April 2023 — Kristin Flory ‘11 always held an interest in public interest law. But as she finished her first year at Penn State Dickinson Law, she was uncertain how she could afford to follow that passion while also paying down her student loans.

“I was looking at job opportunities and salaries for people doing the things I wanted to do, like the work I did in the Children’s Advocacy Clinic. I thought, ‘Well, I am going to have six figures’ worth of debt, so I cannot get a job that will pay me $35,000 or $40,000 a year because I will not be able to afford to live and pay off the debt.’ I thought I might need to find a more traditional legal role,” said Flory.

Then she attended an informational session about the Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP), which offers Dickinson Law graduates working in the public interest sector or other lower-paying legal fields a forgivable loan to help repay their educational debt. Suddenly, her desired path seemed possible.

“I remember thinking, ‘This is exactly what I need to do, and this is exactly how I am going to survive post-law school,” said Flory. Upon graduation, she accepted a job with KidsVoice, a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, organization representing those in the child welfare system in Allegheny County’s Juvenile Court, qualifying her for LRAP assistance through Dickinson Law. She now encourages any attorney who joins KidsVoice to look into loan repayment programs.

This year, Dickinson Law celebrates 20 years of offering LRAP, which was implemented in spring 2003 to encourage law graduates to enter careers in public interest law by assisting with their educational loan repayment obligations.

A seven-member committee, including faculty, alumni, and current students, considers the applications. Dickinson Law Director of Admissions & Financial Aid Rebecca Schreiber, the program administrator, said that from 2003 to 2022, LRAP has supported 35 graduates from both Dickinson Law and the University Park campus of the formerly unified, two-campus law school. In that time, $933,712 in aid has been given, and $712,000 has been 100 percent forgiven, meaning the participants stayed in their public interest position for at least five years. “That is an incredible success rate,” said Schreiber.

Assistant Professor of Law Lucy Johnston-Walsh, a member of the Class of 1997, has been with the program since its inception and serves as co-chair and in one of the two faculty positions on the LRAP committee. She said supporting career longevity is a goal of LRAP. “We do not want to just help enable students to take a public interest job. We want them to be able to stay in that career. We want to help the whole way through,” said Johnston-Walsh.

LRAP: Creating New Possibilities

Jennifer Heverly ‘03, one of the earliest program participants, said she could not have maintained a career in legal aid for two decades without LRAP. “Initially, in 2003, I was only making $27,000 a year at MidPenn Legal Services, and even with an income-contingent repayment plan, I was barely able to keep my car running and pay my rent,” said Heverly. “I am sure that without LRAP, I would have quickly been forced to look for a different job.”

Instead, she has continued in the sector and has repaid all her loans. She now works for North Penn Legal Services in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, which offers free civil legal services. “The only reason I went to law school was to work in a legal aid program like North Penn, and that never changed,” said Heverly.

“The idea is the loan is ultimately forgiven if you stay in the program. It starts out as loaning you the money to pay for your law school debt. When you stay in for at least five years, the loan is forgiven. Committee members have always felt that even if we help fewer people, we want to help them more because we want them to be able to stay in public interest law,” said Johnston-Walsh. Applications for LRAP can be submitted for up to three years after graduation. One challenge has been making graduates who meet the criteria aware of the program. Career Services collects employment data for the most recent graduating class 10 months after graduation, which offers one avenue for outreach. “We also try to send information about LRAP through social media and other alumni channels,” said Schreiber.

The LRAP committee meets once or twice per year to consider applications. The application process is short and straightforward, said Katherine Parr Zimmermann '12, a current LRAP committee member who also participated in the program. “The process was easy,” said Zimmermann. Applicants must include their loan information, a statement explaining their commitment to public service, and details about their job, which must be with a 501(c)3 organization.

“I had always been interested in public interest work, so I was trying to find a way I could afford to do that and have a family,” said Zimmermann, who worked for MidPenn Legal Services until last year. “My husband is also a lawyer, so we both had student loans, and it was important to me to know that could be taken care of. To have that support behind us certainly makes everything easier, especially in an area of law that is very taxing to practice.”

Peter Zurflieh ‘81, a Dickinson Law LRAP committee member who works for the Community Justice Project in Harrisburg, has seen the benefits of the program from several angles, including as an employer. “We had a really hard time hiring people into legal services for a time,” said Zurflieh.

He said lack of interest was not the problem. “Loan obligations made it difficult for recent graduates to live on the salaries that we could afford to pay. It was financially unworkable,” said Zurflieh. “You expect people to make some sacrifices when they pursue public interest work but not to the point where they cannot afford housing or other basic necessities. Thanks to programs like Dickinson Law’s LRAP, we were able to attract talent back into legal services, and it has made a huge difference.”

Evolving the Program

Over the years, the LRAP committee has grappled with issues such as what happens if someone leaves their public interest job early or how to set income limits. “We have had to adjust from time to time, but the original framework has remained mostly intact,” said Zurflieh. “We have had to make some difficult decisions about what type of work qualifies. Legal aid seemed a clear fit for the program, but we struggled with public defenders and district attorneys, making the difficult decision, after much deliberation, not to cover government positions.”

“We did open funds to some of those positions at the beginning, and I think we realized over time that we do not have unlimited sources of money to be giving away,” said Johnston-Walsh.

Schreiber noted that program applications decreased the past three years. “Once the pandemic hit and the repayment pause on student loans started, interest dropped off, which is unfortunate. People might be missing opportunities to get their foot in the door with the program. I think people have the sense that, ‘Well, I do not owe anything now, so I am not going to apply.’ But that will change.” Johnston-Walsh, who directs the Children's Advocacy Clinic and the Center on Children and the Law, has also been pleased with the synergy between student participation in Dickinson Law clinics and interest in public interest jobs. “It is nice when students get to see what various types of public interest work is like while still in law school,” said Johnston-Walsh.

Heverly agreed. “I think my clinic experience was extremely helpful in preparing me for that path. The type of work we do requires you to hit the ground running,” said Heverly.

Helping More People in the Future

As LRAP readies to head into another year, those on the committee hold high hopes for the future. “Our goal is to continue to increase the capital and help more people,” said Johnston-Walsh.

“All of us wish that we could help everyone who applies do the work that they feel passionately about that benefits the community,” said Zimmermann. “All of us believe in the work that they are doing, and we are glad we can help them continue to do it.” Dickinson Law’s LRAP has benefitted from the generosity of donors over the years, with more than 700 gifts in support of the program to date. Individuals who wish to support Dickinson Law’s LRAP program with a gift are encouraged to contact Kelly Rimmer, director of development and alumni affairs, at 717-240-5217 or krimmer@psu.edu. Visit our website to learn more about ways you can support the Law School.