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Despite attending a law school on the East Coast, Rich always planned to return to his native California upon graduation to provide legal aid for farm workers in the central valley. As the son of immigrants who worked 12-hour days among pesticide-filled grape vines, he vowed to get a legal education so he could return to the fields as a lawyer and help improve working and health conditions for farm workers. He was thrilled to be admitted to law school with a partial scholarship. Rich knew his eventual job search would be challenging, but he didn’t realize how much debt he would incur during law school and how that debt would interfere with his ability to fulfill his dream. With salary offers in the low $30s and a debt burden of more than $80,000, Rich did the math: The monthly loan payment of about $1,000 would be more than half his monthly take-home salary as a public interest attorney. He could not possibly pay rent, utilities, transportation, food, and insurance — much less other typical living expenses such as clothing, medical expenses, family assistance, and inevitable emergencies — with the remainder. Facing reality, Rich interviewed with private law firms in the nearby San Francisco Bay area with a goal of paying down as much of his debt as possible so he could one day do the work he dreamed of throughout law school. Rich is just one of the legions of aspiring lawyers who want to give back to their community, but face such crushing debt that a public service job is financially impossible. With the cost of law school skyrocketing (average private law school tuition in 2002 was $24,144, while the average public law school tuition was $9,378 for residents and $18,131 for nonresidents), most law students are forced to borrow increasingly higher amounts to pay for their legal education and living expenses. The problem becomes even more vivid when you factor in the median debt figure of more than $80,000 for students who borrow, and the growing disparity between starting public interest salaries (the median was $36,000 in 2002) and private practice salaries (the median was $90,000 in 2002). RECRUITING, RETENTION PROBLEMS A recent report, “From Paper Chase to Money Chase: Law School Debt Diverts Road to Public Service,” issued by Equal Justice Works, the Partnership for Public Service, National Legal Aid and Defenders Association, and the National Association for Law Placement, found that law school debt prevents 66 percent of student respondents from considering a public interest or government job. The corresponding survey of public interest and government employers revealed that 68 percent reported difficulty recruiting the attorneys they need. The vast majority of these employers cite low salaries and educational debt as the largest contributing factors to this problem. Retention was also a problem for 62 percent of these types of employers: Low salaries and educational debt were overwhelmingly cited as the top factors affecting retention of experienced lawyers. In response to the impact of educational debt on law graduates’ ability to take public service jobs, and the impact that has on the profession, the American Bar Association’s former president, Robert Hirshon, made this issue the centerpiece of his term when he created the ABA Commission on Loan Repayment and Forgiveness. The commission — composed of leaders in the profession drawn from the ranks of law school deans and faculty, law students, experienced public service lawyers, legislators, college and university presidents and administrators, the judiciary, and the private bar — has studied the problem for the past two years and further documented the need for remedies and new strategies. These statistics and the level of ABA attention should be a wake-up call to lawyers who appreciate that, as a practical matter, access to justice requires legal assistance. Recruiting and retaining talented attorneys for public interest and government jobs is essential if we aspire to provide a fair and effective justice system. GROWING NEED Studies consistently show that only about 20 percent of the legal needs of the poor are being met. Not a surprising figure when there’s only one legal aid attorney for every 10,000 poor people in this country. And there’s no relief in sight. During the 1990s, the number of people in poverty jumped 30 percent. Over the same period, the legal needs of low-income people have grown in both scope and complexity, highlighting the imperative to have lawyers to address those needs. Legal aid advocates provide basic civil legal needs, often involving such critical human needs as health care, housing, education, employment, transportation, and safety. Legal aid lawyers work with state and local housing agencies and health departments to enforce building codes. They work closely with law enforcement and the court system to seek justice for victims of domestic violence. Legal aid advocates help seniors confront abuse, unsafe conditions in long-term care facilities, and the predators who exploit their vulnerabilities. The local legal aid office helps veterans gain benefits they need to survive. The situation is no less dire for local, state, and federal government lawyers who enforce and defend our system of civil and criminal laws on a daily basis. The ability of the government to prosecute criminals, protect consumers, and enforce environmental laws depends on the ability of government employers to recruit and retain a talented high-performing legal work force. With more than 50 percent of the federal work force eligible to retire in the next five years, the concern becomes heightened. So what can be done? Survey results suggest that among the best solutions for bridging the gap for graduates pursuing public service careers are loan repayment assistance programs. LRAPs provide financial assistance to law school graduates working in the public interest sector, government, or other low-paying legal fields. Sometimes referred to as debt management programs, loan forgiveness programs, or low-income protection plans, all LRAPs share a common purpose: offering grants or forgivable loans to law school graduates to help them repay a portion of their annual educational debt. By providing LRAP assistance, public interest and government employers can recruit and retain committed new lawyers, and in turn benefit our communities and the clients who are served. Currently, LRAPs are available at approximately 55 law schools, eight statewide programs, several dozen public interest employers, and in a few very limited cases, the federal government. The law schools and state bar associations and foundations that have taken action to address the problem should be applauded and congratulated. However, providing more meaningful progress will require the contributions of many stakeholders. Significant effort is still needed to create new law school loan assistance programs and improve existing ones, to educate policy-makers about the debt problem, to lobby the federal and state governments for more loan repayment assistance, and to provide support for public interest employers seeking to establish their own programs. HOW TO HELP Multiple avenues are available for attorneys interested in helping to advance these efforts. First, find out if your alma mater has an LRAP. Given that fewer than one-third of the ABA-approved law schools have an LRAP, chances are yours does not. If your law school does have a program, chances are good that it needs to be strengthened by increasing the amount of aid offered. Consider creating an alumni committee to organize and raise money for a law school program. Work with local public service employers to help document the need in your community. Reach out to your local legal services office and ask about their recruitment and retention patterns. Explore whether an employer-based LRAP would be helpful and offer to help examine the issue and whether there is fund-raising potential. Talk to your local and state bar association officials to explore the feasibility of a statewide LRAP legislative or bar campaign. The ABA’s State LRAP Tool Kit, available on its Web site, is a valuable resource for states interested in creating a program. There are a number of federal strategies to pursue, including urging your representative and senators to extend loan forgiveness under the Perkins loan program to attorneys working in public service, such as public defenders and legal aid lawyers, and to create LRAPs for lawyers in public service under the Stafford loan program. Finally, become more knowledgeable about the issue. Visit www.equaljusticeworks.organd www.abalegalservices.org/lrapto find more resources and information about how to get involved. If we continue to lose committed new lawyers like Rich, and fail to retain more-experienced attorneys in public interest and government jobs because of the financial stresses created by educational debt, we could have a crisis in the U.S. legal community. Taking concrete and specific action now, together we can help alleviate educational debt for new lawyers who choose public service careers, and ultimately meet the legal needs of the millions of Americans who are locked out of our justice system. Karen Lash is vice president of programs at Equal Justice Works. She is former co-chair of the California Access to Justice Commission and former associate dean at the University of Southern California Law School.

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