When Public Service for Student Loan Debt Forgiveness Makes Sense

  • Student loan debt forgiveness programs make the most sense for lawyers who plan to work in the public sector long term
  • Only federal loans are eligible for forgiveness, so those whose loans are primarily private may want to focus on higher-paid, private sector jobs
  • No lawyer should take a public service job planning on having their law school debt forgiven

Plenty of us choose law as a career because of the promise of a challenging and lucrative future.

But while many lawyers go on to earn high salaries, even more struggle with law school debt. As such, it’s not surprising that the idea of student loan debt forgiveness programs is an appealing one.

Of course, debt forgiveness isn’t something every lawyer can rely on. In fact, initial rejection rates for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program are reportedly above 95 percent. There are lawyers out there who have gone the public service route and had their law school debt absolved, however. Here are some examples of when it makes sense.

You Plan to Stay in Public Service

It’s absolutely okay to view public sector work as temporary. Plenty of lawyers make the jump from working for judges to joining a firm after a few years, for example. However, if you’re looking to leverage a short-term public service job into debt forgiveness, you’re probably out of luck. If you genuinely want to work in public service for the long haul, you stand a better chance of eventually having your loan debt absolved. Many programs require you to work a certain number of years before applying for forgiveness or only award a certain amount of repayment money per year.

You Understand All the Rules

There are a number of student loan debt forgiveness programs out there, some specifically for those who work in law and others available to anyone in public service. And each program comes with its own rules, restrictions, and sometimes even loopholes. If you plan to work in public service long enough to benefit from a loan repayment program, you need to invest time into researching exactly how each program works and ensure you’re making your debt payments in the right kind of repayment plan. Otherwise, you risk setting yourself up for disappointment.

You Have Federal Loans

If the majority of your law school debt comes from private lenders, you’re likely out of luck. Only federal loans are eligible for programs like the government’s Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. That said, let’s say you have $30,000 in federal loans and $70,000 in private loans—eliminating $30,000 from your total law school debt will certainly make paying off the remaining balance easier. You’ll want to make sure you know exactly how your loans stack up before targeting a loan forgiveness program.

You Have a Backup Plan

According to MarketWatch, an estimated five percent of public service workers eventually have their student loans discharged, which means the vast majority never do. What that means for lawyers working in the public sector is that you must go into the field with a backup plan. You simply can’t assume your loans will be forgiven just because you’re taking home a lower salary than your colleagues who went the BigLaw route. Look at debt forgiveness programs as something to work toward but not rely on.

What's Next

If you’re considering a career in public service and keeping your eye on student loan debt forgiveness programs, start by educating yourself on debt forgiveness options and their requirements. The American Bar Association and Department of Education websites are good places to start.