a starting legal services attorney can expect to earn about $43,000. Those salaries increase to about $78,600 and $65,000, respectively, after 11 to 15 years of experience.

Local prosecutors start at a median $50,000, which increases to nearly $70,000 after 11 to 15 years. Lawyers at issue-driven public-interest organizations typically start at about $45,000 and earn about $75,000 after 11 or more years on the job, according to NALP.

While no one undertakes a public-interest career to get rich, starting pay has remained more flat than that of attorneys in private-sector jobs. Median starting salary in those positions has declined by 17 percent since 2009 and hovers at $60,000 for members of the class of 2011 in full-time jobs.

Still, the starting median salary for an attorney at a firm with 50 or more lawyers far outpaces that of public-interest attorneys, at about $80,000. And some large firms continue to pay $160,000 to new associates, NALP said.

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