Finances of Public Interest

I have loans coming out of my ears. Can I survive on a public interest salary?

You are the only person that can answer that question. It’s important to identify what you need to live - and separately, how you want to live. What is your financial picture today? What financial commitments do you want to take on in the coming years (home ownership, children, travel, etc.)? The kind of public interest work you pursue also should be taken into account. While community-based organizations generally pay comparatively little, government jobs may start at higher scale and have solid benefits to supplement the take-home salary.

One excellent resource for assessing your financial commitment and options is the Equal Justice Works' publication Financing the Future: Responding to the Rising Debt of Law Students. This publication gives an excellent overview of law school-sponsored and alternative financial options available to students.

The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) recently published its “2006 Public Sector and Public Interest Attorney Salary Report”, which gives an overview of salaries nationwide. While this is valuable tool for planning purposes, please remember that “median” means there is a lot of room on either side of a figure for what is a reasonable offer in a particular practice environment, and salaries vary significantly from region to region. If you have specific questions about an offer or in anticipation of an opportunity, please come see us in CPD.

Median Salaries for Attorneys by Type of Organization and Years of Experience

Years of
Civil Legal
Local Prosecuting
State Prosecuting
Public Interest
Entry-level $36,000 $43,300 $43,915 $46,374 $40,000
5 years $43,291 $54,672 $54,500 $55,177 $52,000
11-15 years $55,000 $65,500 $72,970 $67,712 $65,000

You should also consider applying for Seattle University School of Law’s Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP). LRAP is premised upon assisting graduates who choose full time public interest legal careers. LRAP can be a great help your first few years out of law school as you’re establishing and building your career. For more information, please visit SU’s LRAP Web site.

There is a great deal that you can do now to keep your professional options open. Obviously the fewer loans you take out now, the fewer you have to pay back. Consider: if you are financing the bulk of your education and living costs through loans, the $15 pizza once a week isn’t $15 – it’s $4,154 (pizza once/week for three years, financed by private loan with 8.25% interest rate after 10 years).

How do I find funding to help me do the work that I want to do while I am in school?

While resources to fund work done in law school may seem non-existent, funding sources are available to help you serve the public interest in non-paying positions. The sooner you identify potential funding sources, the stronger your application for the grant will be. To begin your research on available grants or in-school fellowships you qualify for, please visit our Public Interest Funding page. If you have questions about a particular program or grant, please contact CPD.

I have heard that there is a new federal loan repayment law that can help me if I want to work in public interest. How can it help me?

In October 2007, the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007 (HR 2669) was signed into law. It puts an annual limit on loan payments for borrowers with high educational debt compared to income level and helps borrowers who are employed in public service make affordable monthly payments over a period of 10 years. After 10 years of payments, the federal government will forgive the eligible federal educational debt that remains. Only loans that are federally guaranteed are eligible for the lowered repayment schedule and loan forgiveness. For an excellent synopsis of the program, please see Federal Student Loan Repayment Assistance for Public Interest Lawyers and Other Employees of Governments and Nonprofit Organizations, 36 Hofstra L. Rev. __, (forthcoming, Fall, 2007). Philip G. Schrag. Equal Justice Works has prepared materials to help students and alumni determine how this law may help them. Included on Equal Justice Works' page is a PowerPoint presentation and flyer detailing the program that includes information about additional helpful resources. Additional information may be found on the Seattle University School of Law Financial Services page.

Sullivan Hall