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Ahead of the Curve: Loan Forgiveness Lifeline

Welcome back to Ahead of theCurve. I’m Karen Sloan, legal education editor at Law.com, and I’ll be your host for this weekly look at innovation and notable developments in legal education.

This week I’m taking a look at a new court ruling on eligibility for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program in a suit that was brought by the American Bar Association and four young lawyers. Next up, I’m looking at a unique law student who went from a so-called “Lost Boy of Sudan” to the University of Nebraska College of Law. Lastly, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg dropped by Harvard Law School to talk Internet privacy. Read on!

Please share your thoughts and feedback with me at ksloan@alm.com or on Twitter:@KarenSloanNLJ


Loan Forgiveness Lifeline

We got some interesting news out of federal district court in D.C. on Friday pertaining to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Judge Timothy Kellyruled in favor of three plaintiffs—public service lawyers—who were initially told their jobs qualified for forgiveness, only to have the U.S. Department of Education later reverse course and say they didn’t. (They worked on pro bono project within the American Bar Association and other public interest organizations.) The ABA had been fighting in court with the Education Department since 2016.

I’m not going to delve into the details of the ruling. You can read the opinion here, and my story about it hereBut I do think this is good news for legal education. The availability of Public Service Loan Forgiveness for students who want to pursue that path is an effective sales pitch for law schools. Prospective students are (rightly) daunted by the high tuition prices they see listed, and they quickly realize that the do-gooder jobs they aspire to don’t come with Big Law salaries. So Public Service Loan Forgiveness and schools’ individual loan assistance repayment programs go a long way to assuage the fears of massive debt and small paychecks. So, it’s pretty awful when young lawyers come out of the woodwork saying they were misled about their eligibility and the Education Department is changing the rules midway through and behind closed doors. What seemed like an affordable career path suddenly doesn’t look so good if you can’t reasonably count on loan forgiveness. 

We don’t yet know where this will all end up. The judge has ordered the Education Department to reconsider these three applications, but it may well have wider implications. Presumably other lawyers—and public servants outside the law—have had their applications denied for the same reasons. In this case, the two standards pertaining to the employers’ “primary purpose” and their “school-like setting” were at issue, and apparently changes were made without any notice to the public. So theoretically all of those denials should be revisited by the Education Department.

Of course, the Education Department could well appeal, further dragging out this case, which is now more than two years old. But I think anything that inspires confidence in the availability and fairness of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness is a good thing for higher education and legal education more specifically.

From 'Lost Boy' to Law Student

Sometimes I feel like we focus too much on “legal education” as a concept and don’t pay enough attention to the individual students, many of whom are really impressive and inspiring people. I was reminded of that last week when I came across this local news segment out of Nebraska about Gat Ramdiet, who fled civil war in South Sudan as one of the so-called “Lost Boys of Sudan” when he was just nine years old. He lived in a refugee camp in Ethiopia for six years before resettling in Omaha, where he graduated from high school and attended the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. Today, Ramdiet is a student at the University of Nebraska College of Law—a career path he traces back to his tumultuous childhood.

"I feel like had there been law and order in Sudan then people like the ones that came to my village and destroyed it and chased everyone away wouldn't even have had the opportunity to do so,” he told his interviewer. According to an earlier story on Medium,

Ramdiet interned at the United Nations last summer, which had special significance because he received help from Unicef as a child. He hopes to move to New York and help other refugees once he graduates. Those are the kinds of stories we shouldn’t lose sight of amid all the coverage of $190,000 starting salaries in Big Law or who moved up and down in the U.S. News rankings.


Zuck on Campus

It’s not every day that one of the biggest names in Silicon Valley shows up at a law school. But I guess you never know who’s going to drop in at Harvard Law School. Thanks to the school’s website, we now know that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg paid a visit to professor Jonathan Zittrain’s Internet & Society class (and students in the university’s Techtopia program) on Feb. 11 to discuss advertising and data privacy. And no, Zuckerberg did not wear a hoodie, opting instead for a gray sweater.

Harvard released a video last week of the nearly two-hour conversation, in which Zuckerberg called Facebook an “innovator in privacy.” His visit to Harvard is the first in a series of public discussions about technology’s impact on society—which are part of Zuckerberg’s larger initiative to help fix the problems plaguing the Internet. Harvard is a natural fit for Zuckerberg, since the Cambridge campus is where he first launched Facebook as an undergraduate.

Zittrain is also an interesting interlocutor for Zuckerberg. The professor, who co-founded Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, has taken Facebook to task publicly for its improper handling of user data, even penning an op-ed in The New York Times laying out how the CEO can “improve our digital lives.” Despite some disagreement over different approaches to advertising models, the conversation remained friendly.

Clinics Get Specific

The University of Minnesota Law School this semester opened a new immigration clinic, but it’s not the standard fare. It’s a clinic specifically for immigrants in rural areas who don’t have as much access to free legal counsel as people who live in Minneapolis, where the school is located. It’s an interesting twist on the traditional immigration clinic, and students will staff “pop up” clinics in rural areas.

This also illustrates what I see as a larger trend in the clinical arena—that is, clinics are getting more specific in their missions. That’s not to say all clinics are so specialized, but in general I’m seeing more clinics announced that really home in on a more focused client group with a specific set of needs. This is something I expect to see more of and schools expand their clinical offerings.

Extra Credit Reading

Scott Norberg, a professor at Florida International University College of Law, argues in a new law review article that it’s time for the American Bar Association to make graduate employment outcomes part of its law school accreditation reviews.

St. Thomas University School of Law plans to rename itself after Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Peter Fay of the Eleventh Circuit, and is hoping to raise $10 million in conjunction. The funds would go toward student scholarships.

The American Bar Association’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admission to the Bar failed to reach a decision on the controversial proposal to toughen its bar pass standard.

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I’ll be back next week with more news and updates on the future of legal education. Until then, keep in touch at ksloan@alm.com