Figuring Out the Formula for Success in Public Interest: Money Matters

A major drawback to public interest work is the salary. I've interviewed three public interest attorneys at different stages in their careers who live in expensive cities to see how they manage their finances and I share their tips for managing student loans and living off their salaries.

Name: Julia Wilson
School: Stanford Law School, 11 years out
Job: Public Interest Clearinghouse, Dir.
City: San Francisco

The biggest issue is balancing priorities. I graduated law school with an eight-month-old baby and I immediately had to balance my public interest career with childcare. I had someone else I was responsible to, so I couldn’t just eat ramen to save money. Four to five years out, it got noticeably easier. I now own a house. We bought a fixer-upper in Pacifica, one of the more affordable areas in San Francisco, and we put in a lot of sweat equity. Even though I work in public interest and my husband is a schoolteacher, it was affordable. But at the same time, my daughter goes to public school. If I were to put her in private school, we couldn’t afford a house.

I don’t feel like I’ve made any sacrifices. I say hands-down, I have the best job among my classmates – the job is intellectually engaging, challenging, and I can do this while having a house and kids.”

Name: "Jess"
School: University of Michigan, 10 years out
Job: Legal aid organization, atty.
City: Chicago

Being a public interest attorney is worth it, but you have to give up a lot of material things.  You have to be comfortable with making those financial decisions or the negative aspects of being a public interest attorney can weigh you down. I’m about thirty-five and I do not own a home. I didn’t care in my twenties and early thirties, but now, it bites. I am older and still paying rent while my friends are all homeowners. It is difficult when you work hard and you can’t buy a house for yourself.

I worked for a firm for a year and I felt what it is like to have money. I didn’t have to balance my checkbook every month, and if I worked there for one more year, I could have bought a house. But it’s not worth it. I returned to public interest after one year. I get to experience the privilege of helping people for a living and you can’t put a price tag on that. When you spend your days helping disadvantaged people, you develop an appreciation for what do you have. I am a very happy person. I just have to think twice before spending money.”

Name: Selena Kyle
School: Stanford Law School, 5 years out
Job: Natural Resources Defense Council, atty.
City: San Francisco

Money is not a source of anxiety day-to-day.  I have to manage my money carefully, but I always have enough to pay my expenses and to save.  In order to invest aggressively for retirement, I’ve had to forgo many things my peers at firms take for granted:  a washer and dryer, off-street parking, outdoor space, a guest bedroom for visiting friends and family, housekeeping help, and more frequent dinners out, to name a few.  I often think of how much easier life would be if I had those things.  But life is very good even without them, and I expect to be able to afford most of them within a couple of years.

Owning property in San Francisco would be a huge stretch for me. But it’s not a priority.  I value my time far too much to let something like a mortgage determine what I do for a living.  Considerably lower earnings are a fair tradeoff for doing work I love and representing people who could never afford market-rate lawyers.”

Tips for Law Students To Keep The Debt Low:

  • Shop around for your lender. Don’t necessarily go for the lender associated with your law school because several have a lot of extra fees (like Citibank).
  • Seek private scholarships. Be aggressive on Goggle and ask your friends and family about scholarships because some are not well advertised, but every dollar counts. 


Tips to Manage Your Debt Out of Law School:

  • Be smart in how you structure your loans so that you can take advantage of loan repayment programs (Check out this checklist for your loans and read this page for general information on loan repayment programs).
  • Look at FEDERAL and STATE loan repayment program. (Go here for information on federal loans.
  • Find jobs that offer loan repayment programs, like the Fried Frank Fellowship, DOJ, FCC, and US Senate (when looking at those programs, realize that the loan repayments are competitive which means that the repayments vary in amount and are based on your supervisor’s approval).
  • IF YOU DO NOT HAVE A LRAP: you can defer your debt as long as you are comfortable paying more in interest over time (check which types of loans you have because not all loans provide deferments).


Tips for Young Lawyers To Live Off Their Salaries:

  • BE REALISTIC. Live within your means.
  • Plan ahead – think of your expenses for the month and make social decisions based on the amount of cash you have. Remember that there are always unexpected expenses (like your car breaks down).
  • Ask your law school to write a letter to lenders explaining the loan repayment program because LRAP payments look like loans on personal balance sheets so it is hard to get good loans for mortgages and other financing.

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