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Loan Forgiveness – Why Not For Solos?

by Carolyn Elefant on November 27, 2006 · 30 comments

in Legal Profession Trends, News, Solo Out of Law School

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This article, Debt Relief May Be In Sight for Lawyers (Chicago Sun Times 11/27/06) reports on the status of legislation proposed by Senator Dick Durbin back in 2003, that would grant student loan relief to public sector lawyers in the criminal justice system.  From the article:

The average young lawyer from a private law school graduated with $78,763 in debt last year, according to the American Bar Association. The average graduate of a public law school owed $51,056. Durbin’s office puts the numbers higher, with the average private law school graduate carrying $97,763 in debt, and public school graduates owing $66,810 .  According to Murray — who had $14,000 in debt when he graduated in 1983 — the trend is forcing lawyers to leave the state’s attorney’s office, and persuading third-year law students not to apply. “It definitely weighs on me. I’m going to be paying it for the rest of my life,” said assistant Cook County State’s Attorney Jullian Brevard, who owes about $90,000.

Durbin’s legislation would alleviate the burden of student loans, and
help prosecutors and defenders offices attract and retain top lawyers,
who often leave when “big bucks beckon” from private sector jobs (the Enron task force attorneys
are a recent example of this phenomenon, most of whom fled government
for private practice once their prosecutions had concluded)  The
Prosecutors and Defenders Incentive Act would pay up to $10,000 a year
of the law school loans of any prosecutor or public defender. To
qualify, a lawyer would have to commit to three years of service. Loan
assistance would be capped at $60,000 per lawyer and would apply only
to loans made through federal programs.

I’ve often wondered why lawyers going into solo practice don’t qualify
for loan forgiveness.  Many new solos serve lower income populations
(as I wrote here)
or handle court appointed work similar to defenders’ offices.
Moreover, solo attorneys don’t receive the same benefits as prosecutors
or defenders, like health insurance or formal training, like trial
bootcamp or CLE.  Instead, they pay these expenses out of pocket.   And
because of student loan debt, some new solos feel pressured to run a
volume practice, where they don’t adequately serve lower income clients
or to turn down lower income clients who can’t pay the bills.

Many lawyers who accept prosecutor or defendants positions do so
because they want the training, and are willing to make a financial
sacrifice to get it.  Loan forgiveness would make this choice easier,
but I don’t think that an extra $10,000 per year is going to give a
lawyer set on earning $145,000 a year to think about a job with the
Public Defender.  By contrast, because fewer quality attorneys start
their own solo practice, loan forgiviness would make a difference to
those who choose to do so.

  • http://www.legalandrew.com Andrew Flusche

    This is an interesting article. As a 3L, loan forgiveness is definitely in a prominent place in my mind. UVA’s loan forgiveness program actually does include private practice within VA, assuming you make under the income thresholds ($35k for full forgiveness). As you mentioned, they assume that you are serving low-income people, etc.
    Thanks for posting this article,
    Andrew

  • http://www.legalandrew.com Andrew Flusche

    This is an interesting article. As a 3L, loan forgiveness is definitely in a prominent place in my mind. UVA’s loan forgiveness program actually does include private practice within VA, assuming you make under the income thresholds ($35k for full forgiveness). As you mentioned, they assume that you are serving low-income people, etc.
    Thanks for posting this article,
    Andrew

  • http://www.homeofficelawyerblog.com Grant Griffiths

    No kidding. I have been doing court appointed criminal defense work now for 10 years. It sure would have been nice to have my loans paid for.
    And what about rural area lawyers. Rural area doctors get their loans paid for. What about us Rural Shingler’s?

  • http://www.homeofficelawyerblog.com Grant Griffiths

    No kidding. I have been doing court appointed criminal defense work now for 10 years. It sure would have been nice to have my loans paid for.
    And what about rural area lawyers. Rural area doctors get their loans paid for. What about us Rural Shingler’s?

  • Susan Cartier-Liebel

    Your thoughts are well considered but what struck me was the comment, “fewer quality attorneys start their own solo practice…” Before I get my knickers in twist…please explain or qualify that comment.

  • Susan Cartier-Liebel

    Your thoughts are well considered but what struck me was the comment, “fewer quality attorneys start their own solo practice…” Before I get my knickers in twist…please explain or qualify that comment.

  • http://soloinchicago.blogspot.com Peter Olson

    There’s certainly been some lively discussions in the IL legal field about this proposal. I tend to agree with you Carolyn. I guess what this proposal suggests is that serving (often) low-income criminal clients or prosecuting criminal cases is somehow preferred versus doing a lot of (often) low-income civil representation that solos do. And of course solo’s are doing criminal work too.
    How ’bout lower law school tuition? Or greater competition in the law school business field i.e. U. of Phoenix and others in the non-legal areas?

