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Friday, July 22, 2005

Is Law School in your Future?

Few people think of the student loans from law school
added to the undergraduate loans when planning their future.

Government lawyers try to make ends meet

Proposed law would help pay law school loans

Staff Writer

During the week, Rachel Sobrero spends her time in a Nashville courtroom prosecuting those accused of committing crimes.

On the weekends, the 29-year-old assistant district attorney general waits tables and does other work in an area restaurant.

Across the aisle in the criminal justice system is Assistant Metro Public Defender Mickie Smith Daugherty. When she's finished safeguarding the rights of the accused, the 30-year-old lawyer moonlights as a teacher helping students get into college. Daugherty had a third job, she said, until her doctor told her she was suffering from sleep deprivation.

The reason for the extra work? The low-paying legal jobs, along with large student-loan debt, leave many prosecutors and public defenders struggling financially.

"I think it would be a fair assessment to say that a lot of young attorneys in our office live from paycheck to paycheck," Daugherty said.

Other lawyers in the public defender's office, as well as the district attorney's office, and those in similar posts across the state, have been forced to moonlight just to make a living.

The low pay and high student-loan debt is a national problem.

That's why some in Congress are backing the Prosecutors and Public Defenders Incentive Act, a proposed law that would pay off up to $6,000 a year in student loans provided the attorneys agree to stay in their public jobs for a certain length of time.

The bill, sponsored by U.S. Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., is supported by U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee.

The proposed law, the Murfreesboro Democrat said, is similar to programs offered to doctors, nurses and teachers who get a certain portion of their student-loan debt paid by agreeing to work in underserved areas.

But another reason he said he supports the move is to save money by reducing the appeals in criminal cases.

"We are constantly seeing cases where criminal defendants are sometimes having their sentences overturned because of inadequate representation. I think that this will hopefully stop these kind of appeals."

The law would make it easier to keep good, experienced attorneys, said Davidson County District Attorney General Torry Johnson, who has said he's had at least six lawyers leave his office this year alone.

Others say the high debt is keeping talented lawyers away from public service. "The important thing about this is there are lot of young law school graduates who would like to do some public service work, but they can't because of the amount of educational debt that they have," said Jeff Henry, executive director of the Tennessee District Public Defenders Conference.

Sobrero, the young prosecutor, says she loves her job. But at her salary, a student-loan debt of about $140,000 makes it difficult. Daugherty, who also is committed to her office, said she has a law-school debt of about $100,000.

The starting salary for a Metro assistant public defender is $43,668. For an assistant district attorney, it's $40,440.

A study by the American Bar Association of law school graduates from the 2003-04 school year found that debt from public law schools averages $48,910. The study found that students who had attended private law schools were carrying an average debt of $76,563,

If the law passes, Daugherty, Sobrero and others in their offices said it would be a big help.

"(The law) would make a huge difference," said Sobrero, who hopes to leave her restaurant job at the end of this year even if it means a loss of income by 20%.

"I am at the point where it's getting so hard," she said. "I'm exhausted."

Without some type of relief, the end isn't in sight for Daugherty.

How long does she think she'll be moonlighting?

"Indefinitely, basically," Daugherty said. "I honestly can't see a time in the future when I would not be."