Law Students Can Find Ways to Pay Off Debt

Those law grads doing public interest work should consider state loan repayment assistance programs.

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It's a tough time economically. Unemployment remains high, which means states face seemingly never ending shortfalls in revenue. The showdown between Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill over how to deal with the massive federal deficit continues. Republican leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives recently set spending limits for the Appropriations subcommittee on labor, health and human services, and education at nearly $42 billion less than President Obama proposed in his fiscal year 2012 budget requests.

While the form those proposed cuts will take is currently unknown, it is anticipated that widely utilized educational grant programs—Pell Grants, in particular—will face cuts. And popular loan repayment programs, such as the Civil Legal Assistance Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program (CLAARP), designed to help civil legal assistance attorneys, have already been defunded.

[Learn more about Pell Grants.]

Unfortunately, despite the fact that student loan debt will outpace credit card debt for the second year in a row and is likely to exceed $1 trillion this year, nobody is offering an educational debt bailout. Until then, all of us burdened with educational debt need to get creative and look every place we can for assistance.

[Get tips for managing your student loans.]

For law students doing public interest work, take a look at state loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs). The American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants has a list of the 24 statewide LRAP programs and their contact information, but here's the quick list: Arizona, District of Columbia, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York (two programs), North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, and Virginia. Maybe you should think again about taking that civil legal assistance job in Montana…

[See U.S. News's rankings of Best Law Schools.]

Other handy items to check out on the website include charts detailing what qualifies as eligible employment, which loans are eligible for repayment, and detailed descriptions of the terms of the LRAPs, including maximum years of assistance, range and maximum grant amounts, income caps, and number of recipients. And if you don't see your state on this list but think it should be there, download the Commission on Loan Repayment and Forgiveness's publication "A Resource Guide for Creating State Loan Repayment Assistance Programs for Public Service Lawyers" and get to work!

Here are a few other things worth mentioning: State LRAPs vary, but definitions of "qualifying employment" in all states include civil legal aid and in some states include public defense, prosecution, and other government and nonprofit legal organization work. Almost all state LRAPs require recipients to be practicing law within the state. One notable exception: Minnesota. Graduates of Minnesota law schools may work in or out of state, including internationally. Those who graduated from a non-Minnesota law school, however, must work in Minnesota.

Finally, a word of warning: as we said, states are facing big budget shortfalls. Due to lack of funding, Kentucky and Washington state are providing assistance to current recipients but will not be taking applications, and the LRAPs in Indiana, Missouri, and Nebraska have been suspended. Be sure to verify these details so you've got the most up to date information. In New York, for example, the State Bar Association intends to restart its Steven C. Krane Student Loan Assistance for the Public Interest (SLAPI) Fund this fall.

Not a graduate of law school but interested in doing public service work in your chosen profession? There's a wide variety of loan repayment assistance programs out there, so seek them out. Here are some examples: The National Health Service Corps' State Loan Repayment Programs provides matching funds to more than 30 states to operate their own loan repayment programs for primary care clinicians working in Health Professional Shortage Areas. The American Federation of Teachers has a searchable funding database of loan forgiveness programs for teachers. The Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program (VMLRP) offers loan forgiveness of $25,000 per year for three years for veterinarians who commit to work in a veterinary shortage area for three years. And your alma mater or your employer may have their own loan repayment assistance programs or may know of resources you can utilize.

Times are tough, but there are resources out there for people with good research skills and determination. And we know that's you, or you wouldn't have a diploma with resonant Latin phrases hanging on your wall. And when you do find a good resource, please post a comment and let us all know. Bis dat qui cito dat, as the saying goes.

Isaac Bowers is the senior program manager for Educational Debt Relief and Outreach at Equal Justice Works. He was previously an attorney at Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP in San Francisco, where he focused on environmental, land use, and planning issues. A graduate of the New York University School of Law, Bowers also has extensive experience in nonprofit advocacy and outreach.