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Lawyers owe an average of $145,000 in student loans from their undergraduate and graduate degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Several programs can help lawyers ease — or even erase — that debt burden.
Law school loan forgiveness is typically only for those in the public sector. But the best law school loan repayment program for you will depend not only on where you practice but also on your financial situation and what types of student loans you have.
» MORE: How to pay for law school
If you have a low salary
Best option: Income-driven repayment
Income-driven repayment plans base federal student loan borrowers’ payments on their earnings and family size. Most private lenders do not offer income-driven repayment, which is one reason federal student loans are often the best law school loans.
Income-driven plans are available whether you practice in the private or public sector. After 20 or 25 years of payments, your remaining balance is forgiven, but that amount is taxable. Public interest lawyers may qualify for faster or tax-free forgiveness through other programs (see next section).
If you’re a public interest lawyer
Best option: Loan forgiveness programs
Public service lawyers typically have lower salaries than those in the private sector. The trade-off is that law school loan forgiveness programs are usually available only to public interest lawyers:
Public Service Loan Forgiveness. This program eliminates federal student loan balances for borrowers who make loan payments for 10 years while working for the government or certain nonprofits. Nonprofits that offer public interest law services qualify, even if they aren’t 501(c)3 organizations. Submit an Employment Certification Form to confirm whether your employer qualifies for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.
Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP): Twenty-three states and some law schools give borrowers money for loan payments via LRAPs. Every program has different stipulations, but many require lawyers to have incomes under specific limits and fulfill certain service requirements. Some LRAPs cover private student loans, including bar exam loans. The American Bar Association has a list of state LRAPs. Contact your law school to see if it offers an LRAP.
Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program (ASLRP): While this is not a loan forgiveness program, the Department of Justice will match federal student loan payments of up to $6,000. To qualify, you must owe at least $10,000, meet specific income thresholds and agree to a three-year service commitment with the Justice Department. Interested attorneys must submit a written request by the deadline set by the program administrators. For new requests, the 2019 deadline was March 1.
Law school loan forgiveness programs are not mutually exclusive; you can use each you qualify for.
If you have Perkins loans
Best option: Perkins loan forgiveness
Perkins loans are low-interest federal student loans that haven’t been issued since 2017. If you borrowed Perkins loans before then, you may be able to eliminate their entire balance over the course of five years.
Perkins loan forgiveness is available only to lawyers who practice full time for a federal public or community defender organization. To be eligible, you must also have performed these services on or after Aug. 14, 2008.
If you’re a high-earning lawyer in the private sector
Best option: Student loan refinancing
Refinancing your loans may make sense if you have a good salary and won’t qualify for any loan forgiveness programs. Lawyers with high incomes, good credit and a low debt-to-income ratio could save money through student loan refinancing.
Refinancing can change a loan’s terms, typically letting you lower your interest rate. But borrowers who refinance federal loans lose benefits like income-driven repayment. Refinance law school loans only if you’re certain you don’t need those options.
If you already have private law school loans and can qualify for a lower interest rate, it’s usually a no-brainer to refinance.