The State Bar of Texas has given $1.75 million to fill the coffers of a school-loan repayment program for legal-aid lawyers, after the stagnant economy cut interest rates and decimated the traditional source of funding for the program. “We’re trying to help young or new lawyers who have significant student loans and help address the access-to-justice issues that exist in the state for so many of the poor,” says State Bar President Bob Black, who on Oct. 24 announced the contribution for the Student Loan Repayment Assistance Program. The $1.75 million came from a surplus in the Bar’s general fund, says Bar spokeswoman Kim Davey. The Texas Access to Justice Foundation (TAJF) administers the loan-repayment program, which in 2003 began helping lawyers repay their student loans as long as they work at qualified organizations providing legal services for the poor. “Legal-aid lawyers are passionate about their work, they are committed to their work, but like all other lawyers these days they are coming out with huge debt,” says TAJF Executive Director Betty Balli Torres. The loan-repayment program helps legal-aid groups retain lawyers because otherwise, financially, “it would be challenging for that person to remain in legal aid.” Balli Torres explains the average student-loan debt is $86,000, requiring a monthly payment of $676. But legal-aid lawyers, on average, make just $46,000 annually. The repayment program provides them up to $400 per month. Normally, the loan-repayment program uses money from Interest on Lawyers Trust Accounts, but interest rates are so low that the TAJF must use what little money is left to fund legal-aid groups directly, Balli Torres says. The $1.75 million contribution is much larger than the Bar has given in the past, and it will fund the loan-repayment program through at least 2013, she says.
-- Angela Morris