Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JULY 2007
Parting Thoughts
Lightening the Burden
By Tim Gerking

Every morning, Oregon lawyer Amber Frye climbs into a rusty 18-year-old station wagon and drives to work at the Lincoln County office of Legal Aid Services of Oregon (LASO). Like other LASO lawyers throughout the state, she spends the day providing free legal assistance to low-income Oregonians who need help with everything from public benefits and housing, to child custody and domestic violence.

Frye says this is exactly the kind of work she wants to be doing. There is, however, one major hurdle: finances.

"My law school debt is four and a half times my yearly salary," notes Frye, whose loan payments eat up 40 percent of her take-home pay. "I live on a shoestring budget and dread the day my ’89 Toyota breaks down in the mountain passes I travel through to get to work each day."

Frye is not alone. Lawyers who choose to work at LASO, public defender offices, legal clinics and other public-interest organizations must sacrifice the much more lucrative paychecks that typically would come with a career in the private sector. Many such attorneys — especially newer ones who have recently finished law school — find themselves suffocated by overwhelming educational debt, sometimes to the extent that they fear they will be forced to leave public-interest law.

But starting this year, thanks to the bar’s new Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP), Frye and six other Oregon lawyers in public service will get some financial relief. The LRAP provides recipients with $5,000 per year for up
to three years to help with student loan payments.

The need for such a program is great, as shown by the applications for the LRAP’s inaugural year. In all, the LRAP Advisory Committee received 58 applications. Though most of these applicants fell well within the program’s financial criteria, funding was available for only seven of them.

As committee chair, it was my unenviable charge to help the group come to difficult decisions about which few of the many deserving applicants would receive assistance. Ultimately, though, it was also my privilege to be involved in choosing seven excellent candidates who we felt would be best served by the program.

These selected LRAP participants practice in locations across the state and include public defenders, an assistant district attorney and lawyers at various nonprofits that provide direct legal representation of low-income individuals. From a public defender in Bend who lives with her parents and pays $1,600 a month for childcare for her four children, to an Oregon Law Center attorney who specializes in working with eastern Oregon’s Latino community, each recipient’s story is one of deep commitment to public service despite the financial implications of her career choice. And the financial implications can be daunting: on average, this year’s LRAP recipients earn about $39,000 per year, while owing $147,000 in student loans.

I think I can safely speak on behalf of my fellow advisory committee members in saying that we are delighted that the LRAP will be helping these admirable lawyers in their careers, and we hope that the program will help even more such attorneys in the future. The LRAP is the product of much hard work and vision, and I would like to thank everyone who worked to make it a reality. The program was originally conceived by the Board of Governors’ Access to Justice Committee under the leadership of Linda Eyerman, who not only chaired that group, but also serves on the LRAP Advisory Committee. Her efforts, along with the work of other members of both committees, have been instrumental in getting the LRAP off the ground.

But perhaps the biggest thanks are due to OSB members, whose bar fees fund this important program. Because of you, seven dedicated lawyers can now breathe a little easier while continuing to serve both the public and the legal profession. Who knows? With the LRAP, maybe Amber Frye’s "shoestring budget" will even loosen up enough so that she can afford a good tune-up for her aged vehicle.

Tim Gerking is a Medford lawyer and a member of the OSB Board of Governors.

© 2007 Tim Gerking

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