Enabling law careers in the public interest

Stanford’s legal education loan forgiveness program broke new ground

Patricia Zettler, ’02, JD ’09, returned to Stanford for law school after working in bioethics, knowing that she wanted a career in public health and in public service.

But public service carries a price that many young lawyers can’t afford. Jobs in public interest law may pay 25 percent of the starting salary at top private firms. Zettler could afford both to study law and to use her training in the public interest thanks to Stanford Law School’s Miles and Nancy Rubin Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP), one of the first of its kind in the United States.

Since 1985, Stanford Law School has forgiven all or part of the need-based educational loans of hundreds of alumni pursuing careers in public service. These alumni work in government, in nonprofits or in private firms where they devote the bulk of their time to pro bono practice.

“Without LRAP, I would not have been able to take the position at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that I took straight from law school,” Zettler, now an associate professor at Georgia State University College of Law, said in 2015.

By enabling career choices grounded in talent and passion, not socioeconomic background, Stanford Law School’s LRAP reflects one of the school’s key values: that public service is a worthy pursuit and that lawyers have an obligation to participate in public service throughout their careers. It forms the backbone of the school’s robust public interest program, including fellowships, clinics, coursework and mentoring under the aegis of the John and Terry Levin Center for Public Service and Public Interest Law.

Today, Stanford Law School provides more than $3 million annually to support alumni in public service, and the program has inspired similar initiatives at law schools nationwide. Stanford Law School’s plan was originally called the Public Interest Low Income Protection Plan and funded by the Cummins Engine Foundation. The Miles L. and Nancy H. Rubin Law Student Loan Repayment Fund was established in June 1994.

Salena Copeland’s, JD ’07, first job after law school was a Public Interest Clearinghouse fellowship that brought legal aid into rural parts of California. The project offered legal advice on topics ranging from mortgage foreclosure to advance health care directives.

“Because I had LRAP as a help during that time, I was able to do the fellowship,” Copeland said in this 2012 video. Later, she joined the Legal Aid Association of California, where she became executive director in 2014.

“A lot of times, people talk about having to have a wealthy partner or have your parents’ help to live in the Bay Area [in order to work in the public interest],” Copeland said. “I want to make sure I dispel those notions.”

Initially, loan-forgiveness recipients were taxed on this benefit under federal law. Stanford scored another first in 1996, when law school CFO Frank Brucato, law Professor Joseph Bankman and manager of administrative programs Andrew Podolsky drafted legislation (and were successful in getting it passed) that exempted loan repayment forgiveness programs from taxation via the federal Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997. Each year, hundreds of public interest lawyers from schools across the country benefit from Stanford’s leadership in the field.

This article was originally published for Stanford’s 125th anniversary.