Unintended Consequences and Using the All-Mighty Dollar as a Carrot

There has been a lot of buzz in the blawg-o-sphere this week about Harvard Law School's announcement that it will waive 3L tuition for those going to work for the government or public interest for the five years after law school. I think this news is great. And as Professor Volokh points out, because HLS is a trendsetter among law schools, this just may spark a little healthly competition aimed at loan forgiveness policies amoung elite law schools. Feeling the squeeze of law students loans myself, I would be all for that.

However, what about the possibility of unintended consequences? Today on the Environmental and Urban Economics Blog, Professor Kahn explores the possiblity that this initiative may hinder the representation of women in law firm leadership down the road. The first step to his hypothesis is an assumption that women will take this deal in larger numbers than men. He writes, and I tend to agree that:

Liberal students will be more likely to accept this deal. Will women at HLS be more likely to take this offer? While I have no evidence for this claim, my intuition is telling me that the answer is yes.

In the second logic step, Professor Kahn points out that more women taking this deal to go into public or government service will necessarily mean that fewer go to work at law firms sooner or later as it is very difficult to go to a big law firm after 5 years in public service or the government. This is both for the practical reasons and the pragmatic point that few would want to go to big law after 5 years of public service.

[Continues after the jump]

He writes:

So, suppose that you are smart woman at HLS and you accept this offer. After 5 years in public service, can you join a fancy NYC law firm and 8 years later be promoted to partner? I doubt it. If women have a higher probability of accepting this new offer then men, and if once you pick this path you can't return to the private sector and make partner then my proof is complete that an unintended consequence of this new policy will be to reduce the number of women from HLS who get promoted to partner at the fancy NYC law firms.

So, some will say, so what; who cares? If relieving these women of a huge chunk of their debt liberates them to do what they really want to do, good for them. I guess I'm neutral on that point. While I do believe that Professor Kahn's logic is spot on, I am not sure that these "consequences" (so long as they really are "unintended") are inherently bad. Of course, I'd like to see more women in the ranks and leadership at my firm and others, but I have to realize that this work and this life isn't for everyone. As a woman I can respect the choices that other women make. In this instance, if the debt relief helps women make REAL choice in their professional lives, good for them. Hopefully, more young lawyers will have the chance to make more REAL choices.

All in all, assuming the legal market has a finite number of jobs each year for new attorneys, maybe all this will do is reallocate those openings by providing a way that HLS grads can take lower paying jobs, leaving the law firm jobs for others. Maybe the net effect will be very little; especially because law firm partnership is not, in and of itself, the very definition of success in this field.

The part of the program that I am a little uncomfortable with is the 5 year committment. That certainly forces people to make a long term (even career defining) decision based on a pretty short-sighted benefit ($40K). Personally, I think loan forgiveness programs that pay the loan payments during periods of public or government service are more preferrable because the term of the benefit lines up better with the term of the decision. Not to mention the fact that loan payments on +$80K are also very difficult to make on a public interest salary so there will still be a lot of sacrifice for those who take this option.



if there is to be a 5 year commitment! I agree, a puny $40K is not worth 5 years on a much lower salary (assuming you'd otherwise value either path just as much).
I wonder though if top women graduates (and here it is significant that it is HLS doing it not a middle tier school) will take this up enough that law firms will start to miss them. Maybe even value those top women attorneys in their own junior to middle ranks and treat them better?
Given that they're not just sacrificing the starting salaries - they're sacrificing the whole partner-track spoils (big salaries, huge bonuses) for lower paying slower increasing jobs in public interest - I just don't see people taking this option that weren't going into public interest anyway. If that's the case then it is a way to mitigate the problem that we probably ought to be charging like a wounded bull for tuition to the next generation of skaddens attorneys, but we should be subsidizing those who will never catch up to the (rising) starting salaries of BigLaw.
One way to do it would be to give a 2 year decision period after graduation, during which a graduate can switch from big law to public interest, or from public interest to a law firm. Since graduates really have no clue what they're getting into when they start work it seems unfair to expect them to prospectively commit to the unknown to secure a benefit. It also means that those who start in law firms, find they hate it, have time to decide to leave. And their experience will serve them well in public interest anyway.

Enviro Lawyer

" it is very difficult to go to a big law firm after 5 years in public service or the government."
I wonder if this will change, given the decrease in the size of the freshmen class in biglaw and the corresponding 3L feeding frenzy for federal agencies? Or maybe I am merely hopeful.

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