There isn’t a lot of incentive for qualified attorneys to work in the public sector as salaries are typically far lower than those they could earn in the private sector. A public defender will earn between $42,000 and $71,000 annually, leaving newly qualified attorneys struggling to pay off student loan debt. However working in the public sector can provide a great start to a law career and both defence and prosecuting attorneys will gain invaluable legal experience.
To assist attorneys who choose to work in the public sector Equal Justice Works administer the John R. Justice student loan repayment program, available to repay up to $10,000 of student loan debt per year, up to a total aggregate sum of $60,000. Funds will be paid directly to the student loan issuer, and the recipient of the program must continue to maintain their own obligations to their loans. Only federal student loans are covered under the program and private student loans will not be repaid through the program.
When the program was established certain conditions were attached. State agencies must give priority to those eligible beneficiaries who have the “least ability to repay their loans” which implies that those who enter the public area for experience rather than out of need are less likely to be eligible. States which award the repayment program must split available funds equally between public prosecutors and defenders. Federal prosecutors are not eligible for the program, or any private practice attorneys who provide public defender work under a state contract.
Those who do qualify for the program must be attorneys that are “continually licensed to practice law” and must be full time employees of the state or unit of local government, including tribal government. Loan repayment assistance is available for both state and federal public defenders, and state prosecutors. Recipients must agree to serve for a minimum three year term. Prosecutors must “prosecute criminal or juvenile delinquency cases” and public defenders must “provide legal representation to indigent persons in criminal or juvenile delinquency cases.” Other eligible recipients are attorneys who provide supervision, training and education to others who provide prosecutor of public defender representation.
Those who do qualify for the program and work as either public defenders or prosecutors may only remain in the program if they are not in default on their student loan obligations. Attorneys who lose their positions due to either misconduct or unacceptable job performance must reimburse the Department of Justice for any student loan repayments which have been received through the program.
Whilst not as generous as some other state forgiveness programs the John R. Justice Student Loan Repayment Program can potentially free an attorney of $60,000 of federal student loan debt and should definitely be applied for by attorneys who intend to work in the public sector.