As the third annual deadline for civil legal aid lawyers to get help from a state program with their student loans approaches Monday, court leaders are reporting that, in the first two years of the program, there have been enough funds to help all of the qualified applicants even though the loan commitment grew by almost $100,000.
Pennsylvania Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille, who has been a strong proponent of the Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP), said the program helps to supply lawyers for indigent Pennsylvanians, and having lawyers for this segment of the state’s population fulfills the governmental responsibility to provide access to the court system.
It is a “basic responsibility of government to have a court system and there’s the people who need to use the court system,” Castille said. “Of course, the financial situation causes a lot of people not to be able to hire a lawyer. That’s why we have these organizations, legal services, to help provide and service the needs of indigent.”
Of the 2011 loan applicants, their average outstanding debt service was $90,729.37, while their average gross salary was $48,503.80.
First-year participants can get $3,500 in debt service, and second-year participants can get $4,500.
The total loan commitment for 2011 applicants was $323,523.35, while the total loan commitment for 2010 loan applicants was $249,004.75.
LRAP is just as important in retaining legal service lawyers as it is in recruiting them into this part of the legal profession, said Catherine C. Carr, executive director of Community Legal Services in Philadelphia. CLS had six applicants last year.
LRAP has “made a real difference in retention across the state,” Carr said. “Nationally, there are studies that show salaries are hugely important in being able to retain legal aid lawyers.”
Lawyers who have received the LRAP funds said the program makes a difference in their ability to live more of a middle-class life.
Michael Hollander, a staff attorney with the employment program at CLS, said that LRAP “really enabled me to live a very normal and middle-class life, while on a salary that is not nearly as high as it could be as a lawyer.”
Hollander, who also received a fellowship the first two years he worked as a public-interest lawyer and saved up money working as a software manager to pay for some of his law school tuition, said that the Pennsylvania state loan assistance program is far more flexible than the federal program.
Unlike the federal program, which requires attorneys to pay 10 percent of their income toward loans, the Pennsylvania program covers much more of an attorney’s debt service, which can make the difference between owning a house or feeling comfortable, Hollander said.
The state program is important because the federal program does not apply to the type of federal loans that many legal service attorneys now carry, Carr said.
Samuel Milkes, executive director of the Pennsylvania Legal Aid Network, a consortium of 15 independent civil legal assistance programs, said the state program has far less mixed results than the federal program has had.
“From my vantage point this program has been a tremendous success,” Milkes said. “We constantly see notes from attorneys who get hired or get comments from them where they say, ‘I couldn’t have accepted this job without this help.’”
The LRAP program makes the “difference between being stressed about money all the time and not being stressed about money,” Hollander said. “It has allowed me to live a normal life and allowed me to do this job that is amazing.” Hollander bought a house over a year ago and had a baby on the way.
Daniel G. Vitek, an attorney admitted to the bar in 2008 and with the Neighborhood Legal Services Association in Allegheny County, said because he has moved up in the level of responsibility he has in the association he could parlay that into getting a better-paying job in the private sector. “I do think more seriously about my choice to go into this field and why I would want to stay as a more experienced attorney,” Vitek said.
The LRAP definitely is a program about retention, Vitek said. Vitek is engaged to be married and he is trying to buy a home soon.
“It is tough to stay in public interest once you realize how much you get paid even though you have a law degree,” Vitek said. “The program like [this] … does really help as I get older and I have more people relying on me to bring home the bacon.”
NLSA had 12 applicants in 2011 — the largest number of any organization in the state.
The program has been funded by assessing a fee on attorneys from other bars who seek to be admitted pro hac vice in Pennsylvania cases. In the first year, pro hac vice fees brought in $400,000, Castille said, but the organizers of the program would like to eventually get a state government grant for the program.
“A lot of graduates of law schools that don’t necessarily want to work for a major corporation, may not be able to get into the DA’s office or the defender’s office but there is a need for new lawyers in these legal services organizations,” Castille said.
The program is administered by the Pennsylvania Bar Foundation for legal aid organizations in Pennsylvania and funded by interest earned on attorney trust accounts.
Third-year participants will be eligible for a maximum loan of $6,000 if their annual net student-loan debt is greater than or equal to $6,000.