The number of people living in poverty hit an all-time high in 2014. And the justice gap - the difference between the level of legal assistance currently available to those in poverty, and the level of legal assistance necessary to meet those needs - has grown with it: 63.5 million people, a whopping 21 percent of the population, are currently eligible for federally-funded civil legal services.
With so many low-income Americans struggling to find jobs, keep their homes, and supply basic needs for their families, the need for public interest lawyers has never been greater. These attorneys play a vital role in ensuring equality within the justice system in America by helping low-income individuals access the court system.
A growing body of research shows that public interest lawyers also provide significant economic benefits that help the American economy. Their representation helps prevent low- and middle-income Americans from sinking into poverty. And legal aid reduces government costs in many ways: increasing low-income clients' employment opportunities, preventing foreclosure and homelessness, and helping domestic violence survivors avoid the costs of medical treatment, counseling, and police protection - just to name a few.
But public interest lawyers need help too. According to the National Association for Law Placement's (NALP) 2014 Public Sector and Public Interest Attorney Salary Report, the median salary of an entry-level public interest attorney in 2014 was $48,025*. According to the American Bar Association (ABA), the average amount borrowed to attend a private law school was $122,158 in 2012.
Although some law graduates go on to become high earners and are able to repay their loans without assistance, most public interest attorneys rely on federal income-driven repayment plans as a safety net. And many are relying on Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), which allows borrowers to earn forgiveness on their federal loans after completing 120 months of full time employment in a public service job while repaying their loans. These programs are financial necessities for public interest attorneys who have chosen to use their law degree to help low-income clients rather than maximizing their own income.
Unfortunately, right now there are calls in Congress to cap or eliminate PSLF and extend the repayment period for income-driven repayment plans to 25 years instead of 20. These calls stem from a surge in graduate student borrowing (the Wall Street Journal recently reported that, although graduate students make up only 14 percent of students in higher education, they represent roughly 40 percent of all student debt) and the misconception that this increase is motivated by income-driven repayment plans and PSLF because they facilitate borrowing large amounts of money.
In fact, the Great Recession drove the increase in graduate school enrollment, as many facing unemployment went back to school. And there is no evidence PSLF led to larger tuition increases at law schools. It is highly doubtful that capping or eliminating PSLF would impact the cost of law school - but it would undoubtedly hurt public interest attorneys and the millions of clients they serve. A recent survey on PSLF by the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA) showed that ending the program would result in a vast reduction in attorneys committing their careers to providing legal services to low-income clients.
Public interest attorneys attended law school and chose their careers because they are devoted to closing the justice gap and ensuring access to justice for all Americans. But, despite the fact that their work provides immeasurable benefits both for their clients and for the rest of the nation, they will struggle with their law school loans for decades without assistance. Equal Justice Works is standing with the American Bar Association and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association to ensure the preservation of programs vital to ensuring their continued service.
"Equal justice for all" is a cornerstone of the American judicial system. Critical to the preservation of this principle are the public interest attorneys who defend the most vulnerable among us, ensuring that all members of our society have fair access to justice under law. But these lawyers are only able to commit their careers to this important work because of programs like PSLF and income-driven repayment plans. Eliminating, capping, or reducing access to these programs will not reduce law school tuition as some may believe - but it will put our goal of equal justice even more beyond our reach.
*Average salary of lawyers working in civil legal aid, public defense, prosecuting offices, and public interest organizations.
Ashley Matthews is a Program Manager for Law School Engagement & Advocacy, managing the Student Debt and Student Engagement programs. Prior to joining Equal Justice Works, she worked as Communications Manager for Legal Services Corporation where she helped design strategies to increase congressional awareness of federally funded civil legal aid. She also led the digital content and communications team for PSJD.org, a public service initiative of the National Association for Law Placement (NALP). Ashley received her J.D. from the University of Miami School of Law.