  • http://soloinchicago.blogspot.com Peter Olson

    There’s certainly been some lively discussions in the IL legal field about this proposal. I tend to agree with you Carolyn. I guess what this proposal suggests is that serving (often) low-income criminal clients or prosecuting criminal cases is somehow preferred versus doing a lot of (often) low-income civil representation that solos do. And of course solo’s are doing criminal work too.
    How ’bout lower law school tuition? Or greater competition in the law school business field i.e. U. of Phoenix and others in the non-legal areas?

  • Damian

    Susan, what do you think he meant? Every solo I’ve ever met or heard of who hung out his or her own shingle after law school did so only because he or she could not get a job. Sure, exceptions exist. As a general rule, though, I don’t think anyone would seriously contend that more than a tiny portion of solos couldn’t get a firm job. Go ahead, flame away — it doesn’t make it any less true.

  • Damian

    Susan, what do you think he meant? Every solo I’ve ever met or heard of who hung out his or her own shingle after law school did so only because he or she could not get a job. Sure, exceptions exist. As a general rule, though, I don’t think anyone would seriously contend that more than a tiny portion of solos couldn’t get a firm job. Go ahead, flame away — it doesn’t make it any less true.

  • http://www.susancartierliebel.typepad.com Susan Cartier-Liebel

    Damian,
    I teach students at Quinnipiac University School of Law how to “hang a shingle” right out of law school and consult with those who wish to start their own practice. I have done so for the past 7 years.
    Many law students consider their loftiest goal to open their own practice…not to work for another. This entrepreneurial spirit has nothing to do with intelligence or whether or not someone will offer them a job. They are not the bottom half of their class. It is a perpetuated mis-characterization of the spirit of the solo. Yes, there is a percentage who choose this path because they couldn’t get a traditional job. However, once they taste the freedom….they never go back.
    Please check out my blog to understand my perspective a little better.
    Susan Cartier Liebel
    http://www.susancartierliebel.typepad.com

  • http://www.susancartierliebel.typepad.com Susan Cartier-Liebel

    Damian,
    I teach students at Quinnipiac University School of Law how to “hang a shingle” right out of law school and consult with those who wish to start their own practice. I have done so for the past 7 years.
    Many law students consider their loftiest goal to open their own practice…not to work for another. This entrepreneurial spirit has nothing to do with intelligence or whether or not someone will offer them a job. They are not the bottom half of their class. It is a perpetuated mis-characterization of the spirit of the solo. Yes, there is a percentage who choose this path because they couldn’t get a traditional job. However, once they taste the freedom….they never go back.
    Please check out my blog to understand my perspective a little better.
    Susan Cartier Liebel
    http://www.susancartierliebel.typepad.com

  • http://www.JohnsonLawFirmSC.com Steven

    I am a first year solo practioner and I serve primarily indigent public defender and dean appointments. Keeping the doors open is quite difficult and I would not be able to pay my outstanding student loan debt and pay the expenses of the business at the same time if my wife didn’t work. Some student loan debt relief would be very welcome and in fact necessary to stay open if I were not to simply try to maintain a volume practice which doesn’t allow for full trial preparation in every case as it should. I take the same cases as those in the public sector who currently are allowed debt relief and I also have overhead and payroll expenses which they individually do not. It makes staying open nearly impossible and made me move into trying to abandon the work for the indigent to get civil work simply because of the economics involved. Forget pro bono work as I could not afford to take any on with what I am paid, despite my wanting to be able to do so.

  • http://www.JohnsonLawFirmSC.com Steven

    I am a first year solo practioner and I serve primarily indigent public defender and dean appointments. Keeping the doors open is quite difficult and I would not be able to pay my outstanding student loan debt and pay the expenses of the business at the same time if my wife didn’t work. Some student loan debt relief would be very welcome and in fact necessary to stay open if I were not to simply try to maintain a volume practice which doesn’t allow for full trial preparation in every case as it should. I take the same cases as those in the public sector who currently are allowed debt relief and I also have overhead and payroll expenses which they individually do not. It makes staying open nearly impossible and made me move into trying to abandon the work for the indigent to get civil work simply because of the economics involved. Forget pro bono work as I could not afford to take any on with what I am paid, despite my wanting to be able to do so.

  • Synta

    I am involved with a loan forgiveness program at my law school. We don’t include low bono attorneys in the program for several reasons. It’s difficult to determine how much of a practitioner’s clients are low income or underserved. We also don’t have alot in the pot to give out and so our priority is limited to legal aid and goverment attorneys that meet the minimum salary requirements.
    However, I think that lowbono attorneys and other solos are important to providing affordable services to clients. There needs to be a way to include them.

  • Synta

    I am involved with a loan forgiveness program at my law school. We don’t include low bono attorneys in the program for several reasons. It’s difficult to determine how much of a practitioner’s clients are low income or underserved. We also don’t have alot in the pot to give out and so our priority is limited to legal aid and goverment attorneys that meet the minimum salary requirements.
    However, I think that lowbono attorneys and other solos are important to providing affordable services to clients. There needs to be a way to include them.

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