Obviously, one of the primary factors that govern a graduate school applicant’s enrollment decision is The Almighty Dollar. As in: how much will this cost, what kind of aid can I get, and what sort of earning potential am I looking at once I finish? Analyzing educational cost is a complicated task because students must first identify actual numbers (sticker price – available scholarship and grant money) and then put those numbers in the proper context by understanding loan repayment and properly estimating future salary figures.
One thing that is further complicating this financial aid stew is the addition of loan forgiveness programs. Popularized by elite law schools, the concept is a relatively simple one: eschew the big paychecks (and long hours) of a big law firm in favor of public interest work and, in exchange, you will get help paying back your enormous graduate student loans. Law schools have discovered that an attractive loan forgiveness program is a terrific marketing tool. This is primarily due to the fact that a huge number of law school applicants (especially those who are qualified to land admission spots in the elite programs) are highly optimistic people who view themselves as truth-seeking, freedom-fighting altruistic beings. In other words, everyone thinks they are going to do public interest work when they first apply to law school.
This poses an interesting question: how much stock should a top-flight candidate put in a school’s loan forgiveness program?
A quick look at any reputable survey (I’m too lazy to find one at present) will tell you that the number of law school graduates who ultimately do public interest work is far, far less than the number of law school applicants who say they will one day do public interest work. There are many factors that play a role in this phenomenon. It is easier for a student at an elite law school to secure a summer associate position at a law firm than with a cutting edge public interest entity. Public interest firms and groups have fewer recruiting resources. The pressure to work in the big legal markets like New York or L.A. force students to search for an accessible path that will also pay the costs of relocating and then living in those cities. There are also simple (and often perverse) economic incentives, career-building considerations, and personal preference factors to consider. But the simple truth is that the number of actual public interest lawyers is so much lower than the number of hypothetical public interest lawyers because – pay attention now – people have no idea what they want to do when they are applying for law school! In fact, it is safe to say that the “actual” number for any subset of the legal profession is substantially lower than the suggested numbers generated by surveys of law school applicants.
It is human nature to change one’s mind, especially after being exposed to hundreds of hours of logical reasoning and critical analysis.
So this takes us back to our initial question, framed in a new way: if students think they might want to do public interest law, but know they probably won