Wednesday, October 1, 2014
Federal Education Loan Relief and Forgiveness: An Important Resource for Law School Graduates is at Risk
By: Kim Bart, Assistant Dean for Public Interest & Pro Bono at Duke Law School, and Isaac Bowers, Associate Director for Law School Engagement & Advocacy at Equal Justice Works
Class of 2013 law school graduates who took out loans to fund their legal educations accumulated an average debt of $109,756 according to U.S. News & World Report data. In taking on that level of educational debt, many law school students were aware of, and perhaps counting on, long-established federal loan repayment and forgiveness programs. Some of the programs, however, may soon be constricted.
President Obama’s proposed budget, released in March 2014, includes a proposal to cap the level of federal loan forgiveness at the aggregate loan limit for independent undergraduate students, which is currently set at $57,500. This may leave graduate and professional students, including law students, out in the cold. Congress is likely to take the issue up next year as part of its ongoing reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.
Federal Loan Repayment and Forgiveness Programs
Federal loan repayment and forgiveness programs currently can help high debt borrowers in two main ways: (1) income-driven repayment plans set monthly student loan payments at an affordable percentage of borrowers’ incomes and allow cancellation of any remaining debt after 20 or 25 years; (2) Public Service Loan Forgiveness allows borrowers who commit to working in the public interest sector to earn forgiveness after 10 years of loan repayment. Only federal student loans are eligible for these federal programs.
The two most common income-driven repayment plan options are Income-Based Repayment (IBR) and Pay As You Earn (PAYE). IBR has been available to borrowers since 2009. It caps most borrowers’ monthly loan payments at 15% of discretionary income, with discharge of the loan balance after 25 years. Borrowers with no federal student loan balance who receive loans on or after July 1, 2014 have a monthly payment cap of 10% of discretionary income and discharge after 20 years.
PAYE, which has been available since 2012, also caps a borrower’s monthly loan payment at 10% of discretionary income and allows discharge of the loan balance after 20 years. To qualify for PAYE, borrowers must have received a loan on or after Oct. 1, 2007 and have had no outstanding federal student loans at the time they received it, and must receive a disbursement of a federal loan on or after Oct. 1, 2011.
Public Service Loan Forgiveness
Under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, the length of repayment is reduced from 20 or 25 years to just 10, in return for the borrower working in qualifying public interest employment. Qualifying employment includes work with federal, state, local or tribal government, or work with a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
The prospect of loan forgiveness after 10 years of loan repayment has allowed many high debt recent law school graduates to consider public interest or public service employment, even though starting salaries for the public sector are significantly below those of the private sector. Median entry-level salary for public interest employment hover around $48,000, according to the 2014 NALP Public Sector and Public Interest Attorney Salary Report. This compares unfavorably with a median first-year salary of $125,000 for private firms. PSLF allows high debt law school graduates to realistically consider devoting themselves to long-term public service legal careers. A cap on Federal Loan Forgiveness would have a deleterious effect on the ability of law school grads to successfully manage law school debt, and remove an incentive for lawyers to choose lower-paying, but much-needed, public service work over private law firm employment.
To learn more, join the Equal Justice Works free live webinar: “JDs in Debt: What Law Students & Lawyers Need to Know about Managing Student Loans & Earning Public Service Loan Forgiveness,” which will be offered on October 8th, November 25th and December 18th, 2014. To register, visit http://equaljusticeworks.org/ed-debt/webinars.
Thursday, May 8, 2014
In my first post about service-learning, I asked the question: who is serving whom? In this post, I want to reflect on why I think service-learning is important in the law school curriculum, and how it is different from and expands upon the skills and values we teach in law school clinics.
My first experience with service learning was almost twenty years ago, when I was an undergraduate student at Saint Mary's College. As part of our exchange with our neighbor, the University of Notre Dame, I participated in several alternative spring break experiences through Notre Dame's Center for Social Concerns. In fact, it was my participation in the Migrant Experiences Seminar as both an undergraduate and as a law student that set me on the path toward immigrant advocacy in my legal career.
Experiential learning generally - and service-learning in particular - has recently gained more traction in the law school curriculum. But what is the specific value of integrating service-learning more fully into the law school experience, and how is it different from other experiential learning opportunities? My UDC-DCSL colleague, Professor Susan Waysdorf - who has written extensively about service-learning in the law school curriculum - describes service-learning as programs that "place primary value on the service contribution and on the humanitarian participation of the students and teachers."
Professor Waysdorf's definition of service-learning resonates with me because it emphasizes the value of service-learning in the law school curriculum not just to our students, but to us as educators, as well. What do we, as teachers, gain by "giving up" our spring break to spend time with our students on these trips? What are we ourselves learning and teaching our students about the skills and values of the legal profession, and how do we distinguish it from what we teach in clinic?
I often describe clinic as a lab - in clinic, our students are able to work on a small number of cases chosen specifically for their pedagogical value, in a controlled environment and under close supervision. In service-learning, the set-up is dramatically different - both students and teachers are taken out of the safety of the clinic environment, and put in a situation where they are required to be vulnerable. Service-learning allows us to learn from those whom we are "serving" in a way that makes the experience powerful and disarming, precisely because of its lack of structure (in comparison to both clinics specifically and the law school curriculum as a whole).
In my final post in this series, I will share some stories of our service-learning experiences on the Arizona/Mexico border, and reflect further on how the addition of such opportunities to the law school curriculum can be profoundly life-changing for both students and teachers.
Teaching the Reflective Approach Within the Service-Learning Model, Laurie Morin and Susan L. Waysdorf, 62 Journal of Legal Education 4 (2013).
Returning to New Orleans: Reflections on the Post-Katrina Recovery, Disaster Relief, and the Struggle for Social Justice, Susan L. Waysdorf, 12 Univ. of the District of Columbia Law Review 3 (2009).
Katrina Disaster Family Law: The Impact of Hurricane Katrina on Families and Family Law, Mc-Carthy-Brown and Waysdorf, 42 Indiana Law Review 721 (2009).
Thursday, April 24, 2014
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a vocation as "a strong desire to spend your life doing a certain kind of work." This definition of vocation implies a calling to a particular field of work, a devotion to a cause or occupation that is more than just a job - a vocation is something that is, by definition, imbued with meaning and a higher purpose.
I have always thought of my career in law in its various incarnations as a vocation. As a lawyer, counselor, activist, and teacher, the connection between my daily work and what I see as one of the main purposes of my life (the pursuit of social justice) has been rich. But like anything else, the law is a tool that can be used to accomplish various ends - or, as Charles Hamilton Houston famously reflected, "A lawyer is a either a social engineer or a parasite on society."
One of the reasons I wanted to not just become a law professor, but to become a clinician specifically, is because of my view of law as a vocation. It seems to me that our society, rightly or not, presents the "parasite" model of lawyering much more prominently than the "social engineer" model. While both models of lawyering are extreme, and the truth lies somewhere in the middle, I think this false dichotomy of what it means to be a lawyer causes us to lose something much more subtle and valuable - the notion that law is an honorable profession, and that lawyering can and should be more than just a job.
I am also aware of the temptation in our society to both romanticize (John Grisham) and sensationalize (Law and Order) the practice of law. My reflection of law as vocation is meant to get at something a bit different. At its core, law is a healing profession. If law is a vocation, lawyers are not merely hired guns - we are problem solvers. Lawyers are counselors and advocates - we stand by and walk with our clients not just because the rules of professional conduct require us to, but because our vocation calls us to do so. This is what I have learned from my teachers, colleagues, and students over the course of my career, and is ultimately part of the vision of lawyering and legal education that I hope to contribute to.