Bar program takes aim at loan debt: Legal aid attorneys can get relief

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In 2037, Melody Goldberg will be 57 years old and eligible for membership in AARP. While the lawyer at Indiana Legal Services Inc. has difficulty relishing the thought, she can at least look forward to the time when she’s finally liberated of her student loans.

But for now, Goldberg, 27, can take solace as well knowing she’s content at the public service job she enjoys without worrying about how she’s going to make her next loan payment.

The 2006 graduate of the Indiana University School of Law in Indianapolis is among about a dozen lawyers who are taking advantage of a program that helps them repay mounds of debt. In turn, the expectation is that they’ll stay in a sector of the legal profession they find rewarding but far less lucrative than what they might earn at a law firm.

Lawyers employed by civil legal aid providers who earn less than $50,000 a year are eligible for $5,000 in annual support from the Indiana Bar Foundation’s Loan Repayment Assistance Program.

For Goldberg, director of the not-forprofit’s migrant farm worker law center, every bit helps, especially when payments on her $92,000 student-loan bill resemble some 30-year mortgages.

“It’s an immense help,” she said. “I would have gone into this type of work, anyway, but this makes it much easier.”

To be sure, LRAPs have emerged as a way to relieve the burden of debt for scores of law school grads enamored with public service. Law schools, state bar associations and foundations, and federal and state governments administer most of the programs. Yet the number still is not enough to meet the need of many attorneys who want to pursue a career as a legal aid provider, according to a report from the Chicago-based American Bar Association.

The IBF, the charitable arm of the Indiana State Bar Association, handed out its first awards totaling $30,000 in January. The foundation this year has committed $50,000, which will be split in half and distributed twice. Applications for the first round of funds were due June 22.

Recipients such as Goldberg are free to reapply as often as they wish, although IBF Executive Director Charles Dunlap hopes the program will continue to attract newcomers. Of the dozen attorneys approved to receive assistance, two have debt exceeding six figures. Their annual salaries range from $21,000 to $49,900, with yearly loan obligations spanning $1,200 to $9,550.

“It’s another house on their backs that they have to carry,” Dunlap said. “This can help supplement their incomes.”

Besides the salary stipulation, legal aid attorneys must have a valid license to practice law in Indiana and be an ISBA member. The added benefit for recipients is that the money distributed quarterly isn’t considered taxable income.

The IBF’s LRAP is supported by the Interest on Lawyer Trust Account program created in 1998 by the Indiana Supreme Court. Known as IOLTA, it uses the interest raised from trust accounts to support free legal services to the indigent. The accounts hold funds short term from such legal transactions as a settlement or sale of a business or estate.

IOLTA participation became mandatory for attorneys in July 2005, with the exception of judges, prosecutors and law professors. Revenue generated from the program is expected to reach $3 million this year.

Any profit the foundation makes from IOLTA funds is used for grants or programs such as LRAP, Dunlap said.

In Goldberg’s instance, she received $4,000 and another $1,000 in April from her employer that launched its own, separate LRAP. Legal Services adopted the program as a recruiting tool and incentive for lawyers to stay at least five years, Executive Director Norman Metzger said.

Similar to the IBF’s version, it, too, is open to attorneys who make less than $50,000 a year. The difference is that eligibility ends after five years, when the most a lawyer nets is $5,000.

“The concept behind that is, we want people to know that the longer they stay here, the more LRAP money they receive,” Metzger said. “They can’t go out and buy cars, but they know it’s going to be spent against their student loans.”

New arrivals there earn $38,000, a far cry from the $100,000 some of the top-tier Indianapolis firms are paying first-year associates. But Metzger, who’s toiled 40 years in the legal aid field, thinks the assistance can have an impact.

In years past, prospects might have gone through an entire interview without inquiring about starting pay, Metzger recalled. Now they won’t end a meeting without asking whether he offers an LRAP.

The Indianapolis-based Legal Services employs 50 attorneys in 10 cities across the state. About a dozen lawyers are receiving LRAP money, which is generated from the agency’s General Fund.

For Angela Hoogeveen, 35, a staff attorney at the South Bend office whose loan amounts top six figures, the assistance beats claiming economic hardship.

“It’s good that you can put off some of these payments, but put them off until when?” she asked. “That’s why the loan repayment programs have become increasingly beneficial.”

Meanwhile, the IBF is considering whether to expand its program to include other not-for-profits, or prosecuting attorney and public defender offices.

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