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Thursday, December 1, 2005 - Page updated at 05:39 PM

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Gates birthday gift is the kind that will keep on giving

Seattle Times staff reporter

It's the sort of gift that Bill Gates Sr. wanted from his son.

Nothing gaudy or flashy, nothing stylish or sleek. In fact, nothing for himself at all. Instead, something to inspire public service in others, something to give back. Something he has insisted on long before his son became the world's richest man.

So when Bill Gates Sr. turned 80 Wednesday, his son surprised him with this: an 80-year scholarship program for the University of Washington School of Law in the elder Gates' name.

The length of the scholarship is a nod to Bill Gates Sr.'s age; the law school is his alma mater.

The cost: $33.3 million. The deal: Five students get a full-ride scholarship each year. In exchange, they commit to working seven years in public service after graduation — for instance, for a legal aid or advocacy agency, a nonprofit, as a public defender or prosecutor.

The idea behind the scholarship is to encourage young lawyers to pursue public-service careers without the burden of huge student debt. The scholarship is unusual in that it goes beyond paying tuition and also covers room and board, academic supplies and internship costs. It's estimated that the scholarship will be worth about $100,000 over three years of study for students entering the school next year.

It's the largest gift to any UW scholarship program by "a lot," according to UW President Mark Emmert. Leaders in public-service law say the scholarship will significantly benefit the state and could make the law school more competitive nationally.

"It's really a singular program in the country, maybe beyond," Emmert said. "I think it will stimulate a lot of interest nationally in the whole field of public-service law."

The elder Gates said he had no inkling of what was planned until his son, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, made the announcement Wednesday during a meeting at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. After speeches, a large cake shaped like an academic mortar board was wheeled into the room.

"I couldn't be more thrilled, it's perfect," the elder Gates said. "This is a country where the contribution of government and the contribution of charitable agencies are indispensable to the life we enjoy."

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The UW law school has about 550 students, including 180 first-year students, and currently requires its students to complete 60 hours of public service before graduation.

The first winners of the new scholarship will be announced in April and start classes in the fall.

A handful of other universities have similar scholarships for law students. The most widely known is the Root-Tilden-Kern program run by New York University School of Law. That program pays full tuition — but not board — for 20 students each year in exchange for a 10-year commitment to public service . It served as a model for the Gates scholarship.

"We are happy to have this competition. The more of these types of programs, the better," said Vicki Been, NYU's faculty director of the Root-Tilden-Kern scholarship and a former recipient herself.

She said the NYU program provides not only money but also a support network.

"It really does provide this socialization community, this group of people who have similar interests and a similar commitment who help each other withstand the pressure of taking an easier career track," she said.

Bob Boruchowitz, director of The Defender Association, a nonprofit that provides public-defense services in King County, said his organization can pay entry-level lawyers just $45,000 annually, about half the amount big firms offer.

"It's not unusual for students today to come out of law school with $100,000 in debt, and it makes it difficult for them to take jobs in public service," Boruchowitz said. "This is really significant, it will have a real impact on Washington. That's five people a year available for public service, and that's great."

Boruchowitz said that attracting law students to public service is an ongoing challenge, and there have been several attempts — so far unsuccessful — to persuade the U.S. Congress to enact a loan-forgiveness program.

An example of the economic pressures facing law students comes when big firms offer jobs by the time students reach their second year of study, NYU's Been said. Nonprofits, with more precarious finances, often hire much later.

"You have to have the stomach for risk-taking," she said. "Are you prepared to wait until March of your third year to get a job when everyone else got a job in their second summer, and they're all set?"

Similar pressures can be seen at the UW.

A study published this week by a UW law-school gender committee found that after the first five months, students are "significantly less likely" to say they came to the school in order to do public-interest work. And during their first year, students become "significantly more concerned over salary," the study found.

Law school Dean Joe Knight said students cheered when he announced the scholarship Wednesday. He said the average UW student incurs $45,000 in debt during three years of law school, a burden added to undergraduate debt.

The new scholarship was announced 55 years after Bill Gates Sr. graduated from the law school. He was a student there when he me his first wife, the late Mary Maxwell Gates, who was completing a bachelor's degree.

Bill Gates Sr. went on to form Preston, Gates & Ellis, one of Seattle's top law firms, which performs some pro-bono work for nonprofits.

His charity work has included volunteering for hospitals, libraries, Planned Parenthood and United Way. When his son became rich and requests for charity began pouring in, it was the father who sorted through the letters at his Laurelhurst home, later becoming co-chairman of the foundation, now the world's largest, with a $28.8 billion endowment.

The elder Gates, now a UW Regent, enjoyed his own time at law school in the way an athlete might "enjoy" a particularly grueling workout.

"It was law school," he said. "It was hard and difficult, and it was something I was delighted to be finished with when I was finished with it."

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

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