Another Public Interest Bump, Courtesy of USC Law

In what is becoming a sensation sweeping the (law school) nation, USC has overhauled its public interest loan forgiveness program. This is the second such move by an elite law school in the past month (read about Michigan’s big changes here) and comes on the heels of Harvard’s BIG announcement last fall that it would be providing free 3L tuition for law students committing to public interest.

As previously opined on this blog, these public interest bumps are often just big public relations moved cloaked in altruism, but the USC announcment, coupled with the Michigan announcement, seems to suggest actual effort to make public interest more viable for talented law school graduates. In USC’s case, the law school isn’t simply showcasing more money in the pipeline or dangling a shinier carrot at starry-eyed law school applicants; rather by removing a “salary cap,” the USC is enabling more government and public interest attorneys to access the loan forgiveness program. This speaks to graduates and current students more than it does applicants, which almost automatically makes it more valid.

Congratulations to USC for a subtle, but extremely helpful infusion of public interest dollars.

Finally, a Public Interest Incentive That Means Something

If you have been following the law school admissions game, or even if you just read this blog post, then you know that public interest incentives are all the rage at top law schools. By advertising creative loan forgiveness programs, J.D. programs are able to appeal to those candidates with the best intentions … even if the majority of those students graduate and go on to work in corporate law firms. The gaudy numbers advertised by the loan forgiveness program don’t amount to much if students don’t actually work in the public interest sector.

The appropriate question here is why? Why do so many starry-eyed law students give up the dream of helping people and instead trudge off to help corporations and hedge funds and banks? There are a lot of answers to that question, but I would suggest that the biggest reason for this public interest melt is that quality summer jobs are harder to come by when one moves outside of the law firm arena.

The most attractive public interest summer positions often come with little or no compensation, putting students in a bind when it comes to, well, surviving. Already strapped with massive loans, law students often find themselves working at a law firm during their 2L summer just to reverse the ugly financial trends. These same students wind up getting wined and dined and convinced (some might use the word “tricked”) into staying at that same firm after graduation. It is easy to be seduced by the big paycheck, promises of ample pro bono work (“you can make a difference here!”), and the idea that one can easily escape it all and turn to public interest work after a few years. It rarely works out that way.

That’s why it is exciting to see that Michigan Law School has launched a new program called Public Interest Guarantee. Unlike so many other public interest subsidy devices, the UM program promises to pay all students $5,000 for their 2L summers, provided they intern with a qualified government or public interest group.

[Update: Harvard Law already offers a similar program. In fact, Harvard offers a guaranteed public interest scholarship of $5,000 to both 1L and 2L students. Impressive stuff and I would venture to guess that there are other schools doing this as well. Kudos to Harvard, Michigan, and anyone else helping students work in the public interest sector.]

Granted, students can earn $5,000 in less than two weeks of work at a big New York or L.A. firm, but it is still a step in the right direction. This might be just enough money to keep some promising and well-intentioned lawyers in the public interest fold.