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Finally, after a decade of talk about a problem that affects as many as 4,000 young lawyers across New York state, help seems to have arrived for low-paid public interest attorneys strapped with tuition debts the size of some house mortgages. Support is at hand, or at least on the horizon, on these fronts: � Pending legislation in Albany would grant as much as $36,000 of debt forgiveness to individual lawyers. A secure funding base for six annual applications of $6,000 would come from boosting the New York State Bar examination fee from $250 to $400. Lawmakers estimate the $2.8 million fund would provide for at least half the total need. The effort has bipartisan support among Albany lawmakers, as well as strong endorsement from the New York Attorney General’s Office, New York City Corporation Counsel Michael Cardozo, New York Chief Administrative Judge Jonathan Lippman and district attorney’s offices statewide. � The New York State Bar Association has given $5,000 worth of debt relief this year to five young public interest lawyers, the first recipients of its Student Loan Assistance Program. Modest as they may be, both support plans are welcomed by attorneys struggling to pay the rent and their student loans on the modest salaries offered by government and poverty law agencies. Lawyers such as Joel Rosner, 26, a staff attorney in the torts division of the New York City Law Department, are eagerly watching the progress of the Public Interest Legal Services and Loan Assistance Act, sponsored by Assemblyman Brian M. McLaughlin, D-Queens. “It would mean I could stay in government,” said Rosner, a graduate of Columbia Law School who began working at the Law Department last August at a starting salary of $49,216. Like many other government law agencies in the state, Rosner is under a three-year contract to the city. In his fourth year, according to the terms of McLaughlin’s bill, Rosner would be eligible to apply for up to $6,000 per year in tuition debt relief, for as many as six years. “Pretty much everyone I know who’s left the Law Department does so because they can’t afford to stay,” said Rosner. Neither could Rosner if he wanted to live without a roommate, if he were married with a family or if he simply wanted a bit more than $150 of discretionary monthly income. As it is, he pays $1,000 a month toward tuition debt that will require 15 years to retire. He then pays his $900 share of rent on a small Manhattan apartment. Food and living expenses take up nearly all the rest. “At this point, it’s pretty much paycheck to paycheck,” said Rosner, who admits that the $125,000 salaries earned by his classmates, all first-year associates at major private firms, was tempting. On the other hand, “I don’t feel ashamed of my job, or embarrassed by what I do,” he said. “I think some people in private practice can’t say the same thing.” Some say prospects for August passage of the McLaughlin bill are good on the Assembly side, though doubtful this year in terms of a companion measure sponsored by State Senator Serfin Maltese, R-Queens. Last Wednesday, McLaughlin failed to shepherd his version through the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for a floor vote before his colleagues’ recess until August. Senators recessed last Monday without taking up Maltese’s version. A spokeswoman for McLaughlin said the bill has a “good opportunity” for passage when the Legislature reconvenes. She blamed the delay on “technical questions that were not 100 percent answered.” Among those questions, according to an Albany source familiar with the political wrangling, is the matter of funding beyond the $2.8 million from increased bar exam fees. The source, who asked to remain nameless, said the strongest proponents of the McLaughlin-Maltese bills look to unspent monies collected under legislation passed last year under which district attorney’s offices would receive $9 out of the $52 fee paid to the courts for criminal history research records. “It’s already being collected,” the source said. “It’s a $6 million fund just sitting there.” But the source acknowledged that the greater battle in August over adopting a long overdue state budget could result in competing claims to criminal history fees. SOME PROGRESS Meanwhile, at least some hard cash has made its way into the pockets of indebted young lawyers. A total of $25,000 was paid in January by the State Bar Foundation, the charitable arm of the State Bar Association, through the first year of its loan assistance program. Glen T. Bruening, who headed the State Bar committee that formulated loan assistance, said his organization’s privately funded program — $5,000 in debt relief for up to 10 years — differs fundamentally from the McLaughlin-Maltese proposals. The bar group plan, he noted, provides immediate money for public interest attorneys rather than requiring them to apply after three years of service. “Young lawyers need the assistance right now,” said Bruening, who is also general counsel for the New York Department of State. “Our plan is to collaborate on fund raising [with the Bar Foundation] to gradually but deliberately grow the program each and every year.” Bruening acknowledged the modesty of the State Bar program, but said it was ultimately sounder than proposals that may — or may not — be adopted by the Legislature and executed by the Office of Court Administration. “The effectiveness of the new [legislation] would be completely dependent on what the available funding is,” he said, adding, “Everybody’s eligible, there’s no prioritization. The court administration would would spread all the money to everyone, and that may or may not have the intended results — again, depending on the amount of funding. “Our program, however, will provide a great amount of relief to the most needy individuals.” David Markus, associate counsel to Lippman, estimates that 3,000 to 4,000 public interest lawyers in New York state constitute the range of needy individuals. Bruening anticipates that the State Bar program will expand next year to serve 10 of them. McLaughlin, who is not a lawyer, said that he has been concerned about struggling young public service attorneys since first winning office 12 years ago. Ten years ago, he first introduced debt relief legislation, only to be met by a political logjam. That obstacle was overcome last week by “a coup,” as he put it, in the form of OCA’s proposal to raise the state’s bar $250 exam fee, among the nation’s lowest. (By contrast, California charges $623, New Jersey up to $800, Illinois up to $1,450 and Florida up to $2,500.) But according to Lippman, the bar exam fee boost is not a lock. “Certainly the idea makes a lot of sense,” he said. “But I don’t think there’s necessarily unanimity that this is a good thing — to raise the rates.” SAVING PUBLIC DOLLARS McLaughlin emphasized sensible government cost-savings in providing debt relief to public interest lawyers. “The state is often forced to contract out for high-priced [private] attorneys when we could have good lawyers on the public payroll,” said McLaughlin in a telephone interview from Albany. “Up here, we all talk about efficiency and waste and precious budget dollars. You know, it’s very, very expensive to hire private lawyers. “We have [government] lawyers who are the best and the brightest, lawyers who want to make an impact, who want to make a difference,” he said. Although he acknowledged incomplete studies in precisely how much the state could save in reduction of legal outsourcing, McLaughlin added, “Our program would pay for itself. There’s a lot of public good that can come out of this, and finally people are recognizing that. “Finally groups have come together, and we have Republican support. Finally we have a perfect storm.” A spokeswoman for Maltese saw less than perfection in a political storm. “The feeling is that it’s not going to go anywhere this year,” she said. “Half of this was to be funded by increased fees, but the feeling was that [legislators] didn’t want to increase fees unless the second part of the funding was in place.” In the meantime, Cardozo asks himself the same question each time a staff attorney in his or her fourth year of Law Department comes into his office to tender a resignation. “How do you look a kid in the eye who’s earning in the mid-50s and wants to start a family, who says to you, ‘I love the work but it doesn’t pay my bills’?”

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