The Indentured Generation

The plight of poorly paid attorneys is unlikely to generate much public sympathy. Yet the staggering run-up in law-school tuition costs, which have jumped 140 percent at public law schools and 76 percent at private ones since 1991, is beginning to have some worrisome social consequences. Thanks to "mortgage-size law-school debt payments, public-interest organizations are facing pressing challenges to recruit and retain talent, and low-income communities are dealing with a lack of representation," says Sheila Ketcham, a program associate at Equal Justice Works, the national association of public-interest lawyers. "This is one of the largest crises in the legal profession." Debt levels for newly minted lawyers rose 59 percent between 1993 and 2000, to an average of $84,400. According to a recent study by Equal Justice, that high level of law-school debt prevents two-thirds of law students from even considering jobs in the government or the public-interest sector. It's a similar story for doctors. Medical-school costs have soared, and new doctors now graduate with an average of $103,850 to repay, according to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC). From an average annual salary of $145,000 for family practitioners to $270,000 for plastic surgeons, debt payments of more than $1,500 a month prevent many from serving the poor in public hospitals and clinics that can pay as little as $45,000 per year. "Choosing a specific career now also entails a choice about how to repay one's debt," AAMC President Dr. Jordan Cohen has noted.