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How to write an email like a lawyer

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Many public interest lawyers try to mitigate their student debt burden by taking advantage of the federal government’s public service loan forgiveness program.

This program forgives the remaining debt after 10 years’ worth of on-time payments if the borrower works for a qualifying employer during the entire repayment period. When coupled with the Obama-era income based repayment plan (IBR), these two systems are powerful tools to help lawyers who want to use their skills in the public-interest realm, but couldn’t otherwise afford to repay their debt on a public interest salary. Congress enacted this program in 2007; the first group to test the waters of debt forgiveness are eligible for discharge this fall.

When a Department of Education Certification of Eligibility Letter May Not Be Valid

Things appeared to be humming along fairly smoothly until December, when the ABA filed suit on behalf of four individuals who indicate that the Department of Education (DOE) first approved their eligibility for student loan forgiveness and then later rescinded that approval. In response, the Department stated that its own certification of eligibility letters were not necessarily their final word on the matter.

Cathleen A. Dettmanncom dettmann hplawoffice Cathleen A. Dettmann, U.W. 2009, is a senior associate with in Madison. Her practice is concentrated on business litigation, including franchise disputes, copyright and trademark issues, business breakups, noncompete and trade secret litigation, as well as general contract disputes.

This has worried a lot of lawyers (and others) who not only depend on the program, but could be significantly harmed if they paid in accordance to its terms for a number of years, then later have the rug pulled out from under them.

There has been a lot of handwringing on this subject over the last few months, much of it overwrought and undeserved. I think it is relatively safe to assume that those who work for the government or for 501(c)(3) organizations will continue to qualify for forgiveness without a problem.

If there is an issue, it will be for those who fall into a third category of eligibility (the same category that the plaintiffs in the ABA lawsuit represent): individuals who work for a “public service organization” other than a 501(c)(3).

Defining ‘Public Service Organization’ Problematic

The “public service organization” eligibility criteria are a bit squishier than the other, relatively easy to ascertain categories.

To be eligible, a public service organization cannot be a labor union or a partisan political organization, and must provide one of 12 types of “public service” including law enforcement, early childhood education, public library services, and more importantly for this audience, public interest legal services. “Public interest legal services” are defined as being “legal services” that are “funded in whole or in part by a local, State or Tribal government.” This likely covers the vast majority of public interest lawyers, but perhaps not everyone.

As any lawyer can imagine, how to define what type of “public service” a given organization provides can be ambiguous; there just isn’t any good guidance out there for those who struggle to evaluate this on their own. This was the case before the lawsuit was filed and it remains the case today.

Before the DOE answered the lawsuit, most borrowers simply relied on the certification letter they received from the DOE as a final determination of eligibility. We now know this may be a mistake.

Public Interest Legal Services and Public Service Organization

Here is the take away: The eligibility for loan forgiveness is most likely safe and sound for the majority of lawyers who work for the government, 501(c)(3) organizations, or organizations that provide “public interest legal services.”

However, lawyers relying on the “public service” category of eligible employers must take a long and careful look to see whether their employment actually qualifies. And unfortunately, those individuals cannot truly rely on DOE certifications as perhaps they had in the past.


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