It's a common myth among pre-law students that attending a top-tier law school and competing for a position at a big law firm is the only path to a successful legal career. While the corporate law world is a perfect fit for many, it's certainly not for everyone. After interning for nonprofits and social justice organizations throughout my college career, I know that the corporate road is simply not for me.
Myself and other like-minded pre-law students may be a better fit in the world of civil legal aid, a practice that provides direct legal services to low-income clients and allows attorneys to make a daily impact while helping to bridge the justice gap.
This career path is undoubtedly rewarding, but many students are faced with crippling student debt from both their undergraduate and law school years. Inevitably, choosing a public service legal career means a lower salary than is typical at a private firm. Average starting salaries for lawyers working in civil legal aid at non-profit organizations start around $46,000.
With average law student debt running close to $122,000, the financial strain of becoming a legal aid attorney may seem daunting. Luckily, there are plenty of options that will allow you to pursue a public service career while addressing your debt concerns.
Before you rule out law school or begin to consider a legal career in Big Law based solely on the size of your debt, here are three tips every pre-law student should know in order to make a career in civil legal aid possible:
1. Brush up on your federal debt relief options.
If you're a pre-law student, it's a great idea to stay up to date with the latest federal debt relief programs--their purpose is to help you navigate your student loans on a lower salary, after all! The most important programs to know are the income-driven repayment plans (Revised Pay as Your Earn; Pay As You Earn; Income-Based Repayment; and Income-Contingent Repayment) and Public Service Loan Forgiveness (more on this below). You can apply to switch into any of these plans after you enter loan repayment.
2. Look for law schools that have specialized public interest law career centers or counselors.
Find out which law schools have designated offices for law students looking to pursue public interest law or social justice careers. Every school has unique program offerings, such as required pro bono hours, direct legal service clinics, scholarships and stipends for public interest internships, and more. Consider schools that report high numbers of alumni working in public service. Once in law school, your counselors can not only help you land public interest jobs and internships, but also navigate the complex world of student loans. It can be difficult to manage student debt on a public service salary, and choosing a law school that can guide you through that process will really pay off in the long run.
3. Understand the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and how it works.
Created in 2007, Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) is a program designed to forgive the remaining balance on federal student loans after at least ten years of public service work. To be eligible, you must be employed full-time at a qualifying organization, which includes government organizations, 501(c)(3) non-profits, and other non-profits that provide qualifying public services. Only William D. Ford Federal Direct Loans are eligible for forgiveness, though it is possible to consolidate your other federal student loans into a Direct consolidation loan. All income-driven repayment plans are eligible for PSLF. To ensure that you're on the right track to loan forgiveness, submit an Employment Certification for Public Service Loan Forgiveness form, ideally each time you change employers. Lastly, remember that in order to receive forgiveness, you must submit a PSLF application after completing 120 on-time monthly payments.
Equal Justice Works offers plenty of helpful resources, including monthly debt-relief webinars, a debt-relief newsletter, a free student debt e-book entitled Take Control of Your Future, and an online Student Justice Center full of other tips. Pre-law students, especially those interested in social justice careers, are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the financial realities of attending law school prior to enrolling.
Michele Bastacky is a rising senior at George Washington University studying political science. She is a 2016 summer intern in the Law School Engagement and Advocacy unit at Equal Justice Works. She joined Equal Justice Works to learn more about having a career as a public interest lawyer and managing student debt. Prior to joining Equal Justice Works, she worked as intern at Americans for Responsible Solutions, working on gun violence prevention. She also worked as a voter expansion intern at the Democratic National Committee and a volunteer at the White House Office of Presidential Correspondence.
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