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5 tips for creating a financially viable future in public interest law

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“Obviously, there’s a big pay gap; let’s be realistic about that.”

Those are the words of Alexa Shabecoff, the assistant dean for public service and director of the public service venture fund at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass. She’s speaking about the general disparity in salary between legal positions at nonprofit organizations and large law firms.

Most students considering a career in public interest law are painfully aware of the pay gap. But just how large is that gap? And what other considerations should you be thinking about when you examine the financial viability of a career in nonprofit employment?

The answers to those questions depend to a certain extent on your individual circumstances. But some considerations would benefit anyone thinking about a career in public interest. Here, public interest career advisors across the nation offer five tips on what you should consider when determining if a career in public service is right for you.

1. Have realistic salary expectations. Speaking broadly, entry-level public interest annual salaries range from $40,000-$60,000, according to the 2018 PSJD nationwide public interest salary survey. PSJD is an online resource for public interest job seekers and employers created by NALP. For more specifics, view the results; they’re organized in a variety of ways.

2. Plan for loan repayment. There’s an array of choices when it comes to loan repayment. Speak with the financial aid office at your school to figure out what plan is best for you.

According to Lawson Konvalinka, a career counselor at The University of Texas School of Law in Austin, most students have two options:

  • The public service loan forgiveness program—This program allows students who have the right type of loan, who work full time for an eligible employer (all 501(c)3 nonprofits are eligible), and who make 120 timely payments to have their loans forgiven.
  • Loan repayment assistance programs—LRAPs are much more individualized and vary depending on your employer, school, and state bar, said Konvalinka.

“The information on loan repayment is out there; it’s available,” said Ken Lafler, assistant dean for student financial services at Harvard. “You just have to go out and seek it and treat loan repayment as a part of your career decision-making process.”

In fact, Lafler said your first year of law school isn’t too early to start thinking about loan repayment.

3. Breathe easier after securing your first job. Now that you’ve figured out how to repay your loans on your current salary, how worried should you be about losing your nonprofit job?

In Shabecoff’s experience, many nonprofit jobs are actually more secure than private-sector jobs. Because nonprofits don’t have an “up or out” paradigm like that at many large law firms—which push associates out if they fail to make partner after a certain period of time—new attorneys may be more secure in their nonprofit positions.

“That’s not to say there isn’t sometimes risk,” Shabecoff said, referencing the early retirements many took in the nonprofit sector when funding for the Legal Services Corp., which helps fund many nonprofits, was cut. But Shabecoff said she hasn’t seen more financially driven job insecurity in the nonprofit field when compared to large law firms.

Konvalinka had other good news for prospective nonprofit attorneys: “It’s my experience that the hardest public interest job to land is your first one.”

4. Continue to network and build skills. That said, there are things you can do to be prepared if you find yourself without a job. John McKee, the director for government and public interest at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder, emphasized the importance of personal relationships.

“The smaller the employer, the more important it is to have these personal relationships,” he said.

One opportunity for new lawyers to foster those relationships is when referring individuals to other legal organizations. Often, people come to an organization or firm seeking its services, but the organization can’t help; it then refers them to another legal organization. The opportunity comes when making that referral.

McKee’s advice? Do a good job, and the other legal services organization will know you and might consider you when it’s hiring. That will help build a network of people you can turn to should you find yourself looking for employment.

Another way to increase your job security is to bring other skills to the nonprofit, such as grant writing. “If you’re interested in nonprofit law, take some nonprofit management courses to figure out how they operate,” advised McKee. “Often when you’re hired as a lawyer at a nonprofit, that’s part of the deal. You need to help fund-raise. You need to become a grant writer.”

5. Don’t discount time-limited positions. Grant-based positions are time limited. But while they may be short term, they often provide a great first step into the nonprofit field.

Prior to accepting a position, Shabecoff said you need to make sure the organization is still a really good fit, is doing the kind of work you want to do, and is doing it well.

Shabecoff encouraged students to see time-limited positions not just as short-term gigs but as “a really important transitional moment.” The employer could provide you as a new attorney your first set of post-graduate professional references.

Money isn’t everything

Money, while important, is often not what dictates whether many go into the nonprofit world.

Alan Kahn, the public interest director at The University of Michigan Law School in Ann Arbor, urged students to consider more than money when choosing a career path.

“Happiness matters,” he said.

Kahn pointed to a 2015 study that found that lawyers who made less money were actually happier than those who earned more, as reported by The New York Times. While not discounting the financial constraints that may come with a nonprofit career, Kahn said you should consider your future happiness when choosing among career options.

As many lawyers practicing public interest law can tell you, the field can be the path to both a satisfying career and financial stability.

Kara Blomquist Kara Blomquist is a 3L at The University of Texas School of Law. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from Baylor University, where she studied linguistics and Spanish. Prior to law school, Kara served as an AmeriCorps Member, leading summer educational classes for children in the Dallas area. In her spare time, she enjoys ballroom dancing, spending time outdoors, and (informally) studying Chinese.