Student Loan Provision Will Help Recruit Legal Aid Lawyers

August 15, 2008


Washington, DC-The student loan repayment program included in the 2008 Higher Education Opportunity Act will significantly improve the ability of legal aid offices to recruit and retain high-quality lawyers, the president of the Legal Services Corporation said today.

"Legal aid lawyers are among the lowest-paid members of the legal profession, and the financial pressures that stem from student loan debt are often the primary reason they leave," Helaine M. Barnett, president of LSC, said.  "Our experience with an LSC pilot program found that loan repayments make it more likely that talented young lawyers will apply for and accept jobs in our programs, and that participating attorneys will stay with their LSC programs. If we keep talented young lawyers, this helps ensure our clients receive the legal assistance they need."

Under the legislation signed by President Bush on Aug. 14, the Secretary of Education may offer student loan repayments of up to $6,000 a year to civil legal assistance attorneys who agree to a minimum three-year commitment to their work.  Total loan repayments cannot exceed $40,000, according to the law.  The loan repayment provision in the bill was championed by Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, who began his career as a legal aid attorney, and Rep. George Miller of California.  Sens. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming and Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland were key proponents of the bill.

The legislation authorizes the student loan repayment program, which Barnett said she hopes will become a permanent replacement for the LSC pilot program, which enters its fourth year on Oct. 1.  "I thank Senators Harkin and Mikulski and others for their great achievement in easing the burden of law school debt on the nation's young lawyers who are committed to bring equal access to justice to low-income Americans," Barnett said.

In a report provided the LSC Board of Directors at their Aug. 1 meeting, 77 percent of attorneys who received LSC loan repayment assistance said the pilot program was a pivotal factor in their decision to work for an LSC grantee.

That and other findings were drawn from an evaluation of the pilot's second year, from Oct. 1, 2006 through Sept. 30, 2007.  Seventy attorneys participated in the loan repayment program during that period, and each received a forgivable loan of $5,000.  Participants in the pilot must make a commitment to work at their LSC-funded program or repay the loan.

Eighty percent of LSC program executive directors who participated in the pilot said it significantly improved their ability to hire new staff, and 94 percent said the pilot significantly enhanced their ability to keep staff, according to the report.

The report on 24 LSC-funded programs that participated in the pilot found that attorneys receiving loan repayments left their programs at far lower rates than attorneys with similar levels of professional experience who were not receiving loan repayments.   During 2006-2007, 18 percent of participating attorneys voluntarily left their programs, compared to 29 percent of their colleagues who were not participating in the pilot, the report showed.

In a survey conducted for the report, more than half of the attorneys in the pilot said they had a law school educational loan debt of more than $75,000 when they began working for their legal aid program.  Nearly one-half said they expected to make loan repayments on their educational debt for more than 21 years.

Legal Services Corporation (LSC) is an independent nonprofit established by Congress in 1974 to provide financial support for civil legal aid to low-income Americans. The Corporation currently provides funding to 132 independent nonprofit legal aid programs in every state, the District of Columbia, and U.S. territories.