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 Boalt Hall student Abe Gardner provides legal advice at the Suitcase Clinic in Berkeley. Law-school grads who opt for low-paying public-interest jobs can now take advantage of one of the nation's most generous loan-forgiveness programs. (Bonnie Azab Powell photo)

Making a difference, without going broke
Boalt Hall offers new loan-forgiveness program for law-school graduates going into government and public-interest work

| 26 October 2006

When Claudia Medina began studying law at the School of Law three years ago, she did so not with dreams of becoming an attorney at a lucrative law firm - but of using her law degree to advocate for tenants' rights.

That dream, however, could have turned into a financial nightmare for Medina and other students who graduate with student-loan debts of almost $100,000 or more while embarking on public-interest legal careers. Starting salaries for these jobs can be as low as $25,000 a year.

Officials at the School of Law (Boalt Hall), aware of the growing loan burden that some students face and the temptation to sacrifice public-service legal careers for private-sector careers with much higher salaries, have established a new loan-forgiveness program to address such situations.

Under the program, which gets underway next month with the filing of the first set of applications from graduates of Boalt Hall's Class of 2006, new graduates can apply to have up to $100,000 in loans forgiven - that is, paid for by Boalt Hall - if they are employed in government or public-interest jobs that make substantial use of their law degrees and pay salaries of $58,000 or less. In addition, alumni with incomes above that level who work in qualifying legal careers may have a portion of their loans forgiven.

Former students accepted into the program then submit to the law school, every six months, documentation of their employment, salary, and loan payments. So long as they remain eligible, the law school will pay up to 100 percent of their loan payments every six months, until up to $100,000 in loan payments is paid off over a period of up to 10 years.

The program is being funded through a combination of professional-degree fees paid by all Boalt Hall students and by alumni donations being generated during Boalt Hall's ongoing capital campaign.

Boalt Hall Dean Christopher Edley was a driving force behind the program, along with former students who lobbied Boalt administrators and served on financial-aid committees at the law school.

"California's top public law school and its graduates should be vitally engaged in the critical issues facing the state and the nation," said Edley. "Our students should have the freedom to follow their dreams after graduation, whether those involve litigating intellectual-property rights at a leading law firm or corporation, or providing legal services to underserved communities in a nonprofit organization. Our new Loan Repayment Assistance Program - in many respects the most generous in the nation - will preserve our graduates' freedom of career choice by paying up to 100 percent of their legal-education debt while they work in low-paying jobs."

Medina, now working in Los Angeles as a tenants'-rights advocate and helping to support her mother and younger siblings, said that without the new program, "I would be making less than $40,000 a year and using that salary to pay off a $90,000 debt, plus interest - while at the same time providing for my family in a very expensive Los Angeles rental market. It would have been a tough situation for my family. I don't even like to imagine how we would have had to make do.

"Most students who graduate with an excessive amount of student debt are forced to pursue high-paying firm jobs, though that was not necessarily what they wanted."

The new loan program is a major overhaul of a previous loan-forgiveness program that was much less generous - it covered only up to $55,500 in loan debt and capped qualifying salaries at $52,000, and was available to graduates pursuing fewer public-service careers.

Under the new program, legal careers that qualify include not only jobs in government but work with nonprofit organizations, as well as public-interest work that could include policy advocacy. The jobs must require a law degree or make substantial use of the graduate's legal training.

The newly overhauled Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP) is comparable to such programs offered by elite law schools elsewhere in the country, according to Laurent Heller, Boalt Hall's director of strategic planning.

"For the vast majority of students pursuing low-income, public-interest work, ours will be the best law school loan-forgiveness program in the county," said Heller. "If your loan debt is under $100,000, our program is the most generous in the nation."

And while the average Boalt Hall graduate has had law-school debts of approximately $60,000, that figure has been going up in recent years as the UC system has increased professional-graduate-school fees. Indeed, students interviewed said it is not uncommon to leave Boalt Hall with six-figure loan debts.

During the current academic year, Boalt students who are California residents pay $25,477 in fees and spend an average of $20,851 for books, supplies, and living expenses. Nonresident students pay an additional $12,245 in tuition.

Heather McGhee, a second-year law student at Boalt Hall who has done public-policy research and advocacy and plans to stay on that career path after law school, is encouraged by the new program.

"The lawyers who became the great public servants and advocates of previous generations were able to do so in part because they had little to no debts," said McGhee. "They could take risks with outside-the-system advocacy; they could take middle-class public-sector or public-interest jobs. I think that the Financial Aid Committee and Dean Edley looked into the future and saw that unless Boalt and other leading schools change the system, the public will suffer tremendously."

The most recent directory of law schools from the National Association for Legal Career Professionals shows that Boalt Hall leads other elite law schools in the nation with 13 percent of its graduates being placed in public-interest legal work.

Still, the majority of Boalt graduates, about 65 percent, go into private-practice jobs. Salaries at a large law firm can begin at $125,000, compared to public-interest-law salaries that can start as low as $35,000 or even $25,000, according to Heller.