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Georgia’s newly created state task force will study the feasibility of a loan forgiveness program for those becoming prosecutors, public defenders or attorneys in the state Law Department. Gov. Roy E. Barnes Wednesday swore in members of the Georgia Legal Loan Forgiveness Task Force, and urged them to create a program that would “return some public service to the practice of law.” The task force, headed by Dougherty County District Attorney Kenneth B. Hodges III and composed of prosecutors, public defenders, legislators and law school professors, met for the first time this week. The group is to report its findings and recommendations to Barnes by Dec. 15. “In years past,” Barnes told the task force, it was virtually a “rite of passage” that young lawyers would spend time in the public sector, whether as a judicial clerk, an assistant in the state law department, a prosecutor or a public defender. “I guarantee you one-third to one-half of my class took that route in some way or another,” Barnes said. But today’s graduates no longer do so, he added, and one reason is pay. The governor said he was “shocked” at how much young lawyers are demanding and receiving from private law firms. Those lawyers, he added, turn away from work in the public sector because they have too much debt from school. His own daughter, Allison, Barnes said, had taken a clerkship after graduating from the University of Georgia School of Law and once had talked about working as a prosecutor after that. Now, the governor said, she told him she didn’t see any advantage in doing so. Barnes said a loan forgiveness program would assist in improving indigent defense in Georgia and would help rural areas attract prosecutors. Hodges said the commission would meet frequently and work quickly. “We have some good work to do to help some good young lawyers,” he said. The group will consider how such a program might work, as well as the costs and the tax consequences for the graduating law school student. According to figures from Georgia’s law schools, students in the class of 2000 graduated with an average debt load of: $67,427 from Emory University, $40,333 from Georgia State University, $68,655 from Mercer University, and $38,526 from the University of Georgia. (Georgia State’s figure includes some undergraduate debt.) RECRUITING DIFFICULTIES Richard A. Malone, executive director of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council, said the difficulty of attracting good lawyers willing to stay in the state’s criminal justice system prompted his organization, along with the District Attorneys Association, to draft proposed legislation on the issue last year. That draft, which was not introduced to the Legislature, Malone said, drew Barnes’ interest. Malone said existing loan forgiveness programs for physicians who commit early in medical school to practicing in rural areas wouldn’t work well for lawyers. Under those medical programs, he said, “All they have to be is a doctor, of any type.” Most lawyers have no idea what type of law they want to practice when they begin law school, he said. Six or seven states have some type of loan forgiveness program for lawyers, Malone said, adding that most involved loan payment or reimbursement, not loan forgiveness. DeKalb County District Attorney J. Tom Morgan said, “Percentage-wise, minorities have the highest amount of student loans.” That makes it all the more difficult, he added, to recruit minorities into public sector jobs such as prosecutors. Morgan said heavy law school debt also discourages graduates from taking jobs as prosecutors in rural areas. Some rural vacancies, he said, have gone unfilled for two years. Paul Kehir, who heads the Fulton County Conflict Defender’s Office, said his office has a turnover problem in part created by cumbersome educational debt. Lawyers come to his office, work for a year or two at a starting salary of $43,000, gain experience and then leave for better-paying jobs, he said. Turnover and retention are problems for prosecutors around the state, Malone said. Out of about 1,000 prosecutors in Georgia, about 170 left last year, he said, adding that about 100 vacancies is the norm at any given time. If a lawyer remains at a prosecutorial office for five years, Malone said, he is much more likely to stay and his experience brings greater productivity. But many lawyers leave those jobs long before the five years are up, he added. Some rural counties, he said, don’t have an elected solicitor because nobody wants the job. The group agreed that it must define what public service jobs would be included. Steven Gottlieb, who heads the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, urged the task force to expand the target group beyond jobs related to criminal justice. Others expressed concern about opening up the targeted jobs. “The more this thing costs, the less likely it is to get through,” Hodges said. University of Georgia Law Professor and Associate Dean Paul Kurtz, who is also a member of the supreme court’s Indigent Defense Commission, said the task force must define what is meant by public defender. The group must decide if that category should include contract defenders, who are paid by counties on a contract basis to represent indigents but frequently have private practices on the side, and attorneys whose names are on an appointment panel list. Georgia State University Law Professor Mark Kadish said the group also would have to address a category he called “professional appointed counsel,” lawyers who routinely take appointed indigent cases in Fulton County. “I’m thinking of a suit by people who don’t like being excluded,” Kadish said. Other task force members are: Alfred D. Dixon, a Fulton County deputy district attorney; Frances D. Hakes, a Cobb County assistant district attorney; S. James Tuggle, Carroll County solicitor general; John C. Jones, senior assistant attorney general; Glenn Newsome, executive director of the Georgia Student Finance Commission; State Rep. Stephanie Stuckey; State Rep. James S. Stokes; State Sen. Gregory K. Hecht; and State Sen. Michael S. Meyer von Bremen. Staff reporter Janet L. Conley contributed to this story.

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