One of the many routes of access to justice

Issue November 2005

One of the surest ways in which individuals are deprived of access to justice in our judicial system is by a denial of adequate representation by counsel. Refusal to provide adequate counsel for indigent defendants, along with reductions in funding for legal services for the poor, are two examples of how many individuals do not receive a fair opportunity to participate in our adversarial system. The high cost of present-day legal education and the correspondingly low pay for public service attorneys have also been added to this list.

The cost of attending law school has gone through the roof. It has far outpaced the rate of inflation. The ABA reports that between 1992 and 2002, the cost of private law school education increased 76 percent ? public law school education, for resident students, 100 percent ? while the overall cost of living rose 28 percent. In 2002, the average cost of private law school was $24,920 per year.

Eighty-seven percent of law students need to borrow to get through school.

To compound the problem, the average annual starting salary for public service attorneys was $36,000 in 2002, according to the ABA. At the same time, the national median starting salary for private practice rose to $90,000. We know these salaries are on average lower in Massachusetts, while the costs may actually be higher.

The consequences are obvious. Many lawyers interested in public service, even if they were willing to try to live on the meager salary, could not get by while carrying the burden of student loan repayment. Average student loan debt for students of private law schools was $76,563 for the class of 2004. Try paying principal and interest on that together with living costs for you and your family from a salary of $36,000 a year or less. The problem needs to be addressed locally and nationally.

The Boston Globe recently reported that Boston University School of Law had doubled its loan repayment program. It also mentioned the programs at other Boston area law schools, some much larger than BU?s. These schools join a minority of law schools nationwide which have loan forgiveness programs. These are laudable but ?modest? efforts which should be increased. One thing we can do is seek to have our almae matres establish programs or increase their commitments to existing programs.

We can also encourage our Massachusetts Legislature to act. Pending bill HB 1772 of 2005, filed by Rep. Eugene O?Flaherty, chair of the House Judiciary Committee, would provide a useful state loan repayment program for public service counsel. Presently, according to the ABA, there are only 10 states with such programs. Massachusetts should surely be amongst them.

The largest portion of relief from this crisis could, of course, come from the federal government. And it should. Much of the representation provided by public service attorneys involves the protection of federal constitutional rights.

A number of federal legislative and regulatory programs exist which assist law students with the repayment of their loan debt if they choose to enter public service. There is an obvious need for increasing the level of support provided by these federal programs.

Sen. Ted Kennedy is the sponsor of one such worthy proposal now pending in Congress. Our officers and I, together with our general counsel, discussed this need with Sen. Kennedy and other members of our congressional delegation during our annual trip to Capitol Hill in May. I ask you all to join us in registering your support for this much needed assistance with our lawmakers.

Our Massachusetts congressmen already understand the need. Please help them understand the urgency.