Affording a Career in Public Interest Law

Make this your mantra: I will borrow modestly, live wisely, and get paid for the work I love best.

How can I minimize law school debt while in school?

If you are like most students attending private law schools these days, chances are that when you graduate you will have accrued a staggering amount of debt (often as high as $80,000 - 200,000). Without proper planning, your monthly educational loan payments could be the equivalent of a monthly mortgage payment on a nice house. Furthermore, if you fail to familiarize yourself with loan repayment and forgiveness options, then your salary at a legal services organization or government agency will be just enough to cover your housing costs and student loans, but not much else.

Okay, that's the bad news... The good news is that there are a ton of new programs in place to support public interest law students and graduates. There are new federal loan repayment and loan forgiveness programs as well as programs created by Washington College of Law. In addition, you are reading this information now, early on in your law school career. That means that even if you don't have a trust fund, a wealthy relative, or a significant other earning a fat six figures, you can afford a career in public interest law. Many people do it, and you will be in good company, putting your legal skills to work for the greater good.

There are three things you need to be mindful of throughout law school that will help you afford the career you desire:

  1. What you borrow during law school,
  2. What you earn (salary, grants, scholarships, etc.) during law school,
  3. What loan repayment assistance resources are available to you after you graduate.

Managing Debt During and After Law School

By now you have probably heard several times over the usual tips for WHAT NOT TO DO during law school. Just in case you haven't, here it is in a nutshell:

  1. Don't live alone. Live with a roommate (or in a group house or with your parents) to minimize living expenses;
  2. Don't get your coffee at Starbucks or anywhere else charging a premium price. Make coffee at home;
  3. Don't borrow more than you need. Borrow the minimum amount needed to cover your costs while attending school;
  4. Don't go overboard on going out on the town for entertainment. Join Netflix instead of going out to the movies and have social functions at home;
  5. Don't eat expensive food. Bring food from home to eat at school instead of going out for lunch.
  6. Don't spend more than you need to on transportation. Consider Capital Bikeshare, walking, or taking the bus. Metrorail and driving can be expensive.

How can I offset tuition costs?

Bringing your lunch from home is a good start, but it is probably more effective to focus on steps you can take during law school to make money (or offset tuition) without compromising your education. Here are a few tried-and-true suggestions:

Apply for WCL restricted scholarships. Not sure what these are? Go to the Financial Aid page of the WCL web site and peruse the listing found on the "Types of Aid" page. Watch the Financial Aid section of The Docket for information on deadlines and application procedures. If you see something that seems like a perfect fit for you and you are afraid of missing it, contact the Office of Financial Aid and ask them when the deadline usually is for that particular scholarship.

Apply for external grants and scholarships. Some of these will support your work and studies during the academic year, others will support your otherwise unpaid public interest legal work over the summer. Again, the Office of Financial Aid section of The Docket will list available outside scholarships and their application deadlines. In addition check both psjd.org and the Summer Funding Page of the website of the Office of Public Interest for information and deadlines on summer grants and scholarships. Students who apply often find to their surprise that they receive multiple grants!

Limit borrowing for education/tuition costs to the academic year and use the summer to earn money. Even a summer stipend of $4,000 is preferable to taking out additional loans for summer classes or academic programs. In addition to EJF grants and other summer funding sources, there are other ways to earn a paycheck in the name of public interest during the summer:

  1. Apply for jobs through paid summer scholarship programs such as the Peggy Browning Fund and Chicago's Public Interest Law Institute (again, information is available on the Summer Funding Page of the website of the Office of Public Interest or on psjd.org).
  2. Apply for an Equal Justice Works Summer Corps grant. The Equal Justice Works Summer Corps program engages law students around the country who are working to expand the delivery of legal services to those who need it most. Summer Corps is an AmeriCorps-funded program that provides law students with the opportunity to earn a $1,000 AmeriCorps education award voucher for dedicating their summer to a qualifying legal project at a nonprofit, public interest organization. Summer Corps members provide critically needed legal assistance in low-income and underserved communities in the United States on a broad range of issue areas.
  3. Work at a law firm offering a public interest split summer program (you will get paid like any other associate, but will spend about half your summer at a legal services organization).
  4. Work for a private, public interest law firm that is able to provide payment to summer clerks.
  5. Combine a part-time job with a dean's fellow position doing research for a faculty member - you'll walk away with a wealth of knowledge and, if you do well, a great recommendation for your postgraduate job applications. Dean's Fellow opportunities are also available during the academic year.

How can I manage my debt after law school?

