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Encouraging law students to pursue public interest careers

By Diane Curtis
Staff Writer

Help may be on the way for law school graduates who would like to pursue a public interest law career but feel they can’t afford it.

The ABA and the Association of American Law Schools (AALS) are pushing for federal legislation giving a variety of tax breaks, loan forgiveness and alternative repayment programs for law school graduates who choose the public service route. At the same time, law school administrators, including Boalt Hall School of Law Dean Christopher Edley and his staff, are doing what they can to give graduates of the Berkeley law school the option of choosing a public interest law career.

According to the American Bar Association, graduates leave law school with undergraduate and graduate studies debt of more than $80,000, which translates into more than $1,000 a month in loan payments. When public interest salaries average about $36,000 a year, many graduates say they have no choice but to go for the lucrative, private-firm jobs.

A new loan forgiveness program at Boalt, which Edley described as “in many respects the most generous in the nation,” received 80 applications for the first Nov. 15 application deadline. All those who meet the qualifications — they must be employed in government or public interest jobs that make substantial use of their law degrees and receive salaries of $58,000 or less — can have up to $100,000 paid by Boalt over a period up to 10 years. Public interest lawyers who make more than $58,000 can have a portion of their loan forgiven.

In a summer 2006 newsletter message, Edley noted that the school, as promised, had “completed the first, critical phase of renovating our financial aid programs by completely overhauling the Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP). This program supports graduating students who want to take low-paying public sector and public interest jobs by assuming a portion of their law school loan payments.”

The changes “will give Boalt the most generous loan forgiveness program of any leading law school, with the possible exception of Yale (which we don’t really count, because they have enough money to be admitted to the G-8).” The money is coming from a combination of professional degree fees paid by all Boalt students and by alumni donations.

Carl Monk, executive director of AALS, said Boalt is not alone among law schools trying to ensure career choice options in an era of skyrocketing tuition and other law school costs. “The trend is growing,” he said. While he had no statistics to back his claim, he said he regularly talks to deans or faculty working to introduce or expand loan forgiveness programs. “Schools certainly want graduates who want to go into public interest law to be able to do that,” said Monk. “There are clearly segments of our society with unmet legal services needs, and we want to encourage as many of our best and brightest students as possible to go into public interest work. We believe that all people should have equal access to top-quality legal services.”

Laurent Heller, director of strategic planning at Boalt, said the last few decades have seen huge increases in the cost of a legal education while incomes associated with public interest and public service jobs have not kept pace. “We want to make sure our students have freedom of career choice and that debt doesn’t force them to choose a career that isn’t in line with their interests or where their heart lies,” he said. Boalt Hall students who are California residents pay more than $25,000 in fees and spend an average of another $21,000 for books, supplies and living expenses per year. Nonresident students pay an additional $12,245 in tuition.

The efforts to make it easier for students to choose nonprofit legal services jobs come as California Supreme Court Chief Justice Ronald George is working to provide, through an initial pilot program, legal aid attorneys for poor people not just in criminal cases, but in civil cases such as child custody disputes and evictions.

While California has one lawyer for every 240 people, there is only one legal aid attorney for every 8,373 poor people.

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