Letter From The President Of The Boston Bar Association

2006-03-01 01:00

To The Readers Of The Metropolitan Corporate Counsel:

According to internal surveys in the Suffolk County D.A.'s Office, 87 per cent of the prosecutors working there have law school loan debts that range between $67,000 and $98,000. A half dozen Assistant District Attorneys reported law school loan debt of more than $120,000, and one had debt exceeding $140,000. At a time when the cost of three years 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, the Suffolk County D.A.'s Office received more than 700 applications last year. But thepressure of law school debt produces rapid turnover - a constant green corn problem - where there is a pool of inexperienced prosecutors for cases where the consequences can be significant.

As Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley pointed out at a forum sponsored by the Boston Bar Association's Delivery of Legal Services, Administration of Justice, Litigation, and New Lawyers Sections on loan repayment assistance legislation, it is relatively easy to get enthusiastic new prosecutors in the door.The problem is that since taking office in 2002, he has lost some 90 prosecutors to private practice or higher paying government jobs.

For those of us who think stories about young prosecutors moonlighting as bar-tenders, waitresses, and limousine drivers to meet monthly law school loan payments 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 young prosecutor who spent her nights and weekends selling cosmetics to make ends meet is not unusual. Like most new lawyers, she was able to defer payment on the loans for two years. After that, she said, "I really don't want to leave the office but I must."

For more than a year now, the Boston Bar Association has been working with Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty, House Chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, and a coalition of law schools, legal services providers, and other stakeholders to secure passage of state legislation that would provide a modicum of educational loan repayment assistance to legal aid lawyers, public defenders, assistant district attorneys, and lawyers in the Attorney General's Office. Under the terms of legislation sponsored by Rep. O'Flaherty, eligible recipients meeting stringent income limits would receive awards of $2,000, $4,000 or $6,000 per year to pay back existing debt, with no participant being awarded a total of more than $30,000. Awards would also be issued in the form of a loan and be forgiven in 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 at least two full years with program-eligible employers.

Bob Sable, Executive Director at Greater Boston Legal Services, and Bill Leahy, Chief Counsel at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, where starting annual salaries for lawyers are $37,500 and $35,000 respectively, tell of similar retention issues that have equally serious ramifications for access to justice 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 job with a legal services agency at an annual salary of $9,600, which was only slightly less than his classmates going to law firms.

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

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

It is well known that some of the most elite law schools such as Harvard and Stanford have loan forgiveness programs, and law schools certainly have a role to 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 less affluent alumni, and hence far less money for loan repayment assistance programs.

While nobody interested purely in income maximization would opt for a career 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 be independently wealthy or have a well-to-do spouse. Admittedly, if salaries paid to these public sector lawyers performing services we purport to value because we believe in meaningful access to justice were adequate, the issue of educational loan repayment assistance programs might be less pressing. But in the meantime, a need-based loan repayment assistance program offers a critically needed measure.

Sincerely,

Edwin P. (Ned) Leibensperger