College students who have a desire to represent the American people and drive change in the nation's capital can enter the world of politics with a variety of backgrounds. But the training associated with attaining a law school degree is invaluable, says Juan Carlos Polanco, the New York City director for the State Assembly GOP leader Brian Kolb and a commissioner at the New York City Board of Elections.
"We're well trained in a different way of thinking," Polanco, who received his J.D. from Fordham University, notes. "We spent hundreds and hundreds of hours in the classroom researching and writing about the legal process and how the decisions made in the halls of Washington have impacted millions of people."
But while Polanco champions the political advantages of a law degree, there has been a decline in the number of lawyers serving in Congress. Currently, lawyers make up 24 percent of the House of Representatives—down from a high of 43 percent during the early 1960s. The Senate is also seeing a downward trend: 37 percent of current U.S. senators are lawyers, down from a high of 51 percent in the early 1970s.
The trend may continue to decline, according to a recent Kaplan Test Prep report that surveyed 758 pre-law students to garner their interest in running for political office. The survey noted that 38 percent of respondents have an interest in politics after graduation—a notable decline from 2009, when 54 percent of pre-law students surveyed reported they were considering a political future.
"One of the reasons I was pre-law and wanted to be an attorney one day was because of my passion for politics and government and all the wonderful things it has to offer," Polanco says. "And to see this decline is alarming."
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For undergraduate students, one detractor is the current culture of character assassination in politics, says Desiree Luckey, a senior sociology major and political science minor at Howard University in Washington, D.C.
"No one really wants to be involved in that type of mudslinging," Luckey notes. "Students see the hatefulness that's going on ... and aren't interested in all that."
Along with the character-attacking culture of current politics, the potential for not being able to make progress in Congress is a drawback as well, says Alejandro Madi, a senior specializing in pre-law at the CUNY—John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
"I think one of the main issues we have today, compared to 10 or 20 years ago, is that we see more partisan gridlock in our government, and I think that sometimes when [students] look at that, they feel like it isn't necessary to go through all that work to achieve nothing," Madi says.
Although Polanco is concerned by the downward trend of law students entering politics, he concedes that salaries in public service may not be enough to pay back the debt accrued during law school.
"Across the country, public interest salaries are ones that are not conducive for recent law school graduates who are required to begin paying their law school loans six months after finishing their degrees," he notes. "I can see why that would be a discouragement."
According to 191 ranked law schools that submitted data to U.S. News, the average law student graduated with a debt load of $100,433 in 2011. While potential debt is steep, students with an interest in public service at some law schools may be able to utilize loan repayment assistance programs, which could help manage the debt by providing loan forgiveness down the line, lowering interest rates on student loans, or even postponing loan payments.
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Even with the possibility of loan repayment assistance, taking on such a heavy debt load is daunting for people who want to serve the public, notes Howard's Luckey. "It's very sobering when you have these idealistic thoughts of helping people and you look at the salaries that you'd possibly be getting compared to the loan repayments that you'd have to be making."
While issues surrounding the current culture of politics and the financial reality of supporting a public interest law career persist, Luckey says it's important to encourage students who have an interest in public service to find resources necessary to finance their education.
"If you're truly passionate about [public service], you can find a way to do it," she says. "We need, as a country, people who are committed to that—where money is not the motivation. The motivation is to help people and to serve the nation as best as possible."
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