From court hearings in criminal cases to environmental law, as an attorney you are in the unique position to both influence public policy and potentially impact change. But the road to becoming a lawyer can be a pricey one.
On average, a private law school costs $47,112 annually in tuition and fees . That adds up by the time you graduate—not to mention you probably had to pay for four years of undergraduate study also. No wonder so many new law school graduates feel overwhelmed by their student loans.
On the plus side, there are ways to save money on your loans while still pursuing a legal career. Law school loan forgiveness is a possibility, as is refinancing your student loans at a lower interest rate.
First, however, plan your post-law school budget and make a repayment plan for your loans (while factoring in your salary and potentially time off to prepare for the bar).
From there, you can factor in all your options—including loan forgiveness for lawyers, which could repay or wipe out portions of your debt. But know that student loan forgiveness is not the only way to cut down on your law school loan payments—and it may not be the best choice for you, depending on the type of law you plan to practice.
Public Service Loan Forgiveness for Lawyers
The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program may be the most well-known option in terms of loan forgiveness for lawyers.
The premise is simple: If you work in a qualifying public service field, then the remainder of your direct student loans can be forgiven after you make 120 consecutive qualifying monthly payments over 10 years. However, many people attempting to meet those requirements can find the process confusing and difficult.
The first step to qualifying for public service loan forgiveness is filling out the employment certification form .
In order to earn loan forgiveness, you must work for a qualifying government organization or tax-exempt non-profit organization, and you must be enrolled in a qualifying repayment plan—generally a federal income-driven repayment plan. The next step is to make your monthly loan payments promptly! If you meet all those requirements and payments, then at the end of 10 years, the remainder of your debt could be forgiven.
While loan forgiveness sounds like the dream, there are downsides, too. Income-based or income-driven repayment plans are typically tied to how much you earn. If you’re not earning much in relation to your loan balance and as a result are making very small payments, then you might end up paying a hefty amount of interest in the long run. The other challenge is that federal loans (that are not in default) are the only loans that qualify for federal income-based repayment plans—which means you can’t refinance them at a lower interest rate with a private lender.
Obviously, if you put all that time and money in and then it doesn’t pay off, it could cost you. Since the original Public Service Loan Forgiveness program went into effect in 2007, the first students eligible were set to have their loans discharged in October 2017.
Yet the Department of Education reported that out of about 7,500 applications only around 1,000 were expected to qualify for loan forgiveness. That was mostly due to misinformation and borrowers believing they were making qualifying payments only to find out after the fact they’d been given incorrect info by their loan providers.
Federal Perkins Loan Cancellation
While Perkins Loan cancellation is most commonly used for teachers, some attorneys could qualify to have their Perkins Loan cancelled.
If you are a lawyer working as a public defender—for a federal community defender organization or in a legal nonprofit serving children—you could also have your federal Perkins Loan cancelled as a type of public service loan forgiveness. Up to 100% of your federal Perkins Loan can be canceled after five years of qualifying service.
However, public service loan forgiveness for lawyers is not the only option. There are a number of other law school loan forgiveness programs—also known as loan repayment programs or loan repayment assistance programs.
Department of Justice Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program
The Department of Justice Attorney Student Loan Repayment program is a type of law school loan forgiveness aimed at encouraging newly minted attorneys to work for the Department of Justice. Applications for the program open in the spring (typically on March 1) and applicants must commit to three years working for the Department of Justice.
In return, you can receive up to $6,000 per year (for a maximum of $60,000 total) paid toward your student loans. It’s not exactly law school loan forgiveness, but it is law school loan repayment.
The fine print: You must commit to three years of full-time employment for the Department of Justice, and if you don’t fulfill your commitment then you could be on the hook for any loan payments made on your behalf. You must have at least $10,000 in eligible student loans, which includes Stafford Loans, PLUS loans, Perkins Loans, and a few other types of student loans. (All criteria information is available on the Department of Justice’s program website .)
Payments are made directly to the loan servicer and all loan repayments made by the Department of Justice ASLRP are considered taxable income. It’s also a highly competitive program, but if you’re looking at a career working for the DOJ, then it could be a great way to get your start and wipe out some debt.
John R. Justice Student Loan Repayment Program
The other popular law school loan forgiveness program is the John R. Justice Student Loan Repayment program . It’s administered out of the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and is for those working as public defenders.
The good news is if you work as a public defender for three years, then you could be eligible for up to $10,000 per year in loan repayments (for a maximum of $60,000 total). Each state has a specific agency that administers the John R. Justice Student Loan Repayment program, so check the list of designated agencies to apply.
The Herbert S. Garten Loan Repayment Assistance Program
The Herbert S. Garten Loan Repayment Assistance Program is a grant program that allows your law school loans to be repaid if you work full-time for one of the grantee organizations (primarily nonprofit legal services and legal aid organizations). For the 2018 funding cycle, applicants must have had at least $75,000 in eligible law school loans and income below an annual cap—$62,500 in the lower 48 states, $71,875 in Hawaii, and $78,125 in Alaska.
Up to $5,600 each is awarded to each of around 70 attorneys annually through an application process that opens in the spring.
Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAPs)
Many schools also offer their own loan forgiveness for lawyers, also known as loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs). Most of these programs have salary requirements, typically that you earn less than around $75,000 , and that you work in a qualifying field, often the public service sector.
The specifics of the loan repayment assistance programs vary from school to school, so you’ll have to check with your law school’s financial aid office. Here is a semi-comprehensive list of law schools with LRAPs .
Most states also have LRAPs providing a type of law school loan forgiveness if you work in that state—often in the public sector, for a qualifying nonprofit, or in underserved communities. These programs typically offer $2,000 to $7,000 annually in loan repayment assistance.
An Alternative to Law School Loan Forgiveness
Even if law school loan forgiveness seems out of reach, law school debt doesn’t have to be overwhelming. According to the American Bar Association (which commissioned a task force to study the problem), the average law student graduated private school in 2014 with $127,000 of debt and public school students graduated with $88,000 of loans. (These are the most recent figures available from the ABA.)
Getting those loans forgiven would be great, but it could also end up costing you money in the long run if you end up paying higher interest rates or don’t pursue the career you want in the hope of securing loan forgiveness.
Consolidating federal student loans is another option, but can be complicated: In order to keep your loans as federal loans (a requirement of many loan forgiveness programs), you have to consolidate under the Direct Loan Consolidation program .
Through this program, your new interest rate is the weighted average of your existing loans’ rates. However, refinancing your federal student loans (and your private student loans, if you have any) at a lower interest rate could reduce the amount of money you pay over the life of the loan.
If you are looking for a solution to get ahead of your law school debt, consider refinancing with SoFi. When you refinance, depending on your earning potential and credit history, you could lower your interest rate or your monthly payments.
Notice: SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment or PAYE. SoFi always recommends that you consult a qualified financial advisor to discuss what is best for your unique situation.
The information and analysis provided through hyperlinks to third party websites, while believed to be accurate, cannot be guaranteed by SoFi. Links are provided for informational purposes and should not be viewed as an endorsement.