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Cornell Law School Incentivizes Public Interest Work by Expanding Loan Forgiveness

By Vaidehi Mehta, Esq. | Last updated on

Cornell is now setting the national standard in incentivizing its law students to participate in public interest jobs with its new funding cap.

Law school is a big investment for most students, though the cost can vary significantly. Public law schools tend to be much cheaper, especially for in-state students. On average, in-state students pay around $29,610 annually in tuition, while out-of-state students pay roughly $42,754. On the other hand, private law schools have a much higher average cost, with tuition ranging from $12,000 to a staggering $80,000 per year, with an average of $53,034. Moreover, the price of law school is on the rise, with the average annual tuition increasing by $1,398. Across all schools, the average total cost of law school (including both tuition and living expenses) was reported to be $220,335 last year.

While many law grads can potentially make a lot of money, it’s certainly not a given. Apart from what city you’re working in, your practice area, and your work experience, one huge dividing line between lawyer salaries is whether you work in the private or public sector.

The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) reported a median salary of $75,000 for the Class of 2020 graduates with a full-time job lasting at least one year (across all lawyers in both public and private practice). The NALP data for 2023 showed that the country's median starting salary for civil legal services lawyers was $64,200, while public defenders and those at public service organizations made about the same.

Compare that to the median salary for law grads from the same class working in private practice: $130,000. In 2023, the median base salary for new law firm associates was $200,000. Since these are median salaries, they don’t account for the wide range of starting salaries. Rather, the data showed two peaks in the distribution curve: one at the low salary of $45,000 for some public interest attorneys and another at $190,000 for private lawyers.

With these disparities between debt and salaries, what’s a fresh J.D. to do? Well, that’s where LRAP comes in.

What's an LRAP?

Unless you were lucky enough to pay out of pocket or get a scholarship for your higher education, you’ve probably heard the acronym “LRAP.” The term universally stands for “Loan Repayment Assistance Program,” but the type of loan and the program's goal can differ depending on where you hear it.

If you encounter the term on a college financial aid website, it likely refers to a more general program to help with any loan. It is used as a blanket term encompassing several programs that help graduates repay their student loans. Universities and private organizations can both offer these programs. They typically base repayment assistance on your income after graduation. For example, some LRAPs may cover all federal, private alternative, and Parent PLUS loans, and provide assistance based on a percentage of your income exceeding a certain threshold.

On the other hand, in the context of law school, LRAP refers to a public service program. LRAP for law schools refers to a specific type of LRAP offered by law schools and some other institutions. These programs are designed to help graduates who pursue careers in public service, government, or other [relatively] lower-paying legal fields. They often provide forgivable loans to help repay student debt, with the requirement that the graduate works in a qualifying public service job for a certain amount of time. They’re basically designed to incentivize graduates to pursue public service careers – or, at least, not disincentivize them with the fear of never being able to climb out of debt with their public law salaries.

LRAP programs award funds as loans, not grants. However, the loan is forgiven, meaning you don't have to repay it, if you meet specific service requirements after graduation. To qualify for forgiveness, you'll need to work in a qualifying public service job for a set number of years. This typically involves working for a government agency, legal aid organization, or non-profit focused on public interest work.

Many LRAP programs base the amount of assistance you receive on your income and debt burden. Each law school’s program will work with the federal government’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)  program. In PSLF, monthly payments a student owes are calculated based on their income. Any balance on the loan is erased after 10 years of employment in qualifying public interest jobs. Graduates with the highest debt and lowest income receive the most significant awards.

LRAP programs are not universal and their structure depends on how each law school has set up their program. Most T-14 law schools have programs with salary caps between $55,000 and $85,000 per year to qualify for full loan repayment. Of course, there are outliers with higher caps, like  Harvard and NYU, which had caps of $110,000. Now, Cornell is adding itself to that outlier club – and one-upping the other two members.

Cornell Sets New Cap

Cornell’s cap for full loan repayment in its LRAP program has, up until now, been $80,000. Next month, Cornell Law will bump that cap to $120,000. For those making more, Cornell offers partial options. It will extend partial federal loan repayments to its public interest law grads that make up to $150,000 every year for up to 10 years.

Data on the number of students Cornell sends to practice public interest law is unknown, but the school administration said it was a “modest” number. They’re also keeping under wraps the amount they spend on LRAP. The American Bar Association has data showing that last year, in a class of 174 J.D.s, 19 went into public interest positions while three went into government practice. 

That’s not a lot. So, the new cap increase is Cornell’s way of incentivizing more participation of its law graduates in public interest work. One of Cornell Law’s deans and professors, Jens David Ohlin, noted: “The loan repayment promise we make at Cornell allows us to deliver on the dreams of individuals who want to use their law degree to serve the public interest. Expanding opportunities for our graduates will attract more aspiring lawyers to Cornell, and, ultimately, enhance their impact on our nation as they consider more diverse career options.”

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