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Jobs You Can’t Afford – Public Defender

For my next installation in the ongoing Jobs You Can’t Afford series, I’m going to talk about Public Defenders. Public Defenders are government lawyers who work on behalf of people accused of crimes when those people cannot afford an attorney.  You know the line from the crime shows, “If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you”?  That’s these guys.

In this country, people accused of crimes have a constitutional right to an attorney so the job of Public Defender is essentially one of upholding the constitution.  Yet this important job is becoming more and more out of reach as tuition continues to outstrip salaries.

Becoming a lawyer of any kind is expensive – the average loan debt for law school graduates is around $73,000.  (Is it sad that I’m actually envious of that amount?)  20% of law students graduate with over $100,000 in debt, and the average monthly loan payment is $1100 per month.   And that’s just for law school.  Many of these students have debts from their undergraduate degrees as well. 

But the debt load is especially onerous for starting Public Defenders who make, on average, $44,169 (this number goes up to $46,315 once they have a year of experience).  Trying to balance that kind of debt with that low of a salary makes it increasingly difficult for Public Defenders to get by.  As Minnesota Public Radio recently reported, some Public Defenders must take on second and even third jobs just to pay their debts:

“My student loans are about 30 percent of my (take home) monthly income. It’s about $750 a month that I pay in law school loans and undergrad loans combined,” she (Public Defender Corey Sherman) said.

So Sherman moonlights at two other jobs to supplement her salary as a public defender. She tutors Hamline law students after work. And on most Saturdays she tends bar for a caterer. On a recent Saturday, she was setting up the bar for a wedding.

And some people who wanted to be Public Defenders are being forced to reconsider their options completely:

That’s exactly what Shannon Elkins did. Elkins graduated from the University of Minnesota with $80,000 of mostly law school debt. While working as a Hennepin County public defender, she waitressed two to three times per week.

She and her husband wanted to settle down and start a family. But working two jobs was just too much.

“I just got to the point where we couldn’t pay our bills, and I went through seven years of school and worked really hard to become a lawyer,” Elkins said. “So I finally got to the point where I was tired, I was working two jobs and just couldn’t believe I put in all this time and effort to end up that way.”

Elkins now works as a criminal defense lawyer in private practice.

So for all of you trust fund-less, aspiring do-gooders out there, there is only one conclusion: you’re dreams of fighting for the voiceless masses are, quite simply, too expensive.  Time to add Public Defender to the list of Jobs You Can’t Afford.

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