NY DAs, Public Defenders Urge Student Loan Aid Expansion

By Marco Poggio | March 12, 2024, 2:30 PM EDT ·

A coalition of 35 district attorney offices, public defender offices, civil legal services providers and unions has urged New York elected officials to pass a bill increasing student loan financial assistance for legal aid attorneys and state prosecutors, many of whom face yearslong debt, Law360 has learned.

The undersigned of a March 7 letter addressed to Gov. Kathy Hochul and the state Legislature called for injection of $4 million in the next fiscal year's state budget to expand the District Attorney and Indigent Legal Services Attorney Loan Forgiveness program, or DALF, which awards money to attorneys in public service to use toward their owed law school tuition.

"We urge you to take action to relieve this enormous financial burden," the letter said.

"By passing this crucial bill, one which crosses the aisle with the vociferous support of institutional defender offices, civil defender offices and district attorney offices," the letter continued, "New York can lead the country in modeling debt relief for attorneys working to serve the public."

Currently, the DALF program allows attorneys to receive up to $20,400 over an eligibility period of six years. But amid sharp growth in law school tuition, the award does little to help public interest lawyers and prosecutors pay back their debt, which the American Bar Association said averages around $130,000, the letter said.

The letter, signed by the Legal Aid Society as well as 10 district attorneys, including those of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens, asked legislators to pass Senate Bill S4511C and its state Assembly companion A1568D, which would expand the total eligible award up to $64,000.

The bill, which the state Senate approved unanimously on Monday and is now in the hands of the state Assembly, would also broaden the period of eligibility, allowing attorneys to apply in the second year of public service up until the 10th year, when they could be eligible for federal loan cancellation.

The signers of the letter, which include legal aid organizations across the state and the unions representing their attorneys, said that student loan cancellation remains "hugely popular" both locally and nationally. Endorsing the loan assistance bill would remove barriers to financial stability public service attorneys face in New York, the letter says.

Twyla Carter, attorney-in-chief and chief executive officer of the Legal Aid Society, in a statement Tuesday urged decision makers in Albany to pass the legislation "to ensure that public interest lawyers can continue providing vital legal services for our clients without undue financial strain created by exorbitant student loan debt."

Public defenders in particular have been found to be heavily overworked, but also severely underpaid. Inflation and stagnant wages have caused high levels of attrition in the public service legal industry.

According to a survey by the National Association for Law Placement mentioned in a report by the American Bar Association published in November, public defenders and civil legal aid lawyers are the lowest-paid attorneys in the nation, with the median salary for entry-level lawyers stuck at $57,500 a year in 2022.

Last year, the Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, or United Auto Workers Local 2325, which represents attorneys at the largest public defender organization in the country, staged two walkouts to demand higher salaries for lawyers and more manageable caseloads.

The union's president, Lisa Ohta, called the proposed legislation "common sense" and said it would help relieve some of the financial pressure attorneys feel.

"Our union members fight tirelessly for vulnerable New Yorkers in our criminal, civil and family courts every day, but the crushing burden of student loan debt often makes it impossible for them to continue to work in public service and take care of their own families," Ohta said. "Expanding the annual DALF award would ease this financial stressor and ensure that our clients have experienced advocates by their side for years to come."

John J. Flynn, Erie County district attorney and president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, acknowledged those challenges in a statement Tuesday calling legislators to pass the DALF expansion bill, sponsored by state Sen. Jessica Ramos and Assembly Member Jo Anne Simon.

"Unfortunately, the combination of lower public service salaries and a constantly increasing cost of living often leads to talented practitioners leaving our offices for the private sector," Flynn said.

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez echoed those concerns.

"Our dedicated prosecutors and public defense colleagues often begin their careers with crushing student debt, and New York's high cost of living makes it hard to get by on government and nonprofit salaries," he said in a statement. "This funding will provide much-needed relief to the attorneys we rely upon to seek justice, promote fairness, defend the rights of the accused, and to support victims."

--Editing by Robert Rudinger.

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