The average law school debt among lawyers aged 36 or under who graduated within the last 10 years was $108,000, according to the American Bar Association. If you’re a lawyer who left school with a lot of student loan debt, you have multiple options for forgiveness—especially if you work in public-interest law for a government agency or nonprofit.
Here are the student loan forgiveness options available to lawyers and how to qualify.
How Does Student Loan Forgiveness for Lawyers Work?
Many forgiveness programs for lawyers have been created in recognition of the high amount of student loan debt law trainees often take on compared to the low salaries they typically earn in the public sector.
Some programs focus on supporting public defenders and prosecutors who serve low-income clients. Others have broader eligibility criteria and assist any lawyer doing public- interest work. There are also additional loan repayment assistance programs offered by some employers that serve lawyers who work in the private sector.
Tip: Keep in mind that in some cases, the type of loans you have—federal or private—will affect which programs you can qualify for.
Federal Loan Forgiveness for Lawyers
If you have federal student loans, you’ll have the opportunity to apply for some of the most generous forgiveness programs out there. That’s why it’s important as a law student to borrow what you can in federal loans before looking at private student loans.
Here are the federal loan forgiveness programs you should consider as a lawyer:.
Public Service Loan Forgiveness
Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) provides tax-free forgiveness on federal direct loans to borrowers who work for public-service employers. As a lawyer, you must make 120 qualifying payments before you can qualify for forgiveness, which means working full time for a government entity or a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. You can confirm your employment is eligible by completing an employment certification form.
To see whether you qualify for the program and keep track of your progress, you can use the Federal Student Aid PSLF Help Tool.
No matter what type of work you do, you can qualify for student loan forgiveness on federal loans by signing up for an income-driven repayment (IDR) plan. You’ll have to make payments for 20 or 25 years (depending on the plan), and the forgiven balance may be taxed as income by the time you reach that milestone.
IDR opens up forgiveness to lawyers who don’t work in public service or decide to switch to the private sector before their 120 payments for PSLF are up. IDR will also lower payments to 10% to 20% of your discretionary income, making repayment less of a burden on a limited salary.
You can sign up for IDR online through the Federal Student Aid website.
Perkins Loan Forgiveness
Federal Perkins loans are no longer available to new borrowers, but if you previously took them out to attend undergrad or grad school, certain legal careers can help you get them canceled. Perkins loan forgiveness is an option for full-time public or community defenders who can have 100% of these loans forgiven incrementally over five years of service.
Other types of attorneys, even those who work in public service, aren’t eligible; instead, you can consolidate Perkins loans into a direct consolidation loan to qualify for PSLF. But check with your school or servicer to weigh the pros and cons of federal student loan consolidation before doing so.
National Repayment Programs for Lawyers
There are a few nationwide loan forgiveness and repayment programs available as well. These programs generally offer loan forgiveness in the form of repayment assistance up to an annual or total limit.
Here are the requirements of each and what you need to know before applying:
Agency-specific Loan Repayment Assistance Programs
In an effort to recruit and keep excellent employees working at various federal agencies, any agency can start a loan repayment assistance program (LRAP). Lawyers can access programs at agencies like the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education and more. These programs come with a service requirement and both an annual and total cap on assistance.
For example, the Department of Justice Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program provides up to $6,000 per year in loan repayment help, up to an aggregate maximum of $60,000. Only federal loans are eligible, and employees must commit to a three-year service agreement. Extensions to this initial service contract are also available, though aren’t guaranteed.
Herbert S. Garten Loan Repayment Assistance Program
Administered by the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), this program offers forgivable loans to attorneys employed by LSC-funded legal aid organizations, which participants can then use to pay off law school debt. Participants can’t be employed by an eligible organization for more than five years to qualify.
LSC chooses grantees by lottery, and applicants must have at least $75,000 in law school loans and not exceed certain income limits. Forgivable loans are awarded once a year for a total of up to three years, which can then be forgiven if you remain in good standing and continue working full time. Grantees can receive up to $5,600 per year.
Many state-based legal aid organizations also have their own repayment assistance programs you can consider.
John R. Justice Student Loan Repayment Program
This program provides repayment assistance to prosecutors and public defenders who work full time for state or local agencies or nonprofits contracted by state or local governments for at least three years. The funds can be used to repay only federal student loans, and the money received is not taxable as income.
The federal government allocates program funding to the states each fiscal year based on population. Individuals can receive up to $10,000 per year and $60,000 total in repayment assistance—but getting that full amount isn’t likely for everyone as states only get a limited amount per year.
To check if your state participates and apply for this program, contact your state agency.
State-based Law School Loan Forgiveness
Many states also provide assistance in loan repayment to lawyers focused on public service. These programs may be targeted at certain types of public-interest lawyers.
For example, New York offers up to $20,400 in loan repayment help specifically to district attorneys, assistant district attorneys and indigent legal services attorneys. The Florida Bar Foundation’s program, on the other hand, is open to employees of legal assistance organizations funded by the foundation and provides up to $5,000 per year as forgivable loans.
You can find a list of statewide LRAPs and who to contact for more information via the American Bar Association.
Law School Forgiveness Options
Beyond the federal and state programs available, law schools themselves also offer LRAPs to lawyers entering low-paying fields after graduation. Similar to the Herbert S. Garten Loan Repayment Assistance Program, this assistance is often structured as a loan to be used for loan repayment, which is then forgiven after a specific period of service.
The American Bar Association maintains a list of schools with LRAPs.
Private-sector employers are also joining the LRAP bandwagon. Many companies provide loan repayment help as an employee perk. Law school graduates can take advantage of this option whether or not they work as practicing attorneys at the participating company. But check with your human resources department for any service requirements and limitations.
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