The Lewis & Clark Law School has one of the highest rates of public-service participation in the country, with more than one out of three graduates choosing to work in the public service sector. A number of programs and projects at the law school, such as legal clinics, externships, and the Public Interest Law Project (PILP) help students and graduates succeed in the sector.
But while commitment to public interest law is strong, finding the means to financially survive a career with less earning potential, while carrying the burden of student loans, can be challenging. The Lewis & Clark Law School Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP) is designed to help alumni doing public interest work pay down their debt. Now in its 10th year, the program has recently grown to help more graduates qualify to cover their debt.
“We recognize that supporting public interest lawyers enriches the legal field as a whole,” said William Penn, public interest law coordinator. “With LRAP assistance to graduates, nonprofits, and government agencies serving the under-represented can hire and retain top quality lawyers who might otherwise be unable to afford working in the sector.”
In this video, Lewis & Clark law school student and PILP grant recipient Ginger Beck talks about her work on behalf of the under-served.
About public interest law
Public interest law is law practiced on behalf of underrepresented people like those living below the poverty line, or underrepresented causes like minority rights, civil liberties, and religious expression. Public interest lawyers work at non-profits and in government, at public defenders offices, legal aid offices, and environmental organizations. There is no single political ideology associated with public interest work, just belief in the democratic virtue that the legal system works best for everybody when no one is left without access to the courts. LRAP recipients have worked across the country in public defender offices, donor-supported organizations, government-supported organizations, and faith-based organizations. Public service is a broader category that includes public interest law, other government work, and work with the courts.
Strong commitment to serving public among students, alumni allows program expansion
Need for the loan repayment program is particularly strong at Lewis & Clark Law School. For the class of 2007, 11.6 percent of students started at public interest organizations, 16.3 percent started in government positions, and 7.3 percent started at judicial clerkships. Together, that is 35.2 percent of recent alumni starting in what is commonly called public service careers. With similar numbers for the class of 2006, Lewis & Clark Law School had the fifth-highest percentage of students entering public interest careers, and the sixth highest entering public service careers in the nation, according to Equal Justice Works E-Guide to Law Schools.
In 2006, students passed a student-initiated effort to impose an annual student fee to help pay for LRAP. Of the 86 schools that reported having a loan repayment program, only five other school programs are student-supported. As a result of the student fee, the law school can help more graduates in the public sector by lifting the income cap and the number of years of eligibility.
“Students from the Public Interest Law Project brought the student fee idea to their peers and even for those not entering the public service sector, there was strong support,” said Penn. “I think this effort on behalf of the students demonstrates how unique this law school community is.”
How the program benefits students and the public
Since the program started, 35 graduates have been helped with their loan payments and nearly a quarter of a million dollars have been distributed. Law school graduates working in the public service field earning less than $45,000 are eligible to apply up to five years after graduating. In 2008, the program was able to cover 100 percent of all program recipients’ debt payments. The average award last year was nearly $8,000 per recipient.
“We strive to cover up to 100 percent of a graduate’s law school debt burden as long as funds are available,” Penn said. “This is rare, since other schools often have an award cap.”
LRAP can make the difference between whether or not a law school graduate can afford to work on behalf of the public—and whether or not public service organizations can access legal services.
“To a public interest-minded law graduate with sizeable loan debt, a non-profit salary may not be enough to pay the bills, but it is enough to make a person face reality: modern life has practical limits that compete with principled ideals,” said Brett Brownscombe, Conservation Director at Oregon Trout. “For me, LRAP meant that I could start my legal career representing a group that had never before hired an attorney on chronic public land conservation needs in rural Oregon.”
Other resources for law students pursuing public interest careers add up to tremendous savings
Presently, there are two recently created federal loan repayment programs for graduates:
- Starting in July 2009, the Income-Based Repayment (IBR) program can limit a graduate’s student loan payments on federal loans (Stafford, Perkins, Grad Plus) to 15 percent of their disposable income.
- If a graduate consolidates with Federal Direct Lending, makes their IBR payments, and works in a qualifying nonprofit or government position for a total of 10 years, the remainder of their loans is forgiven.
Penn pointed out that it is possible that a Lewis & Clark Law School student who pursues public interest law could wind up having all of their loans covered. Because Grad Plus loans qualify and can cover the remainder of tuition and living expenses after Perkins and Stafford loans, it is possible for graduates to get through law school on 100 percent loans that qualify.
“In theory, a graduate could take a public service job after law school, get IBR set up, and receive an LRAP that could cover their loan payments for five years while they work that public service position. Then, after the LRAP period ran out, pay just 15 percent of their disposable income to loans for five additional years and end up free of law school loans with relatively very little money out of pocket.”