Don't Let Debt Concerns Kill Your Dreams of Public Interest Law

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on August 16, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

With student debts climbing well into the six-figure range, there's a surprising amount of misinformation out there when it comes to financing a legal education. The general feeling is this: corporate BigLaw or bust. This mentality is probably responsible an increasing number of students dropping their ambitions of working in public office to pursue more "practical" law.

But there is hope for the lawyer with more compassion and largess. Consider some of the options below if you are still interested in public interest law. After all, the world needs people like you.

Funding for Public Interest Programs

That giant sucking sound you hear is the noise of students leaving public interest to go pursue more lucrative work in private practice. Fortunately, there are still compassionate souls on the planet and a fair number of wealthy organizations are funding programs at your law school. In a way, one could argue that it is your privilege to pursue all avenues of funding if you really are pursuing public interest in good faith. Call the school and discuss internships and stipends.

This strategy may not substantially relieve the burden of debt, but it will help you get a public interest job. Take comfort in know that public interest lawyers are generally happier than their BigLaw counterparts.

Student Loan Assistance Programs

The U.S. Department of Education offers a number of loan assistance and forgiveness programs (discussed more below). One the better resources for helping student navigate the maze of choices includes Student Aid on the Web. There, you can find information on the Income-Based Repayment Plan, Pay as You Earn Repayment Plan, and others. Use these resources. It would be a complete waste otherwise.

Federal Debt Relief Options

Pre-law students have before them a number of choices available for funding their legal education, including the Public Service Loan Forgiveness option, a.k.a. PSLF. This was created in 2007 and it basically forgives the remaining balance on a federal student loan after ten years of public service work. There are a number of conditions that must be met, so do your due diligence before you jump in with both feet.

One major caveat is that you remain full-time employed with a qualifying organization for ten years. The qualifying organization must satisfy the 501(c)(3) qualifications. Another major caveat is that currently, only William D. Ford Direct Federal Loans are qualified loans, but a tax expert can help you navigate this messy area of education law.

Again, for this, you really should speak to a qualified expert in this area. If you the PSLF is on your radar, you're talking a decade of your life. Don't leave anything to chance.

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