I’ve known a number of people over the years who had clear opportunities to work at high-paying “Biglaw” positions at the major New York firms, but instead chose to work at low-paying public-interest jobs. That decision often struck me as economically questionable.
Throw some numbers into the mix. Assume that our law school graduate has two options. She can work at Skadden Arps and earn $140,000 a year. Or she can work at Legal Aid and earn $40,000 a year. Which should she take?
The standard analysis says that if she’s interested in a higher salary then she should work at Skadden, and if she’s interested in helping out people (say, in the criminal defense division) then she should work for Legal Aid. It all depends on her starting premises. So if we posit that our law student (a) doesn’t really care about earning a high salary, and (b) wants to help people by defending indigent criminal defendants, well then her clear choice is the Legal Aid job. Or is it?
What if instead, she took the Skadden job, and donated most of her salary to Legal Aid?
With her $140,000 Skadden salary, she could donate $80,000 to Legal Aid, sufficient to allow them to hire two new attorneys, and thus defend twice as many indigent criminal defendants.* Meanwhile, she would retain $60,000 of her salary to live on, herself — more than enough for her purposes, since she doesn’t care about money (recall that she was happy to work for 2/3 that amount).
That’s twice the net gain in overall defense for the indigent, if our law student doesn’t choose Legal Aid herself. (And that’s not even including her ability to do some pro bono work while at Skadden — or the extra Legal Aid attorneys that her year-end bonus might be able to hire in a good year.)
So why don’t more law students take this route?
*Note that in order to succeed, this program would require some careful a tailored salary. Taxes would almost certainly eat too much of her pay to make this feasible if her pay all went through her. She would need to arrange for Skadden pay $80,000 of her $140,000 directly to Legal Aid, rather than to her.