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A legal education just got a bit more affordable for students and alumni of two top law schools who are pursuing public-interest careers.

The University of Pennsylvania Law School has overhauled its loan repayment assistance program to cover all student loan obligations for alumni earning $80,000 or less a year in public-interest jobs.

Northwestern University School of Law is increasing spending on student scholarships and on its loan repayment program by 25 percent, while also enrolling 20 to 25 fewer students next year.

Meanwhile, the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law has received a $1 million donation from Presiding Justice Joan Dempsey Klein of California’s Second District Court of Appeal, an alumna, for student scholarships.

With the recent changes to its Toll Loan Repayment Assistance Program, Penn joins a small number of law schools that now cover all student loan payments for graduates who take public-interest or government jobs—provided they are enrolled in income-based repayment, an option that calculates monthly payments according to earnings.

The school will pay the monthly installments on these graduates’ loans for 10 years, at which point they are eligible for forgiveness by the federal government; that could mean total savings of $140,000.

Penn graduates in public-interest or government law jobs earning between $80,000 to $100,000 per year are eligible for $1,800 per year in loan repayment assistance, up to $12,600 over 10 years.

Graduates don’t have to be enrolled in income-based repayment to take advantage of Penn’s program, but full coverage of their monthly loan payments is contingent on that repayment option.

"The pressures created by high student debt discourage many graduates from law schools and other professional schools from pursuing vital careers and accepting job opportunities in public service," said Penn dean Michael Fitts.

According to NALP, formerly the National Association for Law Placement, the median entry-level salary for a legal services attorney is just shy of $43,000, while new public defenders and prosecutors can expect to earn about $50,000 a year. New public-interest lawyers tend to earn between $45,000 and $47,000, NALP said. By contrast, the median starting salary at at law firms of 50 attorneys or less is about $80,000.

In addition to making its loan repayment program more generous, Penn is launching a unique program dubbed the Reward for Sustained Service. After three years working at a public-interest or government law job, Penn alumni earning $80,000 or less are eligible for an additional payment that they can apply to principal loan debt, living costs and other expenses. The amount is determined on a sliding scale based on salary and years of service, but participants can receive as much as $22,800 between the third and tenth years of their careers, said Tory Messina, associate director for public interest and government counseling. She did not know of any similar programs elsewhere.

"I’m really proud of the program," Messina said. "It really expands the amount of loan repayment that’s available to our graduates."

Participation in the school’s loan-forgiveness program has doubled since 2010, Messina said.

At Northwestern, administrators announced a "moderate" tuition increase of 3 percent for next academic year, reduced the incoming class size and boosted the loan repayment program and scholarship support. The school plans to increase both merit-based and need-based scholarships. Northwestern since 2010 has offered full loan repayment for graduates who stay in public interest law jobs for 10 years and are enrolled in income-based repayment.

"We can’t ignore the destabilizing forces that the legal industry is facing today," dean Daniel Rodriguez said. "Through our strategic process, currently actively underway, we are making every effort to be compassionate and smart during these challenging times."

The new Justice Joan Dempsey Klein Scholarships in Law at UCLA will go students with financial need who demonstrate a "strong commitment to advocating for gender equality or to promoting the advancement of women in the law and society," the school said in a formal announcement.

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com.

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