Letter Form The President Of The Boston Bar Association

Wednesday, March 1, 2006 - 01:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

According to internal surveys in the Suffolk CountyD.A.'s Office, 87 per cent of the prosecutors working therehave law school loan debts that range between $67,000 and$98,000. A half dozen Assistant District Attorneys reportedlaw school loan debt of more than $120,000, and one haddebt exceeding $140,000. At a time when the cost of threeyears at a private law school can easily exceed $100,000,such debt levels are hardly surprising.

Now juxtapose that debt with a starting salary of $35,000 per year.Perceived as a stepping stone for young lawyers who want trial experience, theSuffolk County D.A.'s Office received more than 700 applications last year. Butthe pressure of law school debt produces rapid turnover - a constant green cornproblem - where there is a pool of inexperienced prosecutors for cases where theconsequences can be significant.

As Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley pointed out at a forumsponsored by the Boston Bar Association's Delivery of Legal Services,Administration of Justice, Litigation, and New Lawyers Sections on loanrepayment assistance legislation, it is relatively easy to get enthusiastic newprosecutors in the door. The problem is that since taking office in 2002, he haslost some 90 prosecutors to private practice or higher paying government jobs.For those of us who think stories about young prosecutors moonlighting asbar-tenders, waitresses, and limousine drivers to meet monthly law school loanpayments close to $900 per month over a 10 year period are a thing of the past,think again.

The story District Attorney Conley told our audience about a talented youngprosecutor who spent her nights and weekends selling cosmetics to make endsmeet is not unusual. Like most new lawyers, she was able to defer payment onthe loans for two years. After that, she said, "I really don't want to leave theoffice but I must."

For more than a year now, the Boston Bar Association has been workingwith Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty, House Chair of the Joint Committee on theJudiciary, and a coalition of law schools, legal services providers, and otherstakeholders to secure passage of state legislation that would provide a modicumof educational loan repayment assistance to legal aid lawyers, public defenders,assistant district attorneys, and lawyers in the Attorney General's Office. Underthe terms of legislation sponsored by Rep. O'Flaherty, eligible recipients meetingstringent income limits would receive awards of $2,000, $4,000 or $6,000 peryear to pay back existing debt, with no participant being awarded a total of morethan $30,000. Awards would also be issued in the form of a loan and be forgivenin full (100 per cent) after three full years of eligible public interest employment;50 per cent of loan award amounts would be forgiven if the recipient worked atleast two full years with program-eligible employers.

Bob Sable, Executive Director at Greater Boston Legal Services, and BillLeahy, Chief Counsel at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, wherestarting annual salaries for lawyers are $37,500 and $35,000 respectively, tell ofsimilar retention issues that have equally serious ramifications for access tojustice and diversity. Bob observes that when he got out of law school in 1968,he had law school debt of $2,500 at an interest rate of 2.5 percent. He took a jobwith a legal services agency at an annual salary of $9,600, which was onlyslightly less than his classmates going to law firms.

With salaries for public interest work remaining relatively flat when cost ofliving increases are taken into account, and law firm salaries rising dramatically,the gap between the two is now enormous. A loan repayment assistance programwould be a step towards closing the gap and encouraging lawyers to spend longerperiods of time, if not careers, in public service.

That the young woman in Dan Conley's story was African-American is not acoincidence. To the extent that lawyers of color are more likely to come fromeconomically disadvantaged families, the reality of high law school loan debtprecludes many from even considering working for a D.A., the Committee forPublic Counsel Services, or Greater Boston Legal Services.

It is well known that some of the most elite law schools such as Harvard andStanford have loan forgiveness programs, and law schools certainly have a roleto play in this regard. It is also one of those ironies that less elite law schools,particularly those emphasizing careers in public service, tend to have far lessaffluent alumni, and hence far less money for loan repayment assistanceprograms.

While nobody interested purely in income maximization would opt for acareer as an assistant district attorney, public defender, or legal services lawyer,the choice should not require a vow of poverty. Nor should it require that one beindependently wealthy or have a well-to-do spouse. Admittedly, if salaries paid tothese public sector lawyers performing services we purport to value because webelieve in meaningful access to justice were adequate, the issue of educationalloan repayment assistance programs might be less pressing. But in the meantime,a need-based loan repayment assistance program offers a critically neededmeasure.

Sincerely,

Edwin P. (Ned) Leibensperger