The importance of public interest law practice in our society cannot be overstated. Many interests worthy of protection—including those of low-income individuals, the environment, children and other diffuse and unorganized interests—are underrepresented or unrepresented in our legal system. Public interest lawyers working for legal services and other nonprofit organizations ensure that these interests have access to representation in our legal system.
However, as law school tuition and accompanying debt burden increase across the nation, most law graduates are effectively precluded from choosing public interest law as a career. The need to repay staggering law school loans increasingly dictates career choice in favor of a job with a higher salary than most public interest positions can offer. As a result, the important interests identified above suffer progressive underrepresentation and the founding principle of equal justice is sacrificed.
As of 2011, the average starting salary, nationwide, for private attorney employment was $98,000; however, the average nationwide salary for public interest positions was only $45,000.1 Due in part to this salary discrepancy, less than 7.5 percent of law graduates nationwide entered the public interest field.2
Across the country, law school tuition continues to increase. These increases have also occurred at USD. As of May 2012, approximately 86 percent of all USD law students had borrowed money. The average debt of a 2012 USD law school graduate was approximately $121,200 (that figure includes law school loans only, and does not consider undergraduate loans).
The USD School of Law prepares its students to practice public interest law through its existing civil, criminal, immigration and environmental clinical programs, its Center for Public Interest Law, its Children's Advocacy Institute, and its dedication of some financial aid funding to summer Community Service Grants. USD law students have indicated their interest in and support for public interest law by forming the Public Interest Law Foundation and Pro Bono Legal Advocates. However, this commitment of public interest training is partially mooted by a tuition-loan burden which inhibits postgraduate practice to benefit society. Thus, the law school administration, faculty and students believe an additional step is necessary to enable law graduates to practice the skills they have acquired in law school: the creation of a Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP or Program) to assist students choosing public interest law as a career in repaying their law school loans.
1. Starting Salaries- Class of 2011 (National Association for Law Placement).
- To make careers in public interest law financially feasible for USD law graduates.
- To ensure USD's competitiveness among California law schools by providing a loan repayment assistance program, which will attract students dedicated to public service.
- To enhance the provision of legal services to low-income individuals and traditionally underrepresented interests which will otherwise continue to be unrepresented and lack access to the legal system.
- To demonstrate USD's strong commitment to public interest law.