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In April of 2019, the Maryland Access to Justice Commission joined the MSBA for ABA Lobby Days to advocate for two issues on Capitol Hill: continued funding for the Legal Services Corporation (LSC); and Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF).

PSLF was an important issue for the Commission, the MSBA and ABA to jointly advocate on because it was a vehicle by which public service employers, like civil legal aid organizations, can attract talent for significantly less pay than their private counterparts.

Concerns about how PSLF was operating pushed Congress to act in 2018 and pass the Temporary Expanded Public Service Loan Forgiveness (TEPSLF) program.

A recent report, released by the Government Accountability Office (GOA) on September 5, 2019, however, shows troublingly that 99% of the applicants to the TEPSLF were rejected during the program’s first year, from May 2018 to May 2019. The report states that the U.S. Department of Education processed roughly 54,000 requests and approved just 661 – approximately 1%. It spent only $27 million of the $700 million Congress set aside for the expansion under TEPSLF.

An effective and functioning student loan forgiveness program is an important component of access to justice as it provides a path for attorneys to serve in the public interest – a path that would otherwise be foreclosed due to crushing law school and undergraduate debt.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness

Congress created the Public Service Loan Forgiveness in 2007, hoping to encourage promising college and professional graduates into public service careers. In return for 10 years of government or not-for-profit work and 120 qualified student loan payments, borrowers were told the U.S. Department of Education would forgive whatever remained of their federal student loans. Instead of helping people in public service, the program has resulted in rejections for the overwhelming majority of borrowers.

Thousands of borrowers — including lawyers, doctors, nurses, teachers, social workers, first responders and other public servants — complained that the requirements for the original program were so rigid and poorly communicated that lawmakers needed to step in. Facing a growing outcry from borrowers, Congress created an expanded program last year entitled the Temporary Expanded Public Service Loan Forgiveness. It is alarming for access to justice advocates that the new program with an infusion of cash, too, does not seem to be working.

The GOA report asserts that the Department of Education is not clearly explaining to borrowers how the program works and how they can contest a denial.

Law School Debt

Attorneys often graduate law school with substantial student loan debt. According to Law School Transparency, which tracks data related to law school, law school tuition at a public university costs an average of $27,000 per year for in-state students, and costs $47,000 on average at private universities as of 2018.

Eighty percent of law students take out student loans to attend law school. On average, those who graduate from a private law school incur law school debt of $122,000 and those who graduate from public law schools incur $88,000. These sums are in addition to an average of $30,000 in undergraduate debt.

The promise of PSLF made it feasible for a young lawyer with a staggering amount of debt to choose a career as a civil legal aid attorney, public defender, or prosecutor − jobs with typical starting salaries of $50,000 or less that are essential to the functioning of our justice system and for achieving access to justice.

Civil Legal Aid Salaries and Impact

The Legal Services Corporation (LSC), which is the largest provider of funding to civil legal aid organizations nationally, on September 23, 2019 released a report entitled By the Numbers: The Data Underlying Legal Aid Programs. The report shows that the average salary for a staff attorney at the organizations receiving grants from LSC is about $63,000. The report found that more experienced supervising attorneys earn an average of $84,000, and a litigation director at one of these organizations might expect to make an average of $107,000, the report found.

Meanwhile, the starting salary for a first-year associate at a BigLaw firm is typically over $150,000, with some firms offering up to $190,000 for first-year attorneys, especially those living in major cities.

While salaries remain low and the discrepancy between public and private sector salaries only seems to grow, civil legal aid continues to deliver value to society. LSC’s report shows that across the 132 legal aid groups supported by LSC, attorneys closed 743,000 cases, including over 200,000 family cases and over 200,000 housing-related cases. Overall, 1.8 million people live in households benefited by LSC grantees in 2018. And while some of those cases were handled by private attorneys volunteering their time, about 89% of all cases were still resolved by staff attorneys at civil legal aid organizations.

Yet, the Justice Index from the National Center for Access to Justice shows that Maryland only has 1.49 public interest lawyers per 10,000 poor people as compared to 40 lawyers per 10,000 people of the general population. And only 0.7% of the attorneys in Maryland work for civil legal aid organizations.

The dysfunction in the student loan forgiveness system, combined with the already low salaries in the public sector, is the perfect storm that may create a crisis in talent for civil legal aid organizations – which will ultimately hurt the functioning of our civil justice system and the ability of all Marylanders to access civil justice on an equal footing.

Be sure you are familiar with public service loan forgiveness requirements. Often, if you don’t meet one of them, you can make changes so that you do.

  • You must have federal direct loans.
  • Your employer must be a government organization at any level, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization or some other type of not-for-profit organization that provides public service.
  • By the end, you need to have made 120 qualifying, on-time payments in an income-driven repayment plan or the standard repayment plan.