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Debt precludes pursuit of public service

By Justice Richard Mosk

Justice Richard Mosk

The disparity in compensation between lawyers working for government and other public interest positions on the one hand, and the private sector on the other hand, has many adverse consequences. It is true that public interest legal positions are filled with excellent lawyers, notwithstanding the low compensation, and that there are still many who seek public interest jobs.  This is, in part, due to the economy and an increase in those going to law school, commitment to public service and the perceived rigors of private practice.

Nevertheless, the compensation discrepancy engenders understandable unhappiness and hardship upon public servants, entices some of the experienced public interest lawyers to leave for the private sector, reduces the pool of applicants for public interest positions and frustrates many able potential applicants who are committed to public service, but find it economically necessary to take private firm positions. A New York Times story reported that law school debt causes the departure of many experienced public servants. The article states: “J. Tom Morgan, district attorney for DeKalb County, Ga., said his young prosecutors become most valuable after three years on the job. It takes a year to learn criminal procedure, Mr. Morgan said, and even more important, lawyers need to lose lesser cases so they will learn how to win the big ones. These days, however, they are leaving just as they are becoming competent.”

Public lawyers’ commitment to their service is demonstrated not only by their compensation, but also their working conditions. The facilities and support often do not match the conditions in private practice. And to top it off, indispensable government lawyers even face layoffs because of current budget problems. Thus, the low-paid public servants may now have been stripped of one of their benefits — job security.

It is difficult to conceive of how to remedy these problems. It seems that public funding of necessary legal resources is not a high priority among national, state or local government executives and legislators. The chief justice of California has been an outstanding administrator and spokesman for the judicial system, but not every legal agency in government has such skills or influence. 

My father, the late Justice Stanley Mosk, recognized these problems long ago. When attorney general, he knew he was at a disadvantage in attracting the best legal talent. Then, the discrepancy between government pay and private-sector pay was much less than it is today. He was able to assemble a superb staff by hiring women and minorities, then not as welcome in the private sector. He also made it possible for the youngest attorneys, such as Ronald George, to follow their cases all the way to the United States Supreme Court. But today, not even those attractions and the psychic pleasure of public service can always overcome financial hardships. 

Shortly before his death, my father became aware of the fact that law school graduates were faced with crushing debts — the average amount has been estimated to exceed $80,000. He feared that law school graduates would be deterred by this from entering public service. He was right. As the American Bar Association Commission on Loan Repayment and Forgiveness (San Francisco attorney Curtis Caton serves as co-chair) noted, a recent study found that law school debt prevented 66 percent of students who responded from considering a public interest or government job.

To carry out my father’s wishes, with the help of many of his clerks and friends, we established at Boalt Hall the Stanley Mosk Loan Forgiveness Fund for those going into public service. My father and I agreed with the ABA Commission conclusion that the “legal profession cannot honor its commitment to the principle of access to justice if significant numbers of law graduates are precluded from pursuing or remaining in public service jobs.” The commission noted that debt often falls more severely upon minorities.

Law schools throughout the nation and in California are attempting to address this problem. The University of San Diego School of Law is committed to raising $1 million to permanently endow a Loan Repayment Assistance Program. Law schools such as Harvard, Yale and Stanford also have committed to raising substantial monies for such programs. I hope it will be recognized that a law school’s commitment to programs that facilitate its graduates’ entry into public service will reflect on the standing and quality of that law school. Unfortunately, the Mosk Fund is presently under-funded — despite its being the most popular donee of Boalt graduating class gifts. 

My father believed in and admired people dedicated to public service. Perhaps government is unable or unwilling to help. It may be up to the public and private law schools, private foundations and the law school alumni to allow law school graduates to choose public service.

Richard Mosk is associate justice of the California Court of Appeal, Second District, Division 5, and is a former judge of the Iran-U.S. Claims Tribunal.

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