Start Researching ways to pay down debt after graduation. While loan repayment programs for medical professionals have been around for some time, assistance for attorneys doing public service work is a relatively new phenomenon. The good news is that there has been a recent surge in awareness of the need for such programs and a resultant increase in legal loan repayment assistance initiatives. These programs are a great boon to graduates struggling to make ends meet on a public interest salary. Here are some suggestions to get you started on researching loan repayment programs that fit your career goals and areas of interest:

Consider applying for postgraduate public interest fellowships. Many fellowship programs, such as Equal Justice Works and Skadden, provide loan repayment assistance to their fellows in addition to the fellowship salary. To learn more, watch the Office of Public Interest Facebook page (google "Facebook Public WCL") for information on fellowship panels and workshops and see the the Fellowship Page on the website of the Office of Career & Professional Development.

Consider applying for the WCL Public Interest Loan Repayment Assistance Program (PILRAP). PILRAP helps relieve economic burden imposed by educational debt by providing loan repayment assistance for JD graduates who work in full-time non-profit or government employment. The application period is typically October 1 - October 31 each year, with award notifications mailed in December. http://www.wcl.american.edu/finaid/pilrap.cfm.

College Cost Reduction and Access Act (CCRAA) Federal Programs

Every fall and spring, the Financial Aid Office offers WCL students and alumni the opportunity to have a one-on-one counseling session with Jeffrey E. Hanson, Ph.D., the president and founder of Jeffrey Hanson Education Services. Dr. Hanson reviews the financial profile of each person with whom he meets and offers information about federal programs that can help manage loan repayment. You can also review a webinar that Dr. Hanson conducted during his visit in the spring of 2013. In the webinar, Dr. Hanson discusses the following programs:

Federal Income-Based Repayment (IBR) Payment Option

IBR is a relatively new payment option for federal student loans. Starting July 2009, the program has been helping borrowers keep their loan payments affordable with payment caps based on their income and family size. IBR loan payments are about 15 percent of a borrower's discretionary income. The most attractive benefit of IBR is the potential to forgive remaining debt, if any, after 25 years of qualifying payments. Learn more by clicking this link.

Pay As You Earn (PAYE) Option

PAYE is a very new payment option for federal student loans. Starting December 2012, the program has been helping borrowers keep their loan payments affordable with payment caps based on their income and family size. PAYE loan payments are about 10 percent of a borrower's discretionary income. The most attractive benefit of PAYE is the potential to forgive remaining debt, if any, after 20 years of qualifying payments. Learn more by clicking on this link.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)

The PSLF program targets federal aid borrowers who work in public service jobs, very broadly defined to include jobs in federal, state and municipal government entities and nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations. Borrowers in the military, serving full time in Americorps or the Peace Corps, and many who work in public schools and colleges will also qualify. PSLF will forgive remaining debt after 10 years of eligible employment and qualified loan payments. Borrowers may elect to use PSLF and IBR (or PAYE) together to keep payments low. Learn more by clicking on this link.

To learn even more about the potential benefits of these programs, please review the information at the following links:

Loan Repayment Assistance Programs Outside of WCL's PILRAP

Research state LRAP programs. Many states including Maryland and the District of Columbia provide loan repayment assistance to public interest lawyers providing legal services to their residents. See the the Equal Justice Works website for a current listing.

Research employer-sponsored LRAP programs. A handful of state and legal services employers offer this benefit to their attorneys.

The John R. Justice Student Loan Repayment Program. This is a student loan repayment program for borrowers who agree to remain employed by a state or local criminal prosecutor or public defender for at least three years. It allows eligible attorneys to receive student loan debt repayments of up to $10,000 per year with a maximum aggregate over time of $60,000. Benefits are on a first-come, first-served basis. This program is administered through the Department of Justice. Learn more by clicking this link.

Harkin/Cardin Direct Loan Repayment for Legal Aid Attorneys. Passed along with the Prosecutor/Defender Direct Loan Repayment program, this program is administered through the Department of Education and is for borrowers who agree to remain employed as a civil legal assistance attorney for three years. A 'civil legal assistance attorney' includes any attorney who is a full-time employee of a nonprofit organization that provides legal assistance with respect to civil matters to low-income individuals without a fee. Eligible attorneys may receive student loan debt repayments of up to $6,000 per year with a maximum aggregate over time of $40,000. Benefits are on a first-come, first-served basis. Learn more by clicking this link.

Resources:

For more types of financial aid, please visit http://www.wcl.american.edu/finaid/fundtypes.cfm