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Would Biglaw Pay More to Help A Legal Aid or Solo Attorney?

by Carolyn Elefant on November 29, 2004 · 5 comments

in Big Law/Small Law, Ideas & Tips, Legal Profession Trends

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Let’s say two law students, neck and neck in class rank graduate law school with $80,000 in student loan debt (including interest) – or roughly $8000/year over a ten year period.  Student A goes on to his dream job at a large New York firm, starting salary $125K while Student B follows his dream to work as a Legal Aid attorney, starting salary $40,000.  Clearly, Student B is going to be facing financial disaster while Student A should be able to repay his loans with minimal impact.  But what if instead of each student repaying $9000/year, each paid a set percentage of his respective salary – say, $12,500 (10 percent) for Student A and $4000 for Student B.  That’s the proposal that Michelle  Singletary highlights in her recent column A New Idea on Student Loans ,  (11/28/04).

Would this kind of proposal encourage law students to follow their dreams?  It’s not clear since the biglaw attorney would still come out way ahead in terms of salary, even while subsidizing his legal aid classmate’s loan repayments.   And would large firm attorneys want to do this?  What about a situation where a large firm attorney subsidizes a starting solo who’s gone solo, frankly, because he couldn’t find another job?  Would the subsidy system penalize lawyers who’ve done well enough to snag high paying jobs and force them to pay for those who didn’t work hard enough to do as well?

I’m intrigued by this concept, but not sure where I come down.  Sure, I’d like to see more financial support for new solo attorneys because I think that helping solos is one way to expand access to law for a larger segment of the population.  But I’ve never given much thought to where the money should come from.   So I’d love to hear comments from readers on this idea.

  • http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/ethicalesq David Giacalone

    I’d like to see some proof that helping a solo helps access to justice (as opposed, for example, to helping a full-service middle-sized firm with a “Main Street” practice, or a legal services clinic).
    As you so often point out, there are many personal advantages for choosing to be a solo practitioner — and many downsides to BigLaw. Why should taxpayers or other lawyers pay to help someone “follow their dream”?
    The best and most direct way to improve access to justice is to support self-help law initiatives and to
    revitalize small claims courts. See New Hamphsire’s excellent report on helping the self-represented.

  • http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/ethicalesq/2004/11/30#a2826 f/k/a

    in the ripples

    Carolyn Elefant asks “What’s a Fair Rate for Court-Appointed Counsel,” and “Would Biglaw Pay More to Help A Legal Aid or Solo Attorney?” We’ve left comments at MyShingle today in response.

  • Mike

    I agree with David. Smalls claims court jurisdiction should cover amount-in-controversies of $15,000 or less. In Cali small claims court is cool (no rules of evidence, and no lawyers are allowed) but the court’s juridiction is limited to a-i-c’s of 5K.

  • Chuck

    Greetings from Student B. I’m waiting to be sworn in to the Bar after graduating, late in life, last spring. I went to law school because I live in a small rural community where many of the locals, farmers and blue collar workers, are horribly under represented. Since I have a graduate degree from an Ivy League school, I was sought out by folks for advice I could not give. I decided I could be an asset to my community by becoming qualified to help them.
    I graduated with an approximate 80K student loan debt, and might just be able to finish paying it before my life is over, if I’m lucky.
    I’m going into a small solo in a small village. That’s where I’m needed, and where I can do my community the most good. Public interest stuff, another dream of mine, is simply out of the question with my already demanding loan repayments (I’m not even a lawyer yet, but am repaying my loans; my lenders began contacting me the week before I even graduated).
    Here’s how it will work for me:
    I’ll need to keep my day job that pays about 53K per year until I build a client base, which also gives me health insurance. That will limit my practice severely.
    Once I have a sufficient enough client base to devote myself to full time practice, I will be relying on my wife’s income to pay the bills. Mine will only reach my office expenses, student loans, and the other costs of doing business that you have noted. It will also, hopefully, pay the difference my wife will face when she carries me on her health insurance.
    I will be forced to spend most of my time doing real estate law, the bread and butter of smalls and solos in this area. But it is not where I am needed the most, it will merely be important for bill paying reasons. Most people around these parts cannot afford homes, so that’s capped.
    I would love to become involved with legal aid, maybe even start a local office around here so low income wage earners don’t have to travel to the closest city when trouble strikes. But there is no loan forgiveness available to me, and my state bar association only distributes limited funds for assistance to a few each year, offering a paltry amount that, although certainly better than nothing, amounts to a sad joke.
    So what choices do I have? Mid-50’s, with all of the expenses that others my age are saddled with: mortgage, health expenses, regular monthly bills, costs of doing business, and a student loan debt that could be paying for another home at an interest rate, even after the much touted historical lows, is higher than the mortgage on my home (because of the need for me to refinance to get through my 3L and bar review; I also borrowed heavily from friends).
    This is a personal tragedy for me. I have devoted my life to getting involved in situations where others needed help. This was to be one more piece of that for me. It’s hard for me to watch my dream slip away.
    So the next time a friend of yours cannot afford an attorney and doesn’t know what to do, think of me. I’d love to help; it was my dream to help, and I will if I can. But considering the number of folks around here who really need and deserve whatever I can do for them, the odds of getting that help from me aren’t very good.

  • http://www.slc.co.uk Anon

    You may be surprised to learn that this is not a new idea at all. In the UK this is the way in which all student loans are run. Graduates repay their loans as a proportion of their salary (beyond a certain minimum threshold). Of course this is a public/private initiative which means that not only can the correct monies be deducted at source but also that the deducations are pre-tax. More info at http://www.slc.co.uk.

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