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Law schools help public interest graduates

Many lawyers seeking employment in the types of law traditionally considered public interest work soon discover that the market for those positions is tight.

But even those who find jobs may wonder whether they can afford to take them. Wisconsin’s two law schools are helping to make it easier for their graduates to consider public interest positions.

Christopher J. McKinny, a 2003 graduate of Marquette University Law School, searched for an opening in public interest law and ultimately received an offer to work for Legal Action of Wisconsin, but he learned that the starting salary would be lower than he expected.

"I didn’t know if I took the job with Legal Action if I would even be able to get by economically," he said in an interview with the Wisconsin Law Journal.

“I think that made my decision to actually take the job with Legal Action much easier, because that took away one of the major concerns.”

Christopher J. McKinny
MU Law School graduate

"I knew that public interest law was absolutely what I wanted to do professionally," McKinny said. "Unfortunately, when anyone goes to graduate school and they run up a significant amount of student debt, economics sadly has to become a part of any equation when you’re deciding whether or not to take a job."

Programs Available to Graduates

Fortunately for McKinny, Marquette University Law School has a program that provides loan repayment assistance to eligible graduates in qualifying public interest or public service employment.

"I think that made my decision to actually take the job with Legal Action much easier, because that took away one of the major concerns," McKinny said.

A loan repayment assistance program, or LRAP, at the University of Wisconsin Law School likewise helped sustain 2003 graduate Barbara L. Gerber as she waited for her dream job — a position with the State Public Defender’s Office.

Now an assistant state public defender, Gerber worked as a secretary and also took private bar public defender appointments during the period of more than a year that went by while she waited for an opening. But it was the lump-sum payment she ultimately received from the UW Law School LRAP that enabled her to make ends meet in the stretch preceding her July 2004 offer to work for the public defender’s office in Manitowoc.

"I got a letter telling me that I had gotten this grant just at the time I had completely run out of all other options," she said. "And it was perfectly timed to give me just enough time to continue to wait for the public defender position and still be able to manage to live, and then I eventually got the job and now here I am.

"I could not have continued to keep pursuing this dream without having that grant there to help out."

Working as a public defender is everything she hoped it would be and more, Gerber said.

"I love the work, I love the people, I like helping people," she said. "I just think it’s so important, especially for people who don’t have a lot of money, to still get good legal representation. And I feel grateful that I can help provide that."

McKinny also finds that his job has great rewards.

"I couldn’t be happier doing the kind of work I’m doing now," he said.

Helping Students Pursue Ideals

“I could not have continued to keep pursuing this dream without having that grant there to help out.”

Barbara L. Gerber
UW Law School graduate

Because of the repayment assistance program at Marquette, students who come to law school with altruistic ideals can follow through on them despite concerns about educational debt, according to Mark J. Toth, who is the law school’s director of student services and also the co-chair of the committee that oversees the loan repayment assistance program.

"We’re a Jesuit institution, and part of the Jesuit mission is to the local community, being involved in the community, working with the underserved in the community," he said. "And so we see this as being very, very consistent with that mission."

The late Marquette University Law School Dean Howard B. Eisenberg launched the loan repayment assistance program in 2001, and the fund for the program is now called the Howard and Phyllis Eisenberg Fund.

The program made its first award in 2002, and so far, eight people have been awarded repayment assistance from it, according to Shirley A. Wiegand, who chairs the committee that oversees the program’s administration and is a professor at the law school.

The endowment for the program is currently at $370,000, according to Wiegand. The fund accumulated as a result of donations, she said, beginning with a legacy bequeathed after an alumnus passed away.

To date, the program has made its awards without even spending all of the interest that has accrued on the endowment, Wiegand said.

"We’re letting some of that interest build the fund," she said.

The law school’s current dean, Joseph D. Kearney, also has raised money for the program and is very committed to it, Wiegand said.

Participants in the program receive two checks a year. Though the payments are initially loans, the loans are forgiven after a year if the participants remain in qualifying employment, Wiegand said.

Alumni who graduate in May 2002 or later may qualify to enter the program if they are not delinquent or in default on student loan obligations and if they work full-time for qualifying employers, including Legal Services, tax-exempt non-profit organizations and governmental offices. Applicants also must meet the program’s income requirements — applicants without dependent children cannot make more than $45,000 in gross annual income from all sources.

The program may provide assistance to participants during as many as 10 years of qualifying employment.

The committee may award anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of eligible student loan payments based on a guideline that considers factors such as applicants’ income and debt levels, Wiegand said. The committee also may consider assets, spouses’ salaries and educational debts and whether a graduate has dependent children.

At the program’s inception, the income limit was $30,000 and only 25 percent of student loan payments were awarded, Wiegand said.

"We started out very conservatively because we started with no money," she said.

"We are committed to looking at the program every year, sitting down as a group and trying to decide if there are changes that need to be made," Wiegand added.

"And as we get more money, I would anticipate that the program will reach further."

UW Program Provides Lump-sum Awards

The University of Wisconsin Law School established its first loan repayment assistance program in the fall of 2001 with $25,000 taken from a general scholarship fund, according to Kristin M. Davis, who is the program’s primary administrator and a J.D. advisor in the Career Services Office.

Every year since then, the program has had $25,000 available to it from that fund, Davis said. In addition, administrators hope that a fund at the UW Foundation that currently contains about $12,000 from various alumni donations will eventually become part of an endowed fund for the loan repayment assistance program, she said.

Eventually, the law school is to receive another $50,000 through a bequest, Davis said.

To qualify for assistance through the LRAP program, UW Law School graduates must go to work for non-profit organizations or government agencies, Davis said.

