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Debt relief may be in sight for lawyers

Monday, November 27, 2006
Chicago Sun-Times
by ERIC HERMAN Staff Reporter

For prosecutors and public defenders drowning in debt, help might soon be on the way.
Since 2003, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has been pushing legislation that would grant student loan relief to public sector lawyers in the criminal justice system. With the Democrats in control of Congress, Durbin plans to reintroduce his bill early next year. Some hope it finally has a chance of passing.
"It's the defining issue of this era" for prosecutors, said Bernie Murray, chief of criminal prosecutions for the Cook County state's attorney's office. "The number of people with over $100,000 in debt is amazing."
The average young lawyer from a private law school graduated with $78,763 in debt last year, according to the American Bar Association. The average graduate of a public law school owed $51,056. Durbin's office puts the numbers higher, with the average private law school graduate carrying $97,763 in debt, and public school graduates owing $66,810 .
According to Murray -- who had $14,000 in debt when he graduated in 1983 -- the trend is forcing lawyers to leave the state's attorney's office, and persuading third-year law students not to apply.
"It definitely weighs on me. I'm going to be paying it for the rest of my life," said assistant Cook County State's Attorney Jullian Brevard, who owes about $90,000.
Plan passed committee, then stalled
Brevard, 28, graduated from law school at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., in 2003. His debts consist of private and government loans requiring him to pay $674 per month, which he calls "a pretty good chunk of one of my checks." He earns $49,000 a year after two years with the office.
Brevard prosecutes child abuse cases and believes in his work, calling it "essential to having an orderly society." Still, his loan payments have forced him to look for a second job and get help from his father.
"We lose a lot of good attorneys, and it's for no other reason other than financial," he said. "People have two and three kids . . . Realistically, it just gets harder for them to stay in this office."
It becomes especially hard when the big bucks beckon. A starting assistant Cook County state's attorney earns $48,000 a year. Assistant public defenders begin at about $43,000, though they make more than prosecutors in later years. Meanwhile, first-year lawyers at major Chicago law firms make $130,000 on average, according to the National Association for Law Placement.
"A number of people I went to law school with got their loans taken care of within two years," said assistant public defender David Will, 38, who graduated from John Marshall Law School in 1998 and owes $40,000. "I probably have more than 10 or 15 years on my note to go."
To remedy the problem, Durbin is pushing the Prosecutors and Defenders Incentive Act. If passed into law, the Justice Department would pay up to $10,000 a year of the law school loans of any prosecutor or public defender. To qualify, a lawyer would have to commit to three years of service. Loan assistance would be capped at $60,000 per lawyer and would apply only to loans made through federal programs.
The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill in May, thanks partly to judiciary chairman Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.). But the leadership kept it from coming to the floor for a vote.
"We're hoping now with the change of leadership in the Senate, we can get this enacted," said Durbin, who will be the assistant majority leader come January. "It's the highest priority."
Durbin, Murray said, "is a liberal guy, so a lot of prosecutors don't like him. But he's my hero."

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