Thinking About Public Interest Work? Find Out About LRAP, Getting the Job You Want, and More!

MoneyToday’s interview is with Radhika Singh Miller, program manager for Educational Debt Relief and Outreach at Equal Justice Works. If you’re considering public interest work, Equal Justice Works has your back!

They’ll help you chose the right law school, get the in-school experience you need, and fund your work after you graduate. In addition, they’re on the front lines of the education debt fight, helping ensure that important public interest work can continue, even in the face of crippling student debt loads.

Without further ado, here’s Radhika!

Alison: I’m considering law school and I know I want to do public interest work. I’ve done some research (including reading this fantastic Vault article you wrote), so I know the basics about student loans and ways I might be able to repay them. But what, specifically, should I look at to figure out if a school’s LRAP program will be helpful to me? How do they vary, and what do I need to keep an eye out for?

The first step is to check whether a school even has an LRAP. Equal Justice Works has a list that can help you get started.

The key to figuring out if an LRAP can help you is a little different because it’s relief that you’ll get after graduation.

You need to think about what you want to do with your law degree and where you want to work.

Because LRAPs generally have limited funds, they can afford to help only a limited amount of people for a limited amount of time.  You don’t want to rely on an LRAP when deciding what you can afford to borrow if you won’t qualify after graduating.

Look at the basic benefits of an LRAP as well as any limits on these (this is where your career plans come into play) to see if you’ll qualify and what you’ll get.

You want to ask questions about specific factors that are weighed in determining eligibility, especially regarding qualifying employment and income, as well as think about how your plans (not only professional, but also life choices like buying a house or marriage) will affect your eligibility as time goes by. The Equal Justice Works Guide to Law Schools has a wealth of information on LRAPs at law schools across the country to get you started. Then contact the school to check specific details.

Here are some questions to ask:

  • How much will you get in each installment (for example, $200 per month or $2000 per year) and is there a cap on total assistance (once you receive a certain amount, for example $10,000, are you no longer eligible) or a limit to how long you can participate (can you only participate for five years regardless of the amount you receive)? You don’t want to plan on receiving funds for 10 years if you can only actually get them for five.
  • Which student loans are eligible (will the LRAP include any loans from undergrad or different grad degree or only help with law school loans)?
  •  What service obligation do you have and for how long? Some LRAPs require you to commit to a certain number of years in public interest work to be eligible for an award.
  • What employment qualifies? Is eligibility restricted to certain categories of employment? For example, sometimes judicial clerkships do not qualify at all, sometimes they will if a graduate remains in public interest work and sometimes they do without limitation. Sometimes public defense work qualifies but prosecutor positions do not, and sometimes government attorneys do not qualify at all. All this will vary by program.  Of course your plans may change, but it always helps to have a general idea.
  • Will you need to have a law license and will you need to be practicing law? These questions are related. Many law school LRAPs do require you to be practicing law, so if you know want to pursue something like public advocacy, you should check to see if this will make you ineligible for LRAP awards.
  • Is there an income cap (and what is it) and how is income calculated? Think about your situation and future plans. Consider whether spousal income will be included in the calculation and whether assets (like a house) are considered.
  • How is the LRAP funded and how is it structured? Is your LRAP in the school’s budget or does it rely on fundraising? Before depending on the program, you want to make sure it will be around when you graduate and while you need it! The structure of an LRAP affects whether it will count on your taxes as taxable income. Generally, school LRAPs that are structured as forgivable loans (the school lends you money to make payments on your student loans and then forgives the amount it lent you and repeats – clever, no?) and are not taxable, but grants are.
I’m in law school now, and I want to do public interest work when I graduate. What are the three most important things I need to be doing now to get the job I want?

The three essential things you can do right now are:

  1. build your practical skills experience
  2. establish connections in the public interest law community
  3. work with those connections and organizations to start building your career now.

Building your practical skills experience is the most important thing you can do. A common misconception is that anyone can practice public interest law. Public interest law is broad, but highly specialized. Organizations and firms often lack the resources to train new attorneys.

