As freshly graduated students and young lawyers, working in the public sector or in legal aid is a difficult path to decide upon, for those who wish to pursue it. As graduates of Canadian Law schools with usually around anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000+ in debt, it is one of the first things on all of our minds when we are about to graduate. I have personally always wanted to work in Legal Aid, and ideally right out of law school. However, over these three years, as I have watched my debt increase significantly, this has become a non-option if I want to pay my loans off in a reasonable time.
Unlike Canada, the American Bar Association has a sturdy system of loan repayment assistance programs (“LRAPs”), which provide loan repayment or lower loan payments to graduates entering specific types of employment, usually law-related public interest jobs. At the federal level, attorneys who work for a non-profit 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.
At the state level, 26 Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAPs) in 24 states provide loans or grants to civil legal aid attorneys and in some cases, other public interest attorneys, to help them pay their educational debt. Many of these programs are set up to comply with the tax code provision that makes the assistance non-taxable income, which helps even more. There is also the option of Employer Loan Repayment Assistance – many civil legal aid organizations and some other public interest employers provide loan repayment assistance to their attorneys.
In California for example, legal aid firms are well-equipped. The largest, Bay Area Legal Aid, has eight offices around the Bay Area with many attorneys at each location. The lawyers are dedicated and passionate, and many of them are from prestigious law schools such as Berkeley, Columbia, Harvard, etc. Additionally, a lot of them have been working in legal aid since they graduated law school, as this is a tangible option when they are guaranteed loan forgiveness.
These programs make working in the public sector so much more accessible, and even desirable. From an access to justice perspective, it greatly benefits the public to have access to plenty of lawyers who are well-trained and from the top schools in the country to represent them.
The opposite is true in Canada. In Alberta, for example, legal aid is funded by the provincial and federal governments, and the Alberta Law Foundation – yet funding is a constant issue. There have been many layoffs in legal aid and the salaries are not nearly as high as one could find in a firm, or in-house position, so students are choosing the latter.
On a more positive note, there has been some movement toward loan forgiveness for lawyers. The Canadian Bar Association’s B.C. branch (CBABC) has been lobbying the provincial government to add lawyers to StudentAid BC’s loan forgiveness program. There is a high need for lawyers in rural communities and the CBABC has been attempting to address the issue through their program Rural Education and Access to Lawyers which is funded by the law society and the law foundation in the province.
Additionally, some Canadian law schools are experimenting with income contingent loan programs. At York University’s Osgoode Hall, there are a few students included in a program that provides funds to cover tuition costs, requiring repayment depending on the student’s financial status before and after law school. Osgoode has implemented a pilot project that is an income contingent loan program aimed at granting eligible students loans to cover tuition, which are to be repaid according to their post-law school income levels.
All of this is definitely a start, and I am very optimistic that one day we can get to a place where legal aid is more accessible for all – including the lawyers that want to pursue a career in it.