Are public sector jobs worth the price of law school?

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By Tom Gantert

Legal News

Thomas P. Riley, a recent graduate of Cooley Law School, is looking for a job and would consider one in the public sector.

"It depends on the job," said Riley, who lives in Lansing. "If it is really low paying, I might take it, but I'd still be looking. I wouldn't lock myself into it."

The American Bar Association Journal has questioned how many attorneys will consider a lower paying public sector/public interest jobs despite being saddled with college loan debt. The concern came after the National Association for Law Placement released its 2012 Public Sector and Public Interest Attorney Salary Report.

The median entry-level salary is about $43,000 for legal services attorneys, $45,000 for public interest lawyers, $50,000 for local prosecutors, and $50,500 for public defenders, according to the NALP.

NALP's Executive Director James Leipold noted in a press release that despite favorable changes in the federal loan repayment options available to law school graduates working in the public interest, "there are still significant economic disincentives at play as law students consider whether or not to pursue public interest legal careers."

Michigan's salaries are similar to the national averages. A county prosecutor had an average salary of $87,972 and a county assistant prosecutor had an average salary of $70,017. The starting salary was about $50,000 a year for non-private practitioners, according to the State Bar of Michigan's 2010 survey.

The survey also found the average law school debt was $86,301 for an attorney who attended law school within the past 10 years. The debt reached an average of $96,061 for those out of law school for two or fewer years.

Mark Blumer, chief assistant prosecuting attorney for Jackson County, said college debt shouldn't be the sole criteria when job hunting.

There is a federal program that allows lawyers just starting out to get help on their college debt if they commit to a job in the private sector, Blumer said.

The National Association of Attorneys General got the John R. Justice Prosecutors and Defenders Inceptive Program signed into law in 2008. The law pays up to $60,000 in student debt to lawyers who agree to remain employed as prosecutors or public defenders for at least three years.

Blumer said the public sector lawyer profession has changed over the years. He said years ago it was something attorneys did for a few years to get courtroom experience before moving on to the private sector.

"When I started, it was an entry position that very few people made a lifetime career out of," said Blumer, who has been a public attorney for 40 years. "Then you got out and you started making real money. That has all changed now. People now make careers out of being public attorneys. Not only that, budgets are shrinking the sizes of offices. There is no guarantee they will get that job."

Jackson County receives 25 to 50 applications from candidates with a wide range of experience every time it has an opening for a public attorney job, Blumer said.

Public attorneys don't usually make as much money as private attorneys, Blumer acknowledged.

"But there is a satisfaction that comes with this type of job that you would not get in private practice," he said. "You can't put a dollar figure on that, but it is certainly an aspect of this job that has to be taken into account when you are considering, 'Is this worth it?' "

Published: Thu, Nov 29, 2012

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