The price tag on law school can be overwhelming, and the plan for a lot of potential lawyers is to find a job at a big firm—which comes with a big salary—to pay off those loans. But what if you want to work in public service, which isn’t known for doling out high salaries?
You have a few options, at the federal level, state level, and law school level. The Loan Repayment Assistance Program (“LRAP”) at all levels are limited to those working in public interest, and you will have to make sure that the organization you work for later down the line qualifies for LRAP. For instance, a non-profit organization that is not tax-exempt would not qualify for the federal program.
At the federal level is the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (“PSLF”) program. If you to work for ten years with a qualifying employer—government organizations and tax-exempt not-for-profit organizations—and make your payments during that time, the remainder of your loan will be forgiven. This option is only available with federal Direct Loans, so if you plan on taking advantage of this option, don’t take out a private loan. Other federal loans may be eligible if you consolidate them into a Direct Loan.
There are also state Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (“LRAP”). Only twenty-four states have LRAP programs (listed here), and the amount of time and money varies by the state. The state LRAP programs generally offer less assistance than the federal program and usually limit assistance to lawyers who work within the state.
Many law schools also have LRAPs, which depending on the school, can be taken by itself or in conjunction with a federal PSLF program. This means that, with your school’s LRAP program and eligible employment, you have the potential to have all your loans forgiven. For instance, NYU’s LRAP works to supplement the federal PSLF program. If your income is below a certain level and your employment qualifies, NYU’s LRAP covers your loans. If your eligibility falls short of the thirty-six months, then you will need to repay those loans to NYU. If you are eligible for the program for thirty-six months, then those payments by the LRAP are waived, and you don’t need to worry about repaying NYU for any subsequent payments by the LRAP. This program extends to ten years after graduation, so if you’re eligible for all ten years, then you’ll have the first ten years of your law school debt paid for by the LRAP, and the rest covered by the federal PSLF program.
There are also programs available if you decide to enter the U.S. military Judge Advocate General (“JAG”) Corps. As a judge advocate, you may give legal guidance or be a prosecutor or defense counsel. There are a wide range of practice areas with which you might be assigned, such as contract law, international law, administrative law, and criminal law. The different service branches you might work in are the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, Navy. You’ll be required to serve for four years as an active-duty commissioned officer, and, after that, have an inactive status for another four years, which means that you may be called to service should the need arise due to war.
Only the Army and Air Force have loan forgiveness incentives (up to $65,000 for both). However, the Navy has Judge Advocate Continuation Pay (“JACP”), which offers up to $60,000 as an incentive for judge advocates to continue their service. An officer may receive $30,000 after three years of service, an additional $15,000 after another two years of service, and a final $15,000 with another two years of service. Of course, with all service branches, the federal PSLF program is available after ten years of service.