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October 19, 2011

NY state judges considering loan repayment to students who aid poor

I am pleased and excited to see this interesting new report, headlined "Under Plan, Lawyers Who Counsel Poor Would Get Loan Help," in the New York Law Journal.  Here are excerpts:

New attorneys who volunteer to represent low-income New Yorkers would receive state money to help them repay their student loans under a proposal being considered by court administrators.

The idea is being weighed by court administrators as they formulate the Judiciary's budget for the 2012-2013 fiscal year, which is due by Dec. 1, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman said in an interview.

The plan was advanced by Justice Michael V. Coccoma, the chief administrative judge for courts outside of New York City, during a hearing this month by Judge Lippman and his task force on civil legal services into ways to improve funding for poor people facing foreclosure, eviction, the loss of health care and other civil matters.

The task force has estimated that, at best, only one in five poor New Yorkers in need of civil legal services receive representation. "I think we have to think out of the box to create ways to foster civil legal services," Judge Lippman said. A loan forgiveness program "is certainly worth taking a look at."

Justice Coccoma argued during an Oct. 3 hearing that the poor economy, the slack job market for law school graduates and the heavy debt load many law students take on could offer a ready pool of lawyers willing to represent indigent clients in civil matters as they work off portions of their loans.

"When I heard of an increasing number of recent law school graduates unable to find jobs, I asked myself, why could we not develop a funding stream, a steady funding stream, of programs which would provide an opportunity for these attorneys, who are eager to put their skills to work in public service programs to provide legal services to the poor?" Justice Coccoma testified. "Perhaps this task force could recommend that in exchange for a two- or three-year commitment to such a program, those lawyers would receive a reduction in their student loans."

He said the hands-on experience could be invaluable to new practitioners. "As a young attorney, you are meeting face to face with your client much sooner than if you are working with a larger firm," Justice Coccoma said. "Sitting in the office with a client face to face, then advocating for them in a court or with an agency, that is valuable experience. It is that person-to-person contact which I think is a valuable experience in a legal career."

Justice Coccoma said a state loan repayment program would be similar to those offered by the federal government to some 70,000 people through the federal AmeriCorps program, which provides tutoring, home improvements and other services to the poor.

New York state also operates projects in which medical school graduates earn reductions in their student loans by committing to practice in under-served areas. In the Doctors Across New York program, for instance, 41 doctors receive up to $150,000 in loan repayments for a five-year commitment to practice in those areas.

Lawrence Raful, dean of Touro Law Center on Long Island, said a loan repayment program for law students is a "terrific" idea. But he said it would have to be structured to provide new graduates with careful monitoring and mentoring.

"My concern is competency, mentoring, apprenticing, whatever you want to call it," Mr. Raful said. "I just don't know how you set it up. Doctors have the four years of medical school and four years of residency, so they are much more prepared to go out to western New York to provide exams and flu shots and the other basics. But how do you supervise these [civil legal services] people?"

Similarly, the chairman of the New York State Bar Association's Young Lawyer's Section, James R. Barnes of Burke & Casserly in Albany, agreed that there would have to be close oversight of participants. "Are they going to be completely on their own?" Mr. Barnes said in an interview.  "I know that many young lawyers indicate a hesitancy at going out on their own practice.  But if it is part of a larger practice you might find enough people who are willing to make that sort of commitment. I would assume the pay wouldn't be extensive, but you add it to the loan forgiveness and experience, I think you have a viable product."

Mr. Raful also questioned whether the Judiciary, if it promotes a loan repayment program, would get the plan through the Legislature.  "I am not so sure, to be honest, that the public, and therefore the Legislature, is as enamored of legal services as they are with [providing adequate] health care in under-served areas," he said.  "I am not sure about the mood of the Legislature, I am not sure they are going to throw money at this, as opposed to, say, the Tappan Zee Bridge."

Indeed, Justice Coccoma's idea was panned in an Oct. 11 editorial by the New York Post. "Once again, New York is on its uppers, and talk of new 'funding streams' for anything — let alone paying down young lawyers' student loans — is absurd and inappropriate," the paper said. It said the shortage of jobs of lawyers carries a message that "New York has enough lawyers already — and maybe too many."

As regular readers know, I think this kind of innovative program is exactly how both courts and law schools should be seeking helpful joint solutions to some of their current structural problems.  This NYLJ article effectively highlights some of the pragmatic and political challenges for the proposal being considered, but I think both could and should be readily surmounted if there is enough will among the courts and judges, interested public policy groups, and the law-school-reformer-types engaged in the scam debates

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Posted by DAB

October 19, 2011 in Legal profession realities and developments, Service -- legal profession | Permalink

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Posted by: loan | Aug 14, 2012 3:22:09 AM

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