According to a recent Law360 Pulse report, most law students are eyeing a career in corporate transactional work. Someone asked me where the future public interest attorneys fit into this. After all, law school applications are up big and mostly credited to a surge in applicants interested in doing good. Unfortunately, this is the law school despair cycle in action: entice students to do good, present a bill that makes that work impossible to all but the few (who were largely uninterested in that work anyway), and then pump the graduates into high-paying jobs to pay off the loans.
A lot of graduates may say this is “only for a few years” and pledge to ditch the firm “as soon as I pay off my loans.” But the latter takes longer and longer as law school tuition skyrockets and along the way life throws enough obstacles that attorneys start to realize they really can’t walk away from firm life now.
Which is why the best thing a law school can do for societal good is establish and fully support a funding program for graduates going into lower-paying public interest jobs. Well, the best thing they could do is lower tuition across the board, but the SECOND best thing is some kind of funding program. And Harvard Law touts that it built the first of these — called the Low Income Protection Plan (LIPP) — and thanks to student and alumni pressure, it’s actually working a lot better now.
Mere weeks ago, the Harvard Law Record reported on persistent failures in the LIPP.
The program has not updated the salary scale that determines what repayment assistance HLS will provide in over three years, while inflation and rent prices have skyrocketed in that same time. That stagnation makes it difficult for alumni to cover living costs, let alone build up savings, with what remains of their salaries after loan payments. On Twitter, Alumni have described the program as a “scam” that “keeps poor students poor for 10 years” and as “punish[ing to] alums from low-income backgrounds.” These statements are especially frustrating given the kinds of careers those on LIPP pursue. Though there is no explicit requirement that one be a public interest lawyer to receive LIPP (unlike LRAPs at most other schools, the program is solely income-based), in practice, the alumni in need of LIPP assistance are almost always pursuing public interest careers. They work in areas of justice, such as public defense and legal aid. As one alum put it, LIPP makes it tough to pursue “the only legal careers that *don’t* profit off of exploiting low-income people.”
Look, times are tough and schools can’t necessarily share the wealth like… oh? Harvard’s endowment grew by 34 percent and tops $53 BILLION? You don’t say? Maybe a cost-of-living adjustment won’t break the school.
And after organizing and confronting the school… the students and alumni won!
So Harvard isn’t willing to bind itself to future increases, which is understandable though unfortunate. Law firms (until the last few years… thank you to Milbank!) also go long stretches between raises to avoid making a long-term expense commitment. But the current and future attorneys relying on this program need even more clarity than Biglaw attorneys to plan at least a few years ahead. If inflation takes a couple percent out of a Biglaw associate’s nominal salary increase, they’ll ACTUALLY scrape by if they start skipping the avocado toast. Public interest lawyers might have to, well, start selling organs on the black market. If inflation opens a trap door under a public interest budget, there’s not a lot of buffer for them to react.
Still, this is a needed reform and worth celebrating. Harvard Law’s program became a model to a lot of other schools… hopefully this can become a model for students and graduates at other schools to get together and build better ones.
Students and Alumni Call on HLS to Act in the Wake of LIPP’s Failed Promise [Harvard Law Record]
Joe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.
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