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Lawyers help others get financial assistance

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A mortgage for an education
Legal aid lawyer Holly Knight owes $135,000 on her school loans.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

Holly Knight has what amounts to a mortgage. 

"I could have bought a house," she said. "But I have an 8-1/2 x 11-inch piece of paper on my wall instead."

Knight's law degree from the University of Minnesota, in addition to her undergraduate education in Texas and time to take the bar exam, racked up loans totaling more than $140,000. 

Rastorfer Vlieger
Heather Rastorfer Vlieger administers the Loan Repayment Assistance Program of Minnesota.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

Such figures are easier to swallow for attorneys who might enter a small to medium sized law firm making salaries approaching $80,000 a year. But Knight is a staff attorney for Southern Minnesota Regional Legal Services in St. Paul. 

Her salary of less than $40,000 is paid by a grant to provide legal services in child custody disputes, domestic violence cases and other types of family law, for people who otherwise could not afford a lawyer.

"I have a history of working in the public interest," Knight said. "It's what I'm good at. It's what gets me out of bed in the morning. I don't know if I really have much choice in what I do. I can't imagine doing anything else."

Knight's commitment to public service is at odds with the looming debt that follows her around. 

I could have bought a house, but I have an 8-1/2 x 11-inch piece of paper on my wall instead.

"I wouldn't have made any different decisions," she said. "I've thought of that. Occasionally I have panic attacks in the middle of the night and wake up and be like, 'What the hell have I done?' The figure is so big it's almost like an abstract concept. I can't imagine it ever going away."

Fortunately for Knight, she gets a portion of the $800-$900 per month loan payment subsidized by a program that helps bridge the gap between public service law salaries and the high cost of getting a law degree. The Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP) offsets qualified lawyers' loan payments, as long as they provide direct legal assistance to low-income clients. 

Minnesota LRAP Director Heather Rastorfer Vlieger says the program pays up to $4,000 a year, plus an additional amount that individual law schools contribute. 

"It makes it possible for them to make their annual budget work," Rastorfer Vlieger said. "It means the difference between having an unreliable vehicle and having a reliable vehicle, which is really important for those public interest attorneys serving clients in greater Minnesota. Sometimes they're travelling to many counties, and having a reliable vehicle makes it possible to do that work."

LRAP is currently helping 47 law school graduates in Minnesota with their payments. The average income for those attorneys is $35,000. Rastorfer Vlieger said many of them have a debt load to salary ratio of 5-1, which makes meeting a conventional loan repayment schedule almost impossible. 

Recipient, fundraiser
University of Minnesota Law School Assistant Dean Erin Keyes helps organize an annual fundraiser for law school debt payback.
MPR Photo/Art Hughes

The program is supported mainly by private donations and by contributions from the state's law schools. 

Erin Keyes, assistant dean of students at the University of Minnesota Law School, is an organizer of a five-kilometer race this weekend to raise funds for LRAP. She was once an LRAP recipient when she worked for Central Minnesota Legal Services in Minneapolis, largely taking on cases for domestic violence victims.

"For folks that scratch their heads at the notion that we're doing a fundraiser for lawyers, we want to emphasize that the goal is to help graduates who are wanting to practice over time in the public interest," Keyes said. "LRAP helps that happen by basically covering their living expenses." 

For St. Paul attorney Holly Knight, the program eases an otherwise difficult financial hurdle. She said it makes her a better lawyer for her clients.

"If I didn't have LRAP I'd definitely have to get another job," Knight said. "I don't think I'd leave legal aid, I don't think that would be an option. If things got worse I guess, if I had other expenses, I may have to leave. But I would have to get another job. I wouldn't be here as much. When I would be here I can imagine being pretty miserable."

Knight said it's sometimes hard to see her classmates making twice her annual income. Still, she said public service law was her driving force for going to law school in the first place. She said she will do whatever it takes to continue doing it.