If you want to be a public defender or immigration lawyer, start building courtroom and client-relation skills now; if you want to be a civil rights litigator, begin learning the law and how to litigate these cases now.

Law schools are increasingly providing opportunities to participate in clinics and field placements where you can gain helpful hands-on experience working under the supervision of practicing attorneys.

Look for simulated courses like trial advocacy and discovery so you can start building these important skills.  Not only will you have more to offer your future employer when you graduate, but also be more comfortable in your position knowing that you have the training to hit the ground running.

Establishing connections and working to build your career now are also crucial steps you can begin immediately. Public interest law employers tend to hire attorneys who have shown their dedication and passion to serving the cause. They want to hire attorneys they trust and know will succeed.

Volunteer and do internships and externships, even if they are unpaid. These opportunities build your experience and reputation. Some law schools provide summer funding for students who take low-paying or unpaid public interest positions, and some organizations offer fellowships (the Equal Justice Works Summer Corps program provides educational vouchers for service). Even if they aren’t in your exact area of law, these experiences and connections will demonstrate your commitment and success.

Developing your connections can help you find someone in your intended area of law as well as provide support and a professional network when you start working — nurture and maintain them. People know people and people need people. Always remember this and build your reputation as a professional and as a person.

Could you talk a bit about what you do in an average day at work, and how it’s similar to (or different from) what you thought you’d be doing when you started law school?

An average day at work for me includes research, advocacy and outreach. For example:

  • Working to build programs like The Guide, which helps students who want to pursue public interest law find schools that will help them do that.
  • Researching and advocating for educational debt relief programs like Income-Based Repayment (IBR), which aims to reduce monthly payments due on federal student loans based on your income (rather than the amount you owe), and Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) that will forgive the balance on eligible loans after you’ve made 120 qualifying payments while working in qualifying public service employment.

The piece that pulls it all together is the outreach.

We work to make it possible for those who want to enter into public interest law to do so.

We offer post-graduate fellowships, like our Equal Justice Works Fellowships, AmeriCorps Legal Fellowships, and Public Defender Corps, as well as our Summer Corps program that provides summer positions and funding for law students.

But also we know that building your public interest career starts before law school when you are choosing a school. To help you pick the one that’s right for you and has the courses, clinics and opportunities you need, The Equal Justice Works Guide to Law Schools provides all this information in one place.

And of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention educational debt. We know that educational debt is a significant burden, especially on those entering traditionally lower-paying public interest work. It becomes difficult to make payments and pay for necessities when you owe $100,000 and make $40,000.

Even the most dedicated public interest lawyer may be forced to choose between the work she loves and things like buying a house or having children.

Our educational debt relief and outreach program advocates for the development and expansion of IBR and PSLF and LRAPs, to help ease this burden.

We know none of these programs could be effective without outreach. Students need to know about these before they start law school, while they’re there, when they graduate and beyond.  We spend a lot of time visiting schools, attending conventions and sharing information through other means like Facebook, Twitter and informational webinars.

My current work is pretty different than what I thought I’d be doing when I started law school. I went to law school to become a civil rights litigator — and I did just that. Throughout law school and while I was litigating, I also did a lot of organizing in the community and with my colleagues, and discovered that I loved organizing.

My position here allows me to combine my two passions — I still get to work to advance the public interest and make it possible for others to do what I did (and loved) as well as do a lot of organizing and outreach. I couldn’t have done one without doing the other.

Radhika Singh Miller is a program manager for Educational Debt Relief and Outreach at Equal Justice Works. In 2008, she served on the Student Loans Team in the Negotiated Rulemaking for the College Cost Reduction and Access Act (CCRAA) and has extensive knowledge of this landmark educational debt relief legislation. Radhika graduated from Loyola Law School Los Angeles and was most recently a staff attorney at the Partnership for Civil Justice, focusing on constitutional and civil rights litigation and advocacy.

Read On:

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