Law Grads: You WILL Work in Public Interest. You Have No Choice.

By William Peacock, Esq. on June 13, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Public service: Some feel that it is their calling. They don't seek the profits of private industry. They want to ask not what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country.

Or something like that.

Those people would have gone into public service anyway. Considering the lawyer archetype (soulless, greedy, etc.), that's probably one percent of graduates. Where do the rest of them go? A rare few head to BigLaw. Everyone else chooses between private and public sector gigs.

Choose no more. Choice is an illusion.

The Setup

How much is law school, sans scholarships, with cost of living? Around $150,000? $200,000? What about undergraduate debt?

From a 2012 U.S. News Report, the average law grad had $100,584 in debt. For undergraduates, we're talking $23,000, per a White House fact sheet. We like pretty numbers, so let's say $125,000.And since the interest rate has varied widely in recent times between 3.4 and 8.9 percent, depending on year and type of loan, we'll just say 5 percent on a single, consolidated loan.

Assuming a graduate doesn't have parents who are loaded, that's a chunk of cheddar that's probably never going to get paid.

Why? Check out the NALP Bimodal salary distribution curve: some small portion of people earn BigLaw BigMoney. Everyone else? Clustered around the $45,000 to $65,000 mark.

The Choice

You are a recent graduate. You owe $125,000. You make $65,000 (the high end of the left side of the bimodal distribution). What do you do?

Earlier this week, we discussed the planned Pay As You Earn (PAYE 2014) loan payment program. Let's turn to the PAYE calculator, shall we? If you are single (who's going to marry your debt, right?), childless, and live in California, under PAYE, you'll pay $166,430 over the next twenty years, with $74,426 forgiven. Payments start at $396/mo and end at $1,098/mo.

But, if you go public, you'll be debt-free in only ten years.

NALP's last data set on public sector salaries put the average entry-level salary at between $42,800 and $50,500, a bit less than the optimistic private sector salary we mentioned earlier, but again -- only ten years of payments. And that's a nation-wide figure -- if you're state pays more, it's not even a choice is it?

And after ten years, maybe you've found a calling. Or maybe, you spin that experience into a more lucrative private sector career.

Food for thought. Does PAYE make public interest the obvious choice for recent graduates?

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