Making A Dent In Law School Debt

There is a little known federal program, Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), which entirely forgives the indebtedness of a lawyer who elects to work in public service, rather than at a law firm or in-house at a corporation. Among public interest lawyers, however, it is a very well known program. It's the only way many of these dedicated young lawyers can follow their hearts instead of their wallets when they embark upon a job search. The PSLF program, nevertheless, is under threat, facing severe cuts or elimination.

Under PSLF, persons making 120 monthly payments on their student loans while employed full time in qualified public service jobs (ranging from government organizations at any level to nonprofits to AmeriCorps) are eligible to have their remaining balance forgiven at the end of the 10 years. (Under the federal income-driven loan repayment program, low-earning graduates would ordinarily take twice that long to pay off student loans.)

The President proposed drastic cuts to PSLF in his budget message early this year, and the House Budget Committee recommended elimination of the program altogether. When Congress turns to reauthorization of the Higher Education Act this fall, PSLF is likely to be on the chopping block, though it has not been targeted by any of the bills introduced so far.

As a chronically underpaid public interest lawyer myself, for most of a 40-year career, I can sympathize. However, I graduated from my state's law school early enough that I had zero law school debt, incredible as that may sound these days. But in my other hat, as a public interest lawyer who has interviewed many aspiring public interest lawyers, I know that every salary dollar makes a difference between the ability to keep up with law school loan payments or risking default--or at least a marginal credit rating. Obviously, this problem puts pressure on those doing the hiring as well as those seeking jobs. Scarce budget dollars, already stretched to the limit and spent overwhelmingly on salaries at most non-profits, must be stretched even further to accommodate the indebtedness of young lawyers committed to serving in the public interest.

It almost goes without saying that the timing of cutting or zeroing-out this program is peculiar--on President Obama's watch. His resume includes public interest advocacy, both before and after law school. In fact, his appreciation of the increased ability to effect social change as a lawyer rather than as a community organizer was reportedly one of the motivating factors in his going to law school in the first place. Enough said (though reaching out to the White House to press this point wouldn't be amiss).

The American Bar Association (ABA) has launched an aggressive grassroots campaign to urge Congress to preserve PSLF. Anyone reading this blog can and should participate. The emphasis of the ABA campaign is to use social media to convey the message that PSLF must be retained, and to urge others to do likewise. The use of social media is fitting, especially in view of the issue's particular resonance with law students and lawyers of the younger generation, who face ever-more crushing debt. However, all methods of advocacy, even the old-fashioned ones, are encouraged.

The campaign is laid out on a dedicated ABA webpage, which provides both background information and guidance on how the reader can join in the advocacy effort. Some of the incredible messages generated so far include this Instagram from a legal aid lawyer, this video embedded in a tweet from an Assistant US Attorney in Utah, and this tweet from a disabled lawyer. In each case, the messages are transmitted to the constituent's members of Congress. Many other resources--sample tweets, talking points, etc.--are available on the webpage. The ABA has made it easy for you to weigh in and encourage your networks to do the same. So it's a no brainer that you should do it, and it hardly takes a brain to do it.

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program is a crucial ingredient in preserving--we can only dream of expanding--a vibrant public interest legal community. Please feel free to contact Ken Goldsmith at the ABA Governmental Affairs Office if you want to know more about what you can do: Public interest lawyers, and all of us who benefit from their work, will thank you.

This is a guest post from Estelle H. Rogers. Until her recent retirement, Estelle was a public interest lawyer in Washington DC for over thirty years. She participated in advocacy and legislative work on a wide range of public issues, including reproductive rights, selection of judges, end of life choices, and voting rights, among others. This post originally appeared on ACSblog.