Hirshon Urges State Loan Forgiveness Programs to Spur More Public Interest Practice

March 19, 2003
Hirshon said federal and state governments should set up loan forgiveness programs for lawyers who work in underserved areas, similar to programs available to doctors.

State governments should set up loan forgiveness programs for young lawyers who enter public service careers, said Robert Hirshon, immediate past president of the American Bar Association, in a speech opening the 4th annual Conference on Public Service and the Law March 14. Hirshon blamed rising law school debt for the decline in pro bono hours worked by young lawyers and for obliging graduates to choose higher-paying corporate jobs over public service careers.

Addressing students, he said, "You have an ethical mandate to focus more on practice and less on salary," and that it was time for the rising generation of lawyers to steer the profession away from its preoccupation with business and more toward its traditional emphasis on service and justice.

"The profession is changing," he said. "Today you are more worldly, more sophisticated and you have a broader base of knowledge, plus a better command of technologies that make you more efficient and effective. The growing inclusiveness of our profession makes us better able to serve our communities.

"Cynicism tainted my generation, the lies and deception of Vietnam and Watergate, but we did retain our idealism. The rights of women and minorities, environmental law, consumer rights, gay rights, all advanced more than at any other time in history."

One of his formative experiences as a lawyer came one summer when he worked for Pine Tree Legal Aid in Lewiston, Maine, Hirshon said. In the late 1960s, Lewiston was a crumbling mill town. When the mills resorted to rolling layoffs to stay open, many French-Canadian millworkers, some of whom had lived for years in tenement rooms on week-to-week leases, found themselves facing eviction. "They didn't know they had agreed to forfeit some of their rights when they signed rent cards," Hirshon explained. His Legal Aid boss threw him into the problem, despite the fact that Hirshon had only had one year of law school. When one of his clients realized that Hirshon's intervention was saving him from eviction, he was elated. "The gratitude I saw in his face made me proud. Lawyering is the best profession. That's what the power of the law lets you do."

While public interest work inspires many to enter law school, the realities of the profession can thwart their idealism. "I fear my generation's idealism has given way to pecuniarianism," he said. "We've turned the profession into a business. Profits are now measured in the tens of millions a year in the largest firms."

To achieve such profits, firms now demand incredible output. "To get the exorbitant salary you must bill an inordinate number of hours. In the 1950s, associates were expected to bill 1,500 hours a year. In 2000, they were expected to bill 2,500 hours. To do that an associate must work 10 hours a day, plus Saturday and Sunday for 48 weeks. And don't get sick or married." The trend has severely diminished young lawyers' ability and willingness to do pro bono work, Hirshon said.

The second key issue facing public service law is the crushing law school debt, Hirshon said. "When I graduated in 1973, I owed less than $5,000. That debt did not affect my career decisions. I had the freedom not to care about that amount.

"That was then. In 2001, the average graduate left law school $80,000 in debt. When I said this recently at Tulane the audience laughed," Hirshon said. "It turned out that the least debt of anyone in the audience was $91,000 and some owed as much as $110,000. That means paying back $1,000 a month for 10 years."

Graduates are now obliged to take jobs with large firms instead of going into "socially useful, experience-rich jobs," Hirshon said. Citing San Francisco Legal Aid's pay rate of $34,000 a year, he added, "You can't live on that and pay back debt too. A generation ago 14.8 percent of law graduates went into public interest jobs. In 2001, it was 3.3 percent."

But the School of Law has gotten on the right side of the problem, Hirshon noted. "The University of Virginia is a leader in loan repayment. You've made major steps in the last couple of years," he said referring to U.Va.'s program for forgiving or partially paying the loans of graduates who accept low-paying public interest jobs.

Hirshon said federal and state governments should set up loan forgiveness programs for lawyers who work in underserved areas, similar to programs available to doctors. He also challenged the current business model of the profession. "We don't have to be stuck with the billable hours system that bills in six-minute segments. That system grew up in the 50s and 60s." It is becoming so tyrannical that "more and more young associates, after they pay off their debts, are quitting the profession. They're saying, 'if this is what practicing law is all about, I want out,'" Hirshon said. Instead he encouraged students to care more about providing their clients with vigorous representation and guaranteeing that everyone has access to justice.

"You make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give," he summed up.

Asked by third-year student Lise Adams, the 2003 recipient of the Law School's Powell Fellowship, which provides $35,000 a year for two years to a graduate entering a public service career, if the ABA would pressure U.S. News and World Reportto include a public service measure in its annual rankings of law schools, Hirshon answered, "That's a tough nut to crack. A lot of people want the rankings thrown out, period." Instead the ABA is lobbying states over loan repayment programs, he said.

Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.

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