GUEST OPINION: The lure of firms and the failings of LIPP

BY SEAN FLYNN

IN ORDER TO REACH ITS objective of removing the most coercive aspects of the pull to private practice, the Low Income Protection Plan needs to scale its benefits to reflect the reality that public interest salaries increase over time but remain insufficient, without loan forgiveness, to meet the need for savings for retirement, home ownership and family.

The pull of the publicly minded to private practice

The problem for public interest advocates today is not primarily the draw of astronomical wages. It is the burden of astronomical debt. Gene Nichol, dean of the University of North Carolina Law School, describes in the latest issue of The Nation:

“Tuition increases have dramatically outpaced inflation over the last decade. . . Last year, the median private law graduate debt burden was $84,000. And that doesn’t include undergraduate debt, which also can be daunting. The typical starting salary for public-sector jobs nationally is about $35,000 – requiring an impossible 40 percent of monthly income for debt repayment.”

You can pay off your loans at a big firm salary in two years. I’ve been in LIPP since 1999 and have 90 percent of the principle on my loans – over $70,000 – still to pay off.

LIPP as it is currently structured is an abject failure for advocates in long-term low paying jobs. I’m 33. I spent 4 years as a civil rights advocate in Washington D.C. before HLS and two after teaching and studying constitutional law in South Africa. I have been married for two years and make $45,000 using patent and competition law theories to open access to generic medicines in developing countries. My salary is about $5,000 less per year than I earned before law school and a lower salary than I would be paid teaching elementary school in the L.A. Unified School District. My wife makes $29,000 a year.

We have only $1,500 in our savings account and no extra monthly income to devote to a mortgage, to child care or to savings for a pension that neither of our non-profit employers provides. Under the LIPP guidelines we make enough money to devote $200 a month to school debt payments, and that number will rise steeply with any pay increase ($3,000 plus 40% of every dollar over $46,000).

LIPP works well for the first couple of years after graduation. But applying the same scale to those 3-10 years out of HLS is absurd and unfair. Indeed, the effect, if not the design, is to bump most public interest advocates out of LIPP by the fourth year, leaving only 220 people in the program today.

Fix LIPP

My proposal to fix LIPP has been put forward by generations of students. LIPP benefits should be scaled to the salaries of federal government lawyers. That scale is as follows:

Grade Pay

11 $42,976

12 $51,508

13 $61,251

14 $72,381

15 $85,140

First year attorneys start at grade 11 and receive promotions to the later grades at roughly yearly intervals. After grade 15, pay increases slow somewhat, reaching a current maximum of $110,682 10 years after reaching the GS 15 level.

Anyone making below this scale should pay no portion of his or her law school loans. This policy should be based on the decision that disposable income under these salary scales is needed for family and retirement savings and therefore should not be required for educational loan payments.

It’s time for a LIPP watchdog

The absence of structured participation by the subjects of LIPP in its construction is one of the sources of the program’s failure. In preparing this letter, there was no means made available for me to contact other LIPP beneficiaries or student advocates and I was informed that LIPP beneficiaries have no representation on any LIPP decision-making body. This must end.

Student representation on LIPP committees should be put in the hands of a representative body composed of future and past LIPP recipients. This body needs to be created by students and should reach out to and include current LIPP beneficiaries so real experiences can be brought to bear on decision making.

With a new administration at HLS, the opportunity is here; the need is clear; the campaign to fix LIPP must begin now (again).

Sean Flynn graduated from HLS in 1999.

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