Today, those considering attending law school hear a constant refrain: The job prospects for law graduates are not strong enough to justify the cost of pursuing a legal education. Yet a recent controversial study, "The Economic Value of a Law Degree," by Michael Simkovic and Frank McIntyre, shows that a law degree in the current market is worth 60 percent more than a typical college degree — up to $1 million more. Those in the camp who think law school is not a good investment are skeptical of these findings.
But this study and its critics all overlook one important fact: Thousands of lawyers across the United States are not in it for the money and never have been. What's more, many of these lawyers find their jobs incredibly rewarding and find that their law degree actually helps them change the world.
It's hard to put a monetary value on such power.
Lawyers across the country defend the accused, prosecute perpetrators of crime and counsel nonprofit organizations that are helping survivors of domestic violence and offering job training and other assistance to veterans. They can be found in national organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and in hundreds of local legal aid organizations offering free legal assistance to those who cannot afford it.
For 15 years, I was fortunate enough to hold jobs in organizations like these. I represented low-wage workers in New York's Chinatown and low-income tenants and homeowners in Harlem. It was always hard work. I spent my mornings defending my clients in some of the lowest courts of the land and my evenings walking dark streets, traveling from client meeting to client meeting. And I loved every minute of it.
Many lawyers will devote their whole careers to this type of work — helping hungry families get food stamps, securing Social Security benefits for the disabled, fighting human rights abuses at home and abroad, rooting out discrimination. They will work long, thankless hours and will have to defend what they do at cocktail parties and over Thanksgiving dinner tables. They will be asked why they're not "real lawyers," and sometimes clients will ask for their "legal aide," not realizing their lawyer is, in fact, a lawyer.
Their pay is a fraction of what Wall Street lawyers make. Even long-serving veterans of this type of work make less than a first-year lawyer at a big firm.
Fortunately for these public interest lawyers, they're not in it for the money, and financial support is available. Those considering public interest law as a career can access a federal loan-forgiveness program that will completely forgive their federal student loans if they stay in qualifying public interest jobs for 10 years.
Still, it's not easy. The recession has left state and county governments, which often fund such jobs, strapped for cash. During just the past two years, the largest program that funds free civil legal assistance for low-income people, the federal Legal Services Corp., has had its budget sequestered and reduced by 15 percent — from $400 million a year to $340 million. As a result, far more people who qualify for LSC-supported services are denied representation than receive it. The American Bar Association asserts that funding for LSC must be increased fivefold just to meet the needs of those who qualify.
With money in such short supply, graduate students interested in pursuing a public interest career will need to work hard to get their dream job. Post-graduate fellowships made possible by donations from private law firms, such as the Skadden Fellowship and those offered by Equal Justice Works, make job opportunities available to almost 80 law graduates a year — which means such slots are highly competitive, to say the least.
But these aren't the only options. Legal services programs have gotten creative, seeking new resources to meet pressing needs, and foundations have stepped up their support. Some organizations are bringing cases that award attorney fees to victorious parties, like civil rights actions and low-wage worker defense. State attorneys general are also getting into the act, using settlement funds from actions they bring to pay for legal services programs.
In addition, public-minded law graduates need not look just to serving the poor to find meaningful, important work. Low-income people are not the only ones unable to pay attorneys; families in the middle class often cannot afford the costs typically associated with legal representation. Opportunities exist for creative, entrepreneurial and motivated lawyers who can find ways to deliver much needed legal services efficiently and affordably to typically underserved — and middle class — communities. Govern­ment support can be available for this type of work, as well. New York City funds the Legal Services for the Working Poor coalition, which, with plaintiff-side attorneys, recently fought to preserve the affordability of two housing developments in New York City originally built for the middle class.
Columnist Thomas Friedman of The New York Times writes that college graduates won't find a job; they will create it. This is no less true of law graduates interested in pursuing public interest careers. Finding — and funding — one's public interest dream job can be done, to which thousands of public interest lawyers, solo practitioners, community lawyers and plaintiff-side employment lawyers who are out practicing in the world can attest. In the words of Billie Holiday: "Difficult can be done right now, the impossible will take a little while."
Changing the world will not come easy for these aspiring lawyers; it never has. But that shouldn't stop anyone from trying.
Ray Brescia is an associate professor of law at Albany Law School of Union Univer­sity, where he teaches federal civil procedure and law and social change.