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Pro Bono Loan Forgiveness

Proposal for a Pennsylvania Bar Association Task Force


Student Loan Forgiveness and Repayment Assistance



Many law students enter law school wanting to use their legal training to serve the public interest.  However, in just three short years, as law students face the reality of graduating with enormous student loan debt coupled with low starting salaries in public interest law that are just a small fraction of large-firm starting salaries, many outstanding students conclude that they have no choice but to abandon their original career aspirations.1 This problem has become more acute with each passing year and is now widely recognized as a crisis of epidemic proportions without any clear remedy in sight.  It is a problem that we must address because we all have a stake in attracting the best possible lawyers to public service.


More than a decade ago, the Pennsylvania Bar Associationís original Task Force on Legal Services to the Needy delivered a formal report to the House of Delegates that called upon the association to address the growing problem of student loan debt.  The executive summary of the Task Force, unanimously adopted by the House of Delegates on May 18, 1990, contained the following finding and recommendation: 


ľ[T]he costs of obtaining a legal education have escalated dramatically over the past decade; equally dramatic has been the widening of the gap between salaries offered to private attorneys and the salaries offered to attorneys taking public service positions.  The typical educational debt carried by a new attorney contemplating a public service position now exceeds $30,000.  As a result of their educational loan indebtedness, the heavy burden of monthly loan payments, and the modest salaries available in the public sector, many recent law school graduates have been precluded from seeking employment in public service law, and others have been forced to cut short their careers in public service law.  While the disparity in salaries will remain the largest source of the problem, educational debts have a material and substantial effect on the choices made by younger attorneys.  The Task Force recommends that the Pennsylvania Bar Association endorse the enactment of an educational loan repayment assistance law that would encourage talented law students to undertake lower-paying public service legal positions in Pennsylvania by paying at least part of their monthly educational loan obligations during the period of their public service.2


In the decade that has passed since that finding and recommendation, the problem of student loan debt has only worsened.  Last August, the American Bar Associationís president, Robert E. Hirshon, announced that staggering loan school debt faced by young lawyers would be one of the ABAís top priorities.3 The simple economics of loan indebtedness illustrates the depth of this problem.  National studies document that starting salaries in private practice average $80,000 while starting public interest law salaries average only $34,000.  The average American law school graduate owes $80,000 in student loans, requiring monthly repayment amounts of $1,000 or more.  After deducting these payments, graduates who choose public interest work are left with only $17,000 per year on which to live.4 According to a very recent national study completed by Equal Justice Works (formerly the National Association for Public Interest Law), large debt burdens prevent 66% of law school graduates from pursuing public interest jobs.  In this study, a survey of 1,622 graduating law students from across the country revealed that 94% of respondents financed their law school educations with loans and 50% of the respondents expect to graduate with debts of $75,000 or more.5 Informal surveys conducted among legal services and public interest lawyers in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia reveal similar high student debt burdens.


Proposal for a Task Force

Potential solutions to this problem are complex and involve many dimensions.  Some states have chosen to adopt statewide loan repayment assistance programs.6 The ABA is studying a little known national initiative that resulted in the adoption of the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program in 1993.  This federal law provides an income-contingent repayment option that allows federal direct loans to be forgiven after 25 years of low-income work.  The ABA is urging legislative change to improve this option by permitting forgiveness at a point sooner than twenty-five years.  Others are directing their efforts at increasing the number and effectiveness of loan repayment assistance programs offered by law schools and public interest employers.  Today, only one-half of the nationís law schools have some form of school forgiveness or repayment assistance programs and most programs offer only very modest financial assistance.  Additional conversations are ongoing with institutional lenders, tax experts, government loan agencies, private foundations, and others with the objective of developing new and innovative solutions.   

The complexity of this problem demands creative thinking and strong collective efforts from a broadly-constituted statewide task force that is prepared to pay special attention to local needs and concerns.  The recent successes of the Bar Associationís Task Force on Legal Services to the Needy (Part II) demonstrate the advantages of a statewide task force in attracting and energizing leaders of the legal community and the legislature when tackling difficult issues that require effective consensus building and problem solving.  


This proposal calls for the establishment of a twenty-one-person task force, formally called the Task Force on Student Loan Forgiveness and Repayment Assistance.  The Task Force would have three co-chairs, representing the western, central and eastern regions of the state, and eighteen additional members drawn from all segments of the legal community and larger community, including representatives from the three branches of government, local bar associations, legal services and public interest organizations, law schools, foundations and educational lending institutions.  Special consideration should be given to include several of the most active and effective members of the Task Force on Legal Services to the Needy (Part II) as well as leaders of the Associationís current Equal Justice for the Poor committee.  


It is recommended that the Task Force be in place by April 1, 2003, commence its work by April 15, 2003 and be prepared to deliver a preliminary, informational (non-action) report at the November 21, 2003 meeting of the House of Delegates.  The Task Force should be charged with studying the precise nature and depth of the problem in Pennsylvania, assessing programs now in place to address the problem, and proposing short-term and long-term initiatives Ė addressed to both the public and private sectors Ė to achieve meaningful progress in Pennsylvania.  With the creation of such a statewide task force, Pennsylvania has the potential to become a national leader in examining the problem, formulating solutions, and assuring that public interest legal careers are financially possible for the best and brightest of the next generation of law graduates. 

Respectfully submitted, 


Louis S. Rulli

Catherine C. Carr

Date: February 1, 2003


1  See Philip G. Schrag, The Federal Income-Contingent Repayment Option for Law Student Loans, 29 Hofstra L. Rev. 733, 736 (2001).


2  See Summary of Report and Recommendations, Pennsylvania Bar Association Task Force on Legal Services to the Needy, Fifth Finding and Recommendation, Adopted May 18, 1990 by the House of Delegates, at iv-v.


3  James Podgers, Forging Ahead: Loan Repayment, Billable Hours Still Top Priorities, 88 A.B.A. J. 66 (2002).


See Jane Easter Bahls, Itís Payback Time for Public Interest Lawyers, Student Lawyer Magazine, September 2002 at 16.


5  See Law School Debts Forcing Recruits to Private Sector, Chicago Tribune, November 18, 2002, at 14 (reporting on survey administered as part of a nationwide study being conducted by Equal Justice Works, the National Association for Law Placement, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, and the Partnership for Public Service).


6  As of this writing, six states have adopted state loan repayment assistance programs.  They are Arizona, Maryland, Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Texas.

Task Force Members

University of Pittsburgh School of Law Public Interest Scholarship Application

July 15, 2004 Meeting Minutes

February 18, 2004, Meeting Minutes

Loan Repayment Assistance Materials

Graduate Fellowships