Becoming a lawyer is very expensive, and most students who attend law school must borrow to pay their tuition bills. In fact, the most recent data from National Center for Education Statistics revealed average loan balances for law students graduating in the 2015-2016 school year was $145,500. Fortunately, lawyers may be able to get their student loans forgiven.
While Law School Transparency estimated average debt among those who borrowed at a slightly lower amount ($115,481 in 2018), it’s report also indicated as many as three in four law graduates had loans when leaving school.
Having debt topping $100,000 can make life very stressful – especially for those who want to go into public service work and use their law degrees to help others. The good news is, there are many loan forgiveness options for lawyers that attorneys could be eligible for.
Public Service Loan Forgiveness for Attorneys
Law school graduates with loans obtained through the Federal Direct Loan Program could qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness for eligible loans. Under this program, law grads paying their loans using an income-driven repayment plan can have the remaining balance of their loans forgiven after 120 on-time monthly payments.
Eligible loans include Federal Direct Stafford Loans, PLUS Loans, and Consolidation Loans. Both subsidized and unsubsidized Stafford Loans are eligible. And while loans obtained through the Federal Family Education Program are not forgivable, they can become eligible for PSLF if consolidated into a Direct Consolidation Loan obtained through the Department of Education.
Public Service Loan Forgiveness is available only to law school grads working full-time in a qualifying position both during the time loan payments are made and when the remaining balance is forgiven. Jobs with the government as well as with most non-profit 501(c)(3) organizations count as qualifying work and full-time employment is defined as working 30 hours per week or your employer’s equivalent of full time. Several part-time jobs can count if the average hours per week is 30 or more.
The Department of Justice Attorney Student Loan Repayment
Law school grads hired in an attorney position with the Department of Justice may be eligible for the Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program if they have at least $10,000 in combined student loan debt. Only certain loans qualify, including Stafford Loans, PLUS Loans, Federal Consolidation Loans, and Perkins Loans.
Political appointees, those who are employed by another agency, and non-permanent employees are not eligible and eligibility is not automatic for all DOJ employees – attorneys must be selected. Those who wish to be considered must complete an online Eligibility Worksheet as well as a Request for Consideration Form with accompanying documentation. Qualifying attorneys selected for repayment assistance must also sign service commitments and agree to work for the DOJ for at least three years.
For those who qualify, the DOJ matches up to $6,000 per year in payments made by the working attorney. The lifetime maximum match the DOJ provides is $60,000.
The John R. Justice Student Loan Repayment Program
Attorneys working as public defenders may be eligible for grants through the John R. Justice Student Loan Repayment Program.
Individual states obtain funding through this program to provide forgiveness to eligible attorneys who serve as a public defender for at least three years. Eligibility and application requirements vary by state, but qualifying attorneys can receive up to $10,000 per year in loan repayment assistance with a lifetime maximum of $60,000.
This list of Governor-Designated State Agencies authorized to distribute funds through this program can help law school grads working as public defenders to determine how to apply.
School and State Specific Loan Repayment Assistance Programs
In addition to these national programs, individual states have loan repayment programs, as do a select number of law schools. The American Bar Association provides a summary as well as contact details for the state agency that administers each program.
There are a total of 24 statewide programs found in the following:
- District of Columbia
- New Hampshire
- New Mexico
- New York
- North Carolina
More than 100 different law schools administer programs as well. The American Bar Association has a list of schools offering assistance to their graduates.
Eligibility requirements vary for both state and school-specific programs so law grads will need to investigate options where they live or where they completed their education.
How to Get Law School Loan Forgiveness
Each of these programs has specific requirements you must fulfill, and it can take time – and many years of payments – for your debt to be forgiven, even with assistance. It’s best to investigate programs as early as possible in your career and the repayment process to ensure you are taking advantage of all options available to reduce the debt accrued when becoming a lawyer.
If you are struggling with student loan debt, there are ways you can lower your student loan payments, including enrolling in an income-driven repayment plan, temporarily going on a deferment or refinancing student loans to lower your interest rate.
Keep in mind refinancing federal student loans means a loss in many benefits – income-driven repayment plans, any federal forgiveness programs, generous deferment options, and more.
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