Transitioning into Public Service after Law School
Did you go to law school dreaming of working in public service? Maybe you wanted to fight to protect the environment, hold corrupt corporations accountable, or defend free speech. Or perhaps you wanted to go to bat on behalf of people experiencing discrimination, persecution, or predatory behavior.
When it comes time to actually graduate with your J.D., however, figuring out how to make a public service career work can be daunting. The vast majority of your peers are embarking on high-paying jobs with corporate law firms. Meanwhile, you likely have a bunch of student loans that you’ll need to start repaying soon, which can be challenging on many public interest salaries.
Despite these downsides, about 30% of 2017 law school graduates went into public service jobs after graduation, among the highest share ever recorded. Of those, about 7% of graduates chose to work at public interest organizations. If you want to make a public service career work, there are plenty of opportunities out there.
An array of grants and fellowships, as well as student loan forgiveness and refinancing programs, exist that can make your transition easier. Since knowing your options is half the battle, here’s a guide to the public sector career choices out there, and some pros and cons of embarking on a public interest legal career.
Public Service Jobs after Law School
A legal career in the public sector can take many different forms—what they have in common is that you are serving the general public rather than working at a private firm. Here are some of the options to consider:
One way to serve the public as a lawyer is to work for the government. A diverse array of law-related positions exist in the military, federal agencies, and state and local governments. The federal government alone employs 20,000 attorneys and 140,000 others in fields related to law.
Government roles include everything from being a trial attorney for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or U.S. Air Force to analyzing policy for a legislator to serving as a public defender. For federal jobs, you can look for opportunities through www.usajobs.gov .
A clerkship generally lasts one or two years and involves advising judges in the state or federal court systems. Judicial clerks do everything from reviewing documents to conducting legal research to drafting opinions. Clerkships can be a great way to not only serve the public by assisting a judge, but also to learn and add an impressive experience to your resume. Around one in 10 law school grads went into judicial clerkships in 2017.
Public Interest Organizations
Another popular choice is entering a public interest organization, which usually involves working for a non-profit. Public interest lawyers provide a wide array of services. Some provide direct assistance to clients, such as those fighting eviction or deportation. Others focus on litigation that makes a lasting impact or seeks justice through a class-action suit.
Others investigate human rights violations or various forms of wrongdoing. And others still advocate for policy changes. The issue areas public interest lawyers work in also vary widely, encompassing everything from domestic violence to economic development to First Amendment Rights. The type of public interest career you choose should align with your personal passions and strengths as a lawyer.
Pros and Cons of Public Interest Jobs after Law School
Let’s start with the bad news. One of the main downsides of working in public service after law school is the salary differential with private-sector jobs. In 2017, the median salary for graduates starting at public interest organizations was $50,000 , and for those going into judicial clerkships, it was $56,750 . Government salaries vary widely, but an attorney straight out of law school can expect to make around $53,000 to $90,000 .
In contrast, the median starting salary at a private law firm was $117,000 last year . In many cases, low salaries also come with long hours because public interest organizations can be under-resourced. Finally, although it’s subjective and some public sector positions are highly respected, some may see it as giving up the prestige associated with renowned firms.
But working in the public sphere comes with plenty of advantages as well. Most importantly, there is the satisfaction of gaining meaning and purpose through work that helps others. Beyond making a difference, another perk of going into public interest law is that you may qualify for various forms of assistance with your student loans.
Given typical public sector salaries, that’s critical when lawyers graduate with an average debt of up to $122,000 . Here are some of the loan forgiveness options out there:
Federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness
This federal government program may wipe away the balance on certain federal student loans as long as you work full-time for an eligible employer and make payments on time for 10 years through an income-based repayment plan.
Qualifying employers include any government or tribal organization, 501(c)(3) non profits, law enforcement agencies, and early childhood education providers (you can find a full list here ). If you are eligible, and want to take advantage of this option, you would need to submit the Employment Certification form annually.
Statewide Loan Repayment Assistance Programs
Nationwide, 24 states offer programs to help you repay your loans if you work in public interest law. These include Florida, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas (here’s a complete list ). Some are funded by the state, others by foundations and legal associations.
The specific terms vary depending on the state: New York, for example, repays up to $3,400 a year, or up to $20,400 total. Texas pays up to $4,800 a year, and Florida provides up to $5,000 a year.
Other Loan Repayment Programs
Besides state and federal programs, there are a ton of other options out there for repaying your student loans if you work in public service. For a start, attorneys who spend at least three years working for the Department of Justice can receive up to $60,000 (lifetime maximum) to repay their loans.
The John R. Justice Student Loan Repayment program also provides up to $60,000 in assistance for public defenders. The Legal Services Corporation supplies up to $5,600 a year for loan repayment to people working at its affiliated legal aid organizations around the country. Various law schools, including Duke, Harvard, New York University, and many others offer their own loan forgiveness programs to encourage students to work in public service.
How Refinancing Your Student Loans Can Help
If you don’t qualify for loan forgiveness programs, refinancing your student loans is another option for helping make them more manageable. Refinancing involves taking out a new loan with a private lender to repay your existing federal or private loans (or both).
Depending on your credit score, employment history, and other factors, refinancing could lower your interest rates or monthly payment, helping make it easier to balance your loan payments with a public service career. Keep in mind that refinancing federal loans means you’ll no longer be eligible for Public Service Loan Forgiveness, income-based repayment plans, forbearance, or deferment.
Notice: SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment or PAYE. SoFi always recommends that you consult a qualified financial advisor to discuss what is best for your unique situation.
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