It’s no secret that public interest attorneys make less than their private sector counterparts. According to a NALP press release, median pay in 2018 ranged from $48,000 for a new lawyer to $69,400 for a lawyer with 11 to 15 years of experience. In 2004, the median was $34,000 for a new lawyer and $51,900 for an experienced one.
In exchange for the lower pay, they get a better quality of life and the feeling of knowing that they are having a positive effect in their communities. Also, their federal student loans get favorable treatment. They qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), which means that only a small portion of their monthly income must be used to pay back their student loans for 10 years. If their law school has an LRAP program, they will usually pay that monthly PSLF amount for them. Afterward, the remaining balance is forgiven with no cancellation of debt income for tax purposes.
Even with these benefits, their salary is usually not enough to cover basic living expenses, particularly in major cities where housing costs are astronomical. Many of those lawyers have to work second jobs to make ends meet. They typically turn to flexible gig-economy jobs, such as being Uber drivers.
Public interest lawyer salaries are low because money is tight. Most public service organizations primarily rely on public donations to fund their operations. Unfortunately, not many people donate to legal aid organizations mainly because there are countless other charitable organizations and causes to choose from, and people tend to donate to the organizations they are closest to. So the people who donate to legal aid organizations are typically the same people year after year. And public donations are susceptible to the current economy. If the economy is bad, the donations dry up as well.
Since the election of President Trump, there has been a surge in donations to civil rights and humanitarian organizations. The ACLU received $120 million in online donations, up from $3 million to $5 million in previous years. The ACLU has stated that the extra funds will be used to hire more staff, primarily lawyers. Other organizations deemed to be hostile to the Trump administration and Trump’s policies have also seen an increase in funding, such as Planned Parenthood, the Anti-Defamation League, and the National Immigration Law Center.
Many of these organizations are capitalizing on the angry, energized liberal voter base by promising to fight Trump with the help of their donations.
But have these organizations been sharing their newfound wealth with those who need it most? I looked at some of the organizations’ annual financial statements using Guidestar.org. Many organizations that have received increased funding have indeed used that money to increase salaries. But they do not show whether the money was used to hire attorneys. Nor could I determine the average staff attorney salary.
What I am seeing is that in 2018, public interest attorneys are paid $48,000 for a new lawyer up to $69,400 for a lawyer with 11 to 15 years of experience.
I will leave it to others with more investigatory resources to see if these nonprofit organizations are either paying their legal staff a living wage or trying to get away with paying as little as possible. But here’s my humble suggestion: If a public interest organization is getting a surge in donations from people who want to resist President Trump’s policies in the courts, use that money to pay your staff attorneys a living wage.
A wage that will allow attorneys to live in a safe neighborhood. A wage that will not force them to be a Lyft driver on Saturday night picking up drunk, rich kids in Midtown or Beverly Hills. A wage that will not tempt your current staff to look for better paying jobs after a few years. A wage that will allow them to pay down a fair amount of their student loans so taxpayers won’t pay the remaining balance and 10 years of unpaid, accrued interest when their loans are eventually forgiven.
Working as a public interest lawyer is a labor of love and commitment. But that commitment can be cloudy when they are not getting enough sleep because they are moonlighting to pay for food and rent. If a public interest organization dedicated to fighting President Trump’s policies is not using its newfound wealth to pay their lawyers a competitive wage, they are doing a grave disservice to their donor base.
Steven Chung is a tax attorney in Los Angeles, California. He helps people with basic tax planning and resolve tax disputes. He is also sympathetic to people with large student loans. He can be reached via email at email@example.com. Or you can connect with him on Twitter (@stevenchung) and connect with him on LinkedIn.
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