While there is a general salary cap of $36,000, the program has the flexibility to assist graduates who make slightly more with a corresponding reduction in those graduates’ awards, she said.

In order to determine how much the program can afford to provide to those who qualify in a given graduating class, Davis said, administrators use the figures provided by applicants to determine their respective monthly law school student loan payments based on a standard repayment schedule. The administrators then calculate the number of student loan payments the program can make — keeping the number of payments equal among the eligible graduates — without exceeding the funds available for distribution.

"So in any given year, how many months we can pay depends on how many applicants we have," Davis said.

Eligible graduates in the class of 2002 — the first graduates to receive assistance through the program — received a lump sum equal to three months each of student loan payments, she said. In 2003, eligible graduates received awards equal to five months of their respective student loan payments, and those in 2004 received three months of payments each, she said.

But because some students who apply for assistance ultimately do not obtain qualifying positions — either due to the nature of the work they accept or because they exceed the salary cap — in some years, the program distributed additional money among the recipients in addition to their original awards, she said.

To date, 22 graduates have received assistance through the program, Davis said.

Law school representatives are actively seeking donations so that the program can provide more help to students who choose public interest work after graduation, said Jane A. Heymann, the law school’s assistant dean for career services.

"What we have put together is a very nice starting point, and we’re all very delighted to be able to offer something like an LRAP to students immediately," she said. "But the long-term goal has always been to set up a more traditional LRAP program if and when the money becomes available.

"So far, the big donor hasn’t stepped forward to give us a million dollars, but that’s not to say that that might not happen next week," Heymann added.

Fellowships Support Summer Work

In addition to the LRAPs, both law schools also have programs that provide grant or fellowship assistance to help law students afford to take summer positions with public interest employers.

Last year, the UW Law School’s Summer Public Service Fellowship program evolved from a primarily student-run effort supported by fundraisers such as bake sales, direct appeals to donors and a 10K run/walk and supplemented by some financial support from the law school to a program that is run primarily by the law school and supplemented by financial support and input from students, according to Heymann, who now administers the program.

Historically, summer public interest fellowships were administered by the student-run Public Interest Law Foundation (PILF), Heymann said. The law school became more involved in the program, which provides grant money to students working in summer public interest positions after their first and second years, at the sa
me time that the university’s financial aid office agreed to make summer work study grants available to law students performing summer public interest work, she said.

Traditionally, she said, the work study grants were not available to the law students for that work.

"Essentially, we double our money, because the federal government, through the work study program, is paying half of the student’s salary, and either the employer itself or the law school and PILF are funding the other half of the summer grant," Heymann said.

The program made 41 grants of $2,500 each last year to students for summer work, she said. The awards may increase this year depending on factors such as the number of work-study eligible students, Heymann said.

"We would dearly love to make the grants bigger, but if that means saying no to a dozen students, I don’t think we would do that," she said. "But if it just so happens that there is more money available, we will give out every last cent of it, that’s for sure."

This year, the law school will contribute $40,000 to the amount available for summer public interest law fellowships, Heymann said. PILF also received $5,000 in each of the last two years from the law school’s East Asian Legal Studies Center for grants to students whose summer public interest jobs have an international component, she added.

Heymann said that of the traditional options for supporting students’ interest in public interest work — LRAPs, scholarships to entering students who wish to pursue public interest careers, and programs that support summer public interest work — the law school prefers those that reward students who are "walking the talk."

"We have chosen to emphasize the summer grants because it makes it possible [for students] to not only serve the public in the way they want, but we think also to enhance their marketability for prestigious fellowships [and] for good jobs after they graduate," she said.

Raising Money for Fellowships

Marquette University Law School’s student-run Public Interest Law Society conducts an annual silent and live auction — now called the Howard B. Eisenberg Do-Gooders Auction — that raises the money for fellowships awarded to law students for summer public interest work.

Last year, the program awarded students who received full fellowships $3,500 each; this year, those students who receive full fellowships will receive $4,200 each, according to Jess Johnson, a third-year student who is the co-president of the Public Interest Law Society.

"We did that to keep up with inflation," Johnson said of the increase, adding that the amount of the full fellowships is computed by multiplying the 35 hours each student is expected to work in a summer position by the 10 weeks of work expected and multiplying that by a base rate that is currently set by reference to the hourly wage paid to graduate assistants who work for the law school.

In addition to the full fellowships, the program sometimes grants partial fellowships, she said.

Related Links

Legal Action of Wisconsin

Marquette University Law School

UW Law School

The number of fellowships is determined by dividing the auction proceeds and other available funds by the fellowship amount for a particular year, Johnson said. But the organization tries to maintain at least some funds from prior years in case the auction doesn’t make very much money in a particular year, she said.

The program received more than 30 applications and gave nine students full fellowships last year, Johnson said. Total proceeds from the auction, other fundraisers and outside donations totaled approximately $34,000 for that year, she said.

The law school supports the auction by providing money to pay for its costs, Johnson said, adding that this year, it contributed $10,000.

Those who provide services for the auction often donate them or provide them at a reduced cost, Johnson said.

"All our centerpieces are donated," she said. "Any decorations are donated."

The auction will feature a Mardi Gras theme this year, Johnson said.

"All of our volunteers are going to be wearing masks and hats so they’re recognizable to answer questions," she said. "And we’ve got little theme things going on."

A list of auction items is on the PILS website. This year’s auction will be held this Friday, Feb. 18, from 5 to 9 p.m. at the Pfister Hotel.

The UW’s Public Interest Law Found-ation also has an upcoming fundraiser. A chili cook-off is scheduled for later this month, according to a PILF representative.

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