Some students think that they can't pursue public interest careers because they “can't afford to take a low-paying job." While public interest positions do not pay salaries that are comparable to large law firms, it is possible to be a public interest lawyer and still maintain a satisfying lifestyle.
The first step to affording life as a public interest lawyer is to borrow as little money as possible during law school. Even if borrowing a couple of extra thousand dollars may seem insignificant at the time, it will all add up when it is time to pay it back.
For more information regarding loans and law school budgeting, contact Vanda Chou, Director of Law School Financial Aid.
While many public interest summer positions are
unpaid, Carolina Law students are eligible for summer grants provided by
private donors and student organizations. For detailed information on available
grants, please visit http://www.law.unc.edu/publicservice/finance/summergrants/.
There are also other sources of funding that students can find on their own, including approaching private sources to contribute money for the completion of a project of interest to them; for instance, you may be able to convince a local hospital to give $500 to help you work for a non-profit health care research organization on a project of particular use to the hospital.
PSJD.org also has a listing on their website which describes summer funding sources nationwide at http://www.psjd.org/Funding_&_Debt.
Post-Graduate Loan Assistance
UNC School of Law has recently created a Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP) for recent graduates working in public interest employment. For more information, visit http://www.law.unc.edu/admissions/financing/lrap/.
An increasing number of states have similar loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs). Eligibility requirements and how much assistance they provide vary. For links to state-specific information, visit the Public Interest Guide within the Career Planning Manual.
Some legal services employers around the country and several of the post-graduate legal fellowships have a loan forgiveness component to their programs. For more information on employers-based and other loan forgiveness options, see http://www.equaljusticeworks.org/law-school/student-debt-relief.
Federal Legislation on Loan Forgiveness and Income-Based Repayment
The College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007
established two key programs to support careers in public service. First, the
Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program offers forgiveness of federal
educational loans after 10 years of public service employment. Second,
Income-Based Repayment (IBR) calculates monthly loan payment amounts based on
income, rather than the amount owed. These programs will significantly reduce
loan burden for public interest lawyers, who often make lower salaries than those
in the private sector. The most comprehensive and up to date information can be
found at http://www.equaljusticeworks.org/resources/student-debt-relief/student-debt.
Starting Salary Ranges
Approximate Starting Salary Ranges of Select Public Interest Positions (as of October 2010):
- Public Defender (NC): $36,000-$40,000 (minimum) and up depending on locality and experience
- Prosecutor (NC): $37,182-$40,000 (minimum) and up depending on locality and experience
- N.C. State Government - Attorney I: $55,724 (minimum) to $92,922 (max)
- Legal Services (NC): $40,100
- Non-Profit Organizations: due to the varied nature of non-profit organizations, starting salaries may differ widely but on average may range from $32,000- $55,000
- Federal Government (depends on locality, program and experience):
- GS 11, step 1: Approximately $50,287- $65,371 (not including locality pay)
- Raleigh/Durham/Cary area: $59,158
- GS 12, Step 1: $65,000- $73,000
- Raleigh/Durham/Cary area: $70,906
- Judicial Clerkships:
- NC Court of Appeals: Approximately $45,000- $50,000
- NC Supreme Court: $48,000
- NC Business Court: $40,000- $45,000
*Other states may pay higher or lower depending on location.
- Federal District Court (typically appointed at GS11 level with adjustments upward for clerks in larger cities)
- US District Court, NC: Approximately $55,000-$60,000
- Judge Advocates General (JAG): Active duty Judge Advocates start as First Lieutenants, earning approximately $40,000 a year. Pay varies based on when a commission is accepted and where the Judge Advocate will be stationed. The JAG officer is usually promoted to Captain within 6-12 months and will then earn between $45,000 and $65,000 each year during their minimum four year total commitment. JAG attorneys also receive a great number of benefits – including a housing allowance, free medical and dental coverage, and law school loan repayment assistance – which total an average of $20,000 in additional compensation annually. To learn more about salary and benefits for JAG members, visit http://www.airforce.com/jag/, http://www.goarmy.com/benefits/total-compensation.html, http://www.jag.navy.mil/careers_/careers/compensation.html.