BY ANGELA YINGLING
New Hampshire public defender Seth Abramson (HLS ’01) got right to the point as the first speaker on the OPIA/LIPP co-sponsored panel “Living on LIPP”, which took place September 14th. Many students at Harvard, he said, “are given the impression that [public interest law] is something you dabble in during your 1L summer, before you start your real work at the firms. That doesn’t have to be the case.” Abramson, along with his two co-panelists, Corey Stoughton (HLS ’02) of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and Marc Steinberg (HLS/KSG ’99) of the Families USA Foundation, came back to Harvard Law School last Wednesday evening to help dispel some of the myths surrounding public service — namely, that working in that sector subjects a young lawyer to a life of material deprivation and hardship.
The students who attended the panel were given handouts explaining the finer details of the Low Income Protection Plan (LIPP), along with a bulleted sheet of LIPP facts which highlighted the programs’ statistics. Thanks to the LIPP program, today it is possible for an HLS student to both enter a career in public interest law and not default on his/her student loans. The panelists spoke of their own experiences living on salaries that don’t quite meet the six-figure mark, and the LIPP staff answered some questions about the details of the program, which helps students pay back some of the enormous amount of debt they have accrued while in school.
Assistance is determined on a sliding-scale basis, with students who earn $38,000 or less qualifying to have all of their eligible borrowing repaid by the LIPP program. Eligible borrowing includes all law school loans up to the standard student financial aid budget, minus the student’s calculated contribution. LIPP will also help pay back undergraduate loans up to $30,000. As the lawyer’s pay increases, so does the amount that he/she must contribute to the repayment of his/her loans. However, the payments are kept modest: a lawyer living on LIPP making between $38,001-$43,250 is required to pay 19% of his/her income over $38,000 towards loans, while a lawyer making $43,251-$48,500 is required to pay $1000 plus 38% of his/her income over $43,250. As a lawyer’s salary reaches $48,501 and above, he/she is required to pay $3000 plus 40% of income that exceeds $48,500. The LIPP staff informed the students that the numbers are re-calculated each year in order to keep assistance levels current with changes in salaries and cost of living.
Currently, LIPP assists 290 HLS graduates like Abramson, Stoughton, and Steinberg in paying back their student loans, and each year the number of participants grows. According to LIPP statistics, last year alone HLS spent $1,890,211.43 on the program. The most recent statistics show that the average salary of a LIPP participant is $46,034. While this may be quite below the salary earned by the average HLS graduate, the LIPP participants also received an average of $8,471 last year in financial assistance.
The panelists had very positive things to say about the LIPP program. Stoughton, who works on First Amendment issues with the NYCLU, assured the students that it is quite possible to live in New York City while living on a LIPP budget, even though there are sacrifices that must be made. For example, Stoughton says she will often eat dinner at home before heading out for a night “of $8 martinis.” She lives in Brooklyn, not Manhattan, but says she really enjoys her neighborhood and would probably live there no matter how much she made. She even mentioned that she had recently returned from a two-week vacation in Costa Rica. “I live fine,” she said, “and I love what I do.” The same sentiment was echoed by the other members of the panel, who could not speak highly enough about their work in the field of public interest law. Abramson described his work as both intellectually rigorous and personally gratifying. He stressed that his work often includes analysis and application of “critical constitutional issues of state and federal law” in a way that utilizes the diverse skills he honed during his career at HLS.
Steinberg, who is a health care policy analyst, says working for the public sector has not precluded him and his wife, also a LIPP recipient (they met at the annual Public Interest Auction) from purchasing a house, starting a family, and setting up a comfortable life in Baltimore, MD. He recognizes that part of the reason they live in Baltimore is because it has a lower cost-of-living than Washington D.C., where his current job is located. However, even though he and his wife don’t “live like some of [their] classmates do,” he has achieved financial stability and “doesn’t spend much time worrying about money.” For students considering a career in public interest law, these testimonials could not have been more reassuring.