October 25, 2019 – The cost of a law school education isn’t what it used to be. In 1985, the average annual tuition for an in-state public law school was $2,000; for a private law school, $7,500. Today those costs have increased to $27,100 and $47,750 per year, respectively. According to Tennessee non-profit Law School Transparency, the rising costs of law school have significantly outpaced inflation over the last three decades. Public law school tuition is 5.8 times more expensive than it was in 1985, even after adjusting for inflation. Private law school tuition is 2.7 times more expensive.
With growing tuition costs came increased debt loads. The average debt for law school graduates who borrow for tuition is around $110,000. None of this information is news for recent law school graduates, but the impact this level of debt has on the overall legal system and the public’s access to justice is less well understood by the general public.
The State Bar of Wisconsin recognizes the long-term financial constraint mortgage-sized tuition debt can impose. The median starting public interest attorney salary in civil legal aid is less than $50,000, and averages less than $60,000 for public defenders and prosecutors. Despite a deep commitment to ensure access to justice for all citizens, many attorneys find that the rising costs of legal education forces them to forego public service, leave for a higher earning wage out of state or in a large city, take a second job, or potentially leave the profession entirely to a different career. For this reason, the State Bar supports legislative efforts to reduce the overall cost of a legal education and to provide loan repayment assistance programs ("LRAPs") where appropriate.
Loan repayment assistance programs and loan forgiveness programs provide one solution to the growing problem of law school tuition debts. LRAPs provide loan repayment or lower loan payment options to graduates entering specific types of employment, usually law-related public interest jobs, civil legal aid, or public defense. There are various types of LRAPs administered by law schools, state bar associations and foundations, and federal and state governments providing debt relief to some law graduates. We’ll take a look a few of the programs available to Wisconsin attorneys in this article.
Federal Loan Repayment
Repayment plans such as Income Based Repayment (IBR), Income Contingent Repayment (ICR), Pay as You Earn (PAYE), and Revised Pay as You Earn (REPAYE), provide borrowers more realistic monthly payments when they are in lower-paying jobs. In addition, these repayment plans provide loan forgiveness after 20 or 25 years, depending on the plan. Resources available from the American Bar Association can help law students and attorneys determine the type of loan repayment plan that is best for their federal student loans.
Federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness
Attorneys who work for a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, the government, or a few other qualified employers may be eligible for forgiveness of their federal direct loans after making 120 payments and meeting other qualifications. This option can make the financial situation of a public interest attorney much more manageable. The State Bar of Wisconsin supports the Federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness program as a benefit to attorneys especially those in needed rural areas or in positions where there are current attorney shortfalls in public service. See the ABA website for more information about Federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness.
Statewide Loan Repayment Assistance Programs
Currently, 23 states provide LRAPs or special loans to civil legal aid or public interest attorneys to help cover the cost of their education. Many are set up as non-taxable income, which helps even more. A summary the various statewide programs available can be found on the ABA's website.
Wisconsin Rural Attorney Loan Repayment Pilot Program
Assembly Bill 512 / Senate Bill 461, part of the larger Justice Support Initiative package of bills introduced this fall, would create a pilot program through the Public Defender Board that would pay up to $20,000 per year of qualifying student loans to private bar attorneys who take at least 50 public defense appointments in certain rural counties.*
The proposed legislation would not only create the first LRAP program in Wisconsin, but would also target two other pressing needs within our state’s justice system: the need for more attorneys to establish practices in rural areas across the state, and the pressing need for more private bar public defenders in those areas.
Rural Wisconsin simply doesn’t have enough attorneys. The problem has grown over the years as established attorneys retire and others aren’t choosing to practice in rural communities. At the same time, a growing critical shortage of private bar criminal defenders has been straining the criminal justice system across the state, and is especially acute in rural areas. The State Bar is pleased to see smart legislation that opens the door to attorney debt relief while simultaneously addressing some of the biggest challenges in the legal system in our state.
Wisconsin’s proposed rural attorney loan repayment program could help bring lawyers to counties that need them and public defenders to unrepresented clients, but lawmakers need to hear from you first. Show your support for this initiative today by clicking here to send a message to your state Senator and Representative. The action site is easy to use and it only takes a moment of your time. If you have questions about the proposed legislation or LRAP programs, reach out to Devin Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 608-250-6145.
*Eligible Rural Counties for loan forgiveness include:
Vernon, Vilas, Washburn, and Waushara