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Public Interest Law Jobs and Loan Forgiveness Programs
by Sarah Garvey
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"These programs are so inspirational, because so many people really want to do that kind of law, but it is very difficult from a financial standpoint and also a cultural standpoint."
Summary: Want to work in public interest law but are struggling to make your monthly student loan payments? Learn about the options out there that can help.
Did you go to law school because you want to help people? Maybe you feel called to help underprivileged children as a legal services lawyer. Or represent indigent individuals as a public defender. Perhaps your primary interest is in helping domestic violence victims, low-income tenants or people suffering from disabilities.
If you are like many idealistic individuals who decided to pursue law in order to make a positive impact in the lives of the less fortunate, you face a dilemma: You cannot make your law school loan payments and meet your other expenses if you take the very kind of public interest job you went to law school for in the first place.
There is no magic solution for this predicament, but there are options. This article explores different programs that are designed to enable lawyers to pursue public interest and public service careers by alleviating the financial burden of massive law school loans.
At the same time, according to NALP’s 2014 Public Sector & Public Interest Attorney Salary Survey, the median salary for an entry-level legal services attorney was just $44,600 and for a more seasoned attorney with 11-15 years of experience was $65,000. The median salary for public defenders and local prosecuting attorneys ranged from between $50,000 to about $85,000 depending on experience.
Meanwhile, first-year associates at large law firms earn salaries of $160,000, while BigLaw senior associates and partners earn significantly more than that.
The good news is that there are a number of programs throughout the country that offer lawyers the opportunity to take public interest jobs by making law school loan repayment less burdensome. These programs are structured in different ways and offered at the federal, state and law school level.
Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program
The federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness (“PSLF”) Program is one of the newest loan forgiveness programs. The PSLF Program is structured to forgive an attorney’s remaining federal debt under the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program (“Direct Loans”) so long as that attorney has made timely payments for the past ten years (120 qualifying monthly payments) and is working full-time at a qualifying legal job. The kinds of employers that are covered include governmental entities and non-profit organizations.
Federal loans other than Direct Loans may be eligible under the PSLF Program if they are consolidated into Direct Loans.
Qualifying payments must have been made after 2007, so the first year of eligibility for the PSLF Program is 2017.
Another federal program applies to Perkins Loans. Under this program, lawyers working in public interest and public service jobs such as public defenders, prosecutors and lawyers working with low-income families can have all of their Perkins Loans forgiven after five years of employment.
While the PSLF and Perkins Loan Cancellation Programs help public interest lawyers by forgiving federal debt after a certain number of payments or years working, other programs assist public interest lawyers by lowering loan payments to more manageable levels. These plans, known as Income-Driven Repayment Plans, allow an individual to apply for lowered monthly payments on federal loans based on that person’s income. Payments are generally limited to ten percent of discretionary income, but the plans can vary.
Monthly payment amounts can vary under Income-Driven Repayment Plans, according to an individual’s income and family size, so beneficiaries must periodically recertify their income and family size information.
Most Income-Driven Repayment Plans are only available for Direct Loans (or loans consolidated into Direct Loans), although one such plan is available for Federal Family Education Loans.
Just as the federal government has loan forgiveness and repayment programs for public interest lawyers, certain states do as well. According to the American Bar Association, the following states have such programs: Arizona, District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia and certain counties in Kansas.
These programs are funded in different ways, including by state legislatures, private funders or through Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts. Some are administered by bar associations and others by nonprofits.
Florida’s Loan Repayment Assistance Program, for example, was started in 2002 and is administered by the Florida Bar Foundation. It is structured as a loan program for lawyers employed at Florida legal aid and legal services organizations. Beneficiaries receive loans of $5,000, which loans are forgiven annually for participants who remain employed for a year.
Pennsylvania’s program also offers annual loans (up to ten), which are forgivable for each year that the attorney works at an IOLTA-funded organization. Pennsylvania’s program is a collaboration of the Pennsylvania Bar Foundation, the Pennsylvania Bar Association, the Pennsylvania IOLTA Board and the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
Individual law schools also offer help in the form of Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (“LRAP’s”) for law graduates who pursue legal jobs in the public interest. One example is Southwestern University School of Law’s LRAP, which is available to attorneys who take jobs earning less than $40,000 per year.
Harvard Law School students benefit from the Harvard Law School Low Income Protection Plan, one of the most comprehensive LRAP’s among law schools. The program has a broad definition of eligible jobs and includes academic positions and in-house counsel for small companies as well as government and non-profit jobs. There were 613 participants in Harvard’s LRAP during 2014-2015, including 42 lawyers working for legal aid, 22 helping children, and 10 doing human rights work.
Beneficiaries of Stanford Law School’s LRAP have pursued post-law school jobs like working for international children’s rights in Guatemala, Tajikistan and Tanzania, becoming a public defender in Santa Clara County, and working in environmental and tribal law in the Pacific Northwest.
LawCrossing Is a Great Resource for Public Interest Law Jobs
If you are interested in finding a public interest legal job, LawCrossing is the website to visit. LawCrossing—which identifies over 500 new law jobs every hour and is the largest law job board in the world—has all the latest listings for jobs such as legal aid lawyers, prosecuting attorneys, and lawyers working for non-profits focusing on everything from civil rights to climate change.
To search for various public interest jobs posted on LawCrossing, please click on the following links:
If you are a law student or attorney wondering how you can pursue your desire to make a difference in the world with your law degree given the financial realities of your student loan debt, please do not give up hope! There are a host of programs out there to help people just like you. We encourage you to review the various federal programs as well as those that might be available in your state and from your law school to help you turn your dreams into reality.
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