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By the end of the month, members of the New York State Bar Association executive committee will have in their hands a draft proposal that would offer law school debt relief to novice attorneys — in return for devoting at least part of their careers to government or public interest law. The draft is the product of a 22-member study group chaired by upstate attorney Henry M. Greenberg. The central idea, he said, would be to establish a not-for-profit foundation within the state Bar that would pool funds solicited from all segments of the legal community. The pool would underwrite the debts of new lawyers willing to accept the modest pay of public law, but whose school debts frequently “force them to take a job [at a private firm] just for the money,” according to State Bar President Steven C. Krane, a partner at Proskauer Rose. Debt relief through the proposed state Bar fund could be in addition to loan forgiveness programs that already exist at 46 law schools around the country, Greenberg said. With reference to those lawyers who might, in effect, double-dip, Greenberg explained: “Discretion will have to be exercised on a case-by-case basis. This would be a program based on need. We haven’t come to the conclusion that [double-dipping] applicants ought to be disqualified.” Krane said he hopes to present a finalized proposal to the state Bar’s quarterly meeting in Cooperstown, N.Y. on June 21 and 22. The debt forgiveness proposal, if formally adopted by the state Bar’s House of Delegates, would come well in advance of a parallel plan under study for the past six months by the American Bar Association’s Loan Forgiveness Commission. In an interview this week with the New York Law Journal, ABA President Robert E. Hirshon said he would seek a six-month extension of his commission’s work during the national bar group’s annual meeting this August in Chicago. Hirshon, a shareholder at Drummond Woodsum & MacMahon of Portland, Me., expressed alarm at the proportion of law school graduates working in public law today as opposed to about 25 years ago — 3.3 percent compared with about 15 percent. He suggested that this plunge in public interest law commitment has led to professional dissatisfaction for some, as well as financial duress. “We’ve held focus groups in different cities around the country, and what they told us was that a significant number of young lawyers take jobs they don’t necessarily want to take but which they have to take because they have no choice,” said Hirshon. “To earn the big salaries, they have no life other than practicing law,” Hirshon added. “This is all anecdotal, but I think a substantial number of [young attorneys] are leaving the law because they’re disillusioned.” Greenberg, a member of the Albany firm Couch White, said his committee’s study of low public law salaries and skyrocketing law school tuitions would be “the most comprehensive look at this issue you’ll find.” The issue of young lawyers priced out of public service is twofold: � Nationally, law school graduates carry an average debt of $80,000, according to Equal Justice Works (formerly the National Association for Public Interest Law). The organization’s Web site declares, “These mortgage-size debts block even the most dedicated lawyer from taking a low-paying, public service job.” � As recently as 10 years ago, salaries in government and poverty law agencies were “less than but competitive with” private firm pay, according to Greenberg. In New York City, the current annual starting salary for public interest lawyers is about $32,000. At large city firms, first year associates may expect a salary of about $125,000. Typically, said Krane, a young attorney in Manhattan who graduated from a first-tier law school is burdened with $100,000 of tuition debt. Between now and the Cooperstown session, the details of a formula for debt forgiveness will be reviewed in confidence among members of the state Bar executive committee. Greenberg declined to reveal specifics, but added that he did not anticipate strong objections to the formula. Krane described the gist of the draft proposal: “Student loans would be forgiven a portion at a time, depending on how long the individual devotes to government or public service law. A lot will depend on the degree of funding we’re able to obtain for the program,” he said. “Obviously, the more money we’re able to raise, the more we’ll be able to encourage lawyers coming out of law school to take government and public interest jobs, notwithstanding their loans. “I think this will be a major step forward.” Greenberg added, “On day one, we’re going to have to begin substantial fund-raising. We would look to everyone in the profession — from big firms to small firms, from law schools to bar associations. Krane suggested that private law firms would be a major source of funding. “I think that we’ll see the law school student bodies putting pressure on [law firm employers] to support programs like this,” said Krane. “We’ve seen how law students and their questioning of potential employers have caused changes in other areas, such as pro bono programs and diversity programs. “Law students want to know that employers are progressive,” he added. “I would think that once this program gets going, the pressures of the marketplace will generate a fair amount of contribution from the private sector.” Big law firms such as his own, said Krane, should expect to be major contributors to the debt forgiveness effort because they often benefit from lateral hires of young lawyers with early practical expertise gained in public sector jobs. Among the specifics that Greenberg is keeping to himself at this time is just how big a pool of money he would expect to raise for young public interest lawyers in New York state. Only five other locales — North Carolina, Minnesota, Maryland, New Hampshire and Arizona — offer the sort of statewide debt forgiveness program advocated by Greenberg and Krane. “But the biggest one of them gives out only about $80,000 annually. That’s it!” Greenberg scoffed. “We want to do a whole lot better than that.” He referred to North Carolina, which since 1991 has subsidized $708,600 of law school debt for young lawyers. At the low end of state subsidies is Arizona, which underwrites $20,000 in loans annually. Greenberg cautioned, “We’re starting small. We want to make a meaningful dent in this problem, which is going to take a lot of money. But we don’t want it to be a financial impossibility.” LOBBYING CONGRESS Sheila Siegel, meanwhile, a program associate for the Research and Advocacy Division of Equal Justice Works in Washington, D.C., said her agency is lobbying Congress to expand the amount available to law students under the [U.S. Department of Education] Stafford loan program. “The cap for law students is now $18,000, whereas the cap for medical students is much higher,” she said. At the behest of the ABA, said Hirshon, another small step along the route toward greater loan forgiveness has been taken in the form of a bill pending before Congress, sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. Hirshon said the bill would correct an anomaly in debt relief for lawyers in military service. He said lawyers for the Judge Advocate General’s Corps of the U.S. Army are randomly assigned to either prosecution or defense roles. But only the prosecutors qualify for law school tuition debt relief. On the larger matter of major New York firms kicking in to a state Bar loan forgiveness pool, Saralyn M. Cohen of Shearman & Sterling had a generally positive reaction. “I think it’s a wonderful, creative way for firms to contribute,” said Cohen, Shearman’s pro bono attorney. As for specifics, she added, “It’s hard to say. I mean, would we be asked for a contribution of ten-thousand or a million?” said Cohen, “But almost every young lawyer — if not all lawyers — is friendly with someone in public service and realizes how hard it is [financially]. And yet how wonderful it is that they’ve committed themselves to that kind of work. “Who wouldn’t support the idea?”

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