By Ann Postlewaite
When I was debating whether to go to law school because of the cost of tuition, I decided that I could either immediately purchase a house and have a mortgage, or wait three years for the mortgage and have a law degree as well. In 1989, I had the degree, and within a few years the mortgage too. For many recent law graduates, their student loans put that dream home on hold for a significant period. Aspirations to pursue a job in the public interest arena are also significantly impacted. The OSB’s Quality of Life committee has focused on this concern the past several months.
Full time tuition at Lewis & Clark Law School is $23,196 for 2002-2003. Part-time/evening tuition is $17,400. At Willamette College of Law tuition is $21,800, and after adding on books, fees and living expenses, the total annual cost is expected to be $33,980. At University of Oregon Law School, resident tuition is $13,294; for non-residents it is $17,872. Most law students graduate with an average of $65,000 in school loans. They begin their job search with the specter of monthly loan payments of $1,000. For most, public interest jobs are not an option. Legal Aid’s Tom Matsuda confirms that the starting salary for a new law school graduate is $26-27,000, and that many potential legal aid attorneys have law school loans in the range of $50,000 to $85,000. He reports that it is extremely difficult to find new attorneys who are able to maintain their student loan payments at the salary levels offered by Legal Aid.
Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAPs) are being developed to respond to this problem. According to the American Bar Association, there are currently five statewide LRAPs in existence, in Arizona, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire and North Carolina. Maryland’s program was created by statute and is administered by the State Scholarship Administration. The programs in Arizona and New Hampshire were created by and are administered by bar foundations. The programs in Minnesota and North Carolina are administered by independent 501(c)(3) organizations. While California and Texas have adopted legislation establishing programs, funds for the programs have not been appropriated, and thus the programs are not yet operating.
To learn more about LRAPs in Oregon, I spoke with Susan Mandiberg at Lewis & Clark Law School, the only school with an up and running LRAP program in Oregon. (The University of Oregon has one on paper that is quite different and dependent on fundraising. Willamette is in the process of getting one on paper.) Lewis & Clark has given loans for three years and is now starting its fourth year of the loan process. For tax purposes loans are given rather than grants, as grants create a taxable event and forgiven loans do not.
Through Lewis & Clark’s program, loans are provided to alumni who meet certain criteria. At the end of the loan period, if the person’s job continues to meet the criteria, the loan is forgiven. Alumni must complete an application to receive the loan, and complete a second application to have the loan forgiven at the conclusion of the loan period. Alumni are eligible to apply for the first three years after graduation. The income ceiling to qualify is currently set at $29,000. For LRAP purposes, the definition of public interest law excludes judicial law clerk positions and focuses rather on positions meeting the needs of clients who otherwise would not have representation, such as public defenders’ offices, legal aid offices and private non-profits that are cause-oriented. Lewis & Clark’s program forgives loans on a year-by-year basis; as long as the job meets the criteria at the end of the year, the loan is forgiven. To get its program up and running quickly, Lewis & Clark set a low income ceiling, narrow criteria and a short loan duration, and made no promises about how much would be loaned. The loans are based on the dollars available and the number of alumni who qualify for a loan in the year of application. Funding for the Lewis & Clark LRAP comes from endowments, donations directly to the program and the law school itself.
The University of Oregon’s program calls for loans for five years and allows a higher income level and a broader definition of public interest. The program is more costly than Lewis & Clark’s, and to accomplish its current goal, the program will need a significant funding base. The plan, though, is still just on paper.
The OSB Quality of Life Committee asked the Board of Governors to consider including a 'check-off' on the bar dues form, through which bar members could contribute to the LRAP programs. Instead, the board has authorized a mail campaign to urge that donations be sent by bar members directly to one of the three law schools. Bar members will be receiving information sometime this spring.
We are professionals in the truest sense of the word. The term 'profession' originally contemplated only theology, law and medicine. Members of these professions are the leaders of their communities, and their service to their communities extends well beyond the practice of their profession. Providing for our communities by donating to LRAP programs is a new avenue for each of us. Please consider this when the letter asking for your contribution reaches you.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The author, a family law attorney, is secretary of the OSB Quality of Life Committee.
© 2003 Ann Postlewaite