A Lighter Load

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This column is written by the ABA Governmental Affairs Office and discusses advocacy efforts by the ABA relating to issues being addressed by Congress and the executive branch of the federal government.

A two-year study of education debt that was completed in 2003 by the ABA Commission on Loan Repayment and Forgiveness confirmed that debt load is a roadblock for many law graduates who might otherwise pursue careers in the public service realm.

The commission launched the study shortly after being appointed in 2001 by then-ABA President Robert E. Hirshon, now of Portland, Ore. The study found that students who borrow for law school are graduating with an average educational debt of $70,000-$80,000–and more than 20 percent of students carry more than $100,000 of debt at graduation. The average monthly loan payment is $1,100.

The burden of paying off that kind of debt falls particularly hard on lawyers who take public service jobs, including positions in the legal aid field, where most clients have low or no incomes. The study estimates that the median public interest legal salary is about $36,000.

Once law school debts are paid, that leaves a typical public interest lawyer with roughly $14,000 to live on. Those figures highlight the obstacles facing lawyers considering public service positions even at a time when it is estimated that more than 80 percent of the civil legal needs of the poor are not being met.

Since the commission released its report, the ABA has been urging Congress, law schools, bar associations and state legislators to take steps to help alleviate debt loads for law school graduates who accept low-paying, legal public interest employment.

“Students who must borrow heavily to attend graduate or professional school, and who then work for many years in public service positions at salaries far below those offered in private practice, should not have to be in repayment when their own children are in college,” says Peter A. Winograd, a professor at the University of New Mexico law school in Albuquerque, who chairs the Government Relations and Student Financial Aid Committee in the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. He was the section’s liaison to the commission while it was in existence.

Bipartisan Moves in Congress

The ABA submitted two recommendations during congressional hearings earlier this year on reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which contains federal student assistance programs.

First, the ABA is recommending amendments to the income-contingent repayment option of the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program. This program allows borrowers to repay their consolidated loans at an affordable percentage of their gross incomes rather than the usual 10-year schedule. Any balance remaining after 25 years is forgiven. The ABA is urging that the forgiveness date be reduced to 15 years for those pursuing public service careers.

Second, the ABA is urging Congress to increase the amount of unsubsidized Stafford loans that graduate and professional students may borrow every year. The federally guaranteed Staf­ford loan program allows students to borrow funds under special terms and at very competitive interest rates. The ABA supports increasing the amount students may borrow from the current $10,000, set in 1992, to $30,000.

This also would allow more public service lawyers to qualify more educational debts under the repayment option of the Ford direct loan program.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Reps. Robert E. Andrews, D-N.J., and Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., have introduced bills that would amend the repayment option for public interest lawyers. Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., along with House members Andrews and David Scott, D-Ga., have sponsored legislation to provide loan forgive­ness for prosecutors and public defenders.

Rhonda McMillion is editor of Washington Letter, an ABA Governmental Affairs Office publication.

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