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Final details of a long-awaited plan to offer tuition debt relief for public interest lawyers will be ironed out this Saturday, when the New York State Bar Foundation meets in Albany. “We’re creating the simplest but most sound and secure program that we can for this pilot project,” said Glen T. Bruening, chair of the State Bar Association’s Special Committee on Student Loan Assistance for the Public Interest. “We’ve patterned our plan after existing law school programs and those few other states that offer loan forgiveness in return for work in public interest law.” Financially speaking, the initial program is modest. Bruening, who is also general counsel for the New York Department of State, anticipates annual grants of $3,000 to $6,000 — for a first-year total payout of about $25,000. Bruening described the figures as “seed money for potentially leveraging other funds to really get the program off its feet.” He anticipates further monies from large law firms and philanthropic organizations. “It’s wonderful that we’re able to start year one,” said Bruening, “but we’re hoping that everyone in the legal community of New York will recognize the importance of continuing on.” Civil legal services will be the program focus during the first year, said Bruening, with grants offered to the neediest candidates — those in the lowest pay grades of public interest law. In New York City, the current annual starting salaries for public interest lawyers is about $32,000. On the other hand, salaries for first-year associates at big Manhattan firms are about $125,000. Graduates of first-tier law schools are typically burdened with $100,000 of tuition debt. For two years, the 22-member State Bar special committee has been assessing how such pay disparity — exacerbated by ever-increasing law school tuition fees — forces more and more lawyers to choose private firm employment over public interest law. According to research by the American Bar Association, the proportion of law school graduates working in public law today is 3.3 percent, as opposed to 15 percent 25 years ago. And only 10 years ago, public law salaries were “less than but competitive with” private firm salaries, according to Bruening’s predecessor as chair of the State Bar committee, Henry M. Greenberg, a partner with the Albany firm Couch White. Last May as he prepared the committee recommendations for the State Bar’s June meeting in Cooperstown — where the pilot plan was adopted in principle — Greenberg suggested a substantially larger pool of grant money for young New York poverty lawyers than the $25,000 that appears to be on the table now. Only five other states, he noted, offered public interest lawyers some form of tuition debt relief: North Carolina, Minnesota, Maryland, New Hampshire and Arizona. “But the biggest one of them gives out only about $80,000 annually. That’s it!” Greenberg scoffed at the time. “We want to do a whole lot better than that.” When contacted recently, Greenberg said the pilot project that is set to win final approval on April 5 will at least “demonstrate leadership.” He added, “And now the fundraising begins in earnest.”

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