Public Interest Law

Considering Public Interest Law? Lucrative Fellowships and Loan Assistance Programs Available

Public interest law can provide incredible fulfillment and satisfaction, but the cost of law school is significant and the salaries for public interest lawyers are lower than those going into private practice.

U.S News and World Report recently published average entry-level salary data for all ranked law schools.  Law graduates in 2016 who entered the private sector averaged just under $85,000, while those from a top 15 ranked institution averaged $180,000. Those entering the public sector, however, collected a much lower average of $53,500. Graduates from the top 15 ranked schools who accepted public sector positions averaged slightly more, at $65,000.  

Luckily, there are a plethora of scholarships, fellowships, and loan repayment assistance programs, which may be available to you. So, when evaluating specific law schools, don’t forget to fully evaluate the following: 

  • Tuition and Scholarship Opportunities: While it is advantageous to attend a top-tier school, you may want to expand your list to include those programs more likely to offer scholarships to students interested in public interest law. That is, if you feel ready to commit to that career path.
  • School Fellowships: Many top-tier law programs grant fellowships, which pay for summer and post-graduate public interest employment, to those interested in pursuing public interest law.
  • Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAP) or Low Income Protection Plans (LIPP): The LRAP is more common and is generally limited to those working in public interest law, while the LIPP works more like scholarship money that is received after graduation. Over 100 law schools have an LRAP in place, and the American Bar Association has compiled a list of programs. When considering a school’s LRAP, consider if an LRAP is funded through a specific endowment or designated fund and how many applicants typically receive LRAP funding. Most schools are not able to provide funding to all applicants.
  • Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF): The PSLF provides debt forgiveness to those who work for a qualifying government, non-profit, or public interest organization, and who make 120 qualifying student loan repayments while working for that organization. There is some uncertainty regarding the future of this program, however. It has been slated for elimination in two of the President’s proposed budgets.
  • Other Federal Repayment Adjustment programs: There are other existing repayment programs based on income, such as the Revised Pay As You Earn (REPAYE), Pay As You Earn (PAYE), and Income-Based Repayment (IBR). These adjust monthly payments based on your income.

While public interest law may require some additional planning in terms of selecting and paying for law school, there are many resources available for prospective law students who feel passionate about pursuing this career path. Some additional research during the school selection and application period can go a long way towards making your dream come true.

More Pre-Law Students Striving to Work for Public Interest

The “Trump Bump” theory is real. Earlier this year, Kaplan Test Prep released the results of a survey of over 500 pre-law students and found that 30 percent of respondents said the 2016 election impacted their decision to apply to law school. “We’ve seen significant jumps in both LSAT takers and law school applications over the past admissions cycle, which has fueled speculation about how much impact, if any, the 2016 election and subsequent political climate has had on this year’s law school admissions landscape. We now have an answer: It’s significant,” said Jeff Thomas, executive director of pre-law programs at Kaplan.

Survey data released by BARBRI Law Preview, which includes responses from 500 pre-law students expected to matriculate into the Class of 2021, demonstrate a similar finding. When asked to provide a primary reason for attending law school, the top two most selected options “I have always wanted to be a lawyer” and “I want to advocate for change of social policies in the United States” garnered almost identical responses at 38.2 percent and 37.6 percent, respectively. The survey also found that almost 98 percent of respondents plan to practice law after graduation, with the plurality of respondents selecting public interest (13.5 percent) as the type of law which they want to practice. The next most selected choices were business (corporate) law (12.2 percent) and criminal law (12.0 percent). Furthermore, when asked where they would like to practice law, over half of the respondents reported that they would want to practice law as an attorney working for the government (33.9 percent) or for a non-profit/non-governmental organization (22.5 percent). 39.8 percent reported wanting to work for a private firm.

Lynn Page, a pre-law advisor at Northwestern University provides anecdotal evidence supporting the BARBRI survey findings when describing the students who she advises and their goals in a recent Chicago Tribune article. “If it’s not immigration (law), it’s an interest in public interest law. Most students are interested in civic engagement (and) social justice” she said.