In 2007, Michael Schoen arrived in Indianapolis with a brand new Juris Doctor and $50,000 due in student loans.
He landed a job as a staff attorney at the Indianapolis Legal Aid Society where he could fulfill his passion of making sure the legal process works as well for those who have few resources as it does for those who have many resources. Although he loved the work, the salary was too small to cover living expenses plus his law school debt.
Schoen maintains he would have had to leave ILAS and take a position at a bigger law firm if not for the funding he received from the Justice Richard M. Givan Loan Repayment Assistance Program administered by the Indiana Bar Foundation. For nine months, he used the money to make his loan payments and afterward, aided by his wife getting a boost in income, was able to meet his household’s financial obligations without assistance.
Today he continues paying off his loan but instead of working to satisfy his checkbook, he has been able to stay at the legal aid society and serve people who otherwise might not get help.
“There is a right way and a wrong way and to me that’s what public service is about,” Schoen said. “I want to make sure the process lives up to its highest ideals.”
To help keep attorneys like Schoen in legal aid, the IBF is making sure LRAP funds continue to be available. The foundation is in its final push to raise funds for the program. Monies collected between now and the end of 2012 will go into the endowment and will be matched by the Indiana Supreme Court.
LRAP awards short-term grants to help attorneys who are working in low-paying public legal services pay their educational loans. Since the program was established in Indiana in 2006, the IBF has made 51 awards to 30 lawyers.
Three years after it started, Indiana’s LRAP was temporarily suspended. However, at its relaunch in October 2009, the program had a new moniker and renewed support. The program was renamed in honor of the late Indiana Chief Justice Richard M. Givan. The Indiana Supreme Court re-energized the program by making an initial gift of $25,000 and then offered to match all contributions made to the endowment up to $175,000 by the end of 2012.
As of June 30, 2012, the endowment totaled $170,785, which includes the Supreme Court’s matching donations. In addition, the IBF has another $37,470 that is awaiting matching funds.
Now the IBF is focused on raising just under $71,000 to meet its goal.
At the ILAS, nine staff attorneys deal with the fallout of the economic recession every day. Foreclosures, marital disputes, child support, guardianships, and job loss entangle community members to the point where they need legal assistance.
“Once the line of income dries up, everything just falls through the floor,” said John Floreancig, general counsel at ILAS.
Attorneys at the organization handle between 1,300 and 1,600 cases annually, and they make a salary in the $40,000 range. Floreancig conceded lawyers can struggle to support themselves at that income level when they may owe $80,000 to $100,000 in student loans.
Compounding the money crunch, the agency receives no federal funding so the attorneys do not qualify for federal assistance. About four attorneys have relied on LRAP funds, which has not only helped with their loan payments but also kept them in legal aid.
“It’s probably the most important program I’ve seen in the last 10 years to help us retain these attorneys,” Floreancig said.
Fittingly, the state’s LRAP fund carries the name of an individual who devoted much of his legal career to public service. Givan spent his career in the public sector, serving as the first law clerk of the Indiana Supreme Court, then as a public defender, assistant attorney general and state legislator. He was elected to the state’s highest court in 1968 and served as chief justice from November 1974 to March 1987.
Karl Mulvaney, partner at Bingham Greenebaum Doll LLP, applauds connecting Givan to a program that helps legal aid attorneys. He clerked for Givan at one time, and he is an advocate of LRAP as well as a donor.
The idea to rename the fund the Justice Richard M. Givan Loan Repayment Assistance Program came from retired Chief Justice Randall Shepard. After Givan’s death in the summer of 2009, his former law clerks, including Mulvaney, were trying to think of a way to honor their mentor when Shepard made his suggestion.
“Justice Shepard is one of the brightest people you’ll ever meet,” Mulvaney said. “He’s had a million tremendous ideas, and I think this was one.”
Asking for help
To raise funds for the program, the IBF has focused on individual appeals in part because budget constraints are preventing such tactics as mass mailings. The strategy, said Theresa Browning, director of development and communications at IBF, is to have “key people” talking to others about the program and the financial goal.
“It’s been a challenge to identify attorneys who are interested in it,” Browning said.
However, since IBF is more than halfway to its goal, she is optimistic the support is out there and the last $70,872 will come by the end of the year.
Timothy Abeska, a partner at Barnes & Thornburg LLP in South Bend, attributed the difficulty in raising funds to the downturn in the economy. Also, lawyers receive countless solicitations for donations to various worthy causes, and they directly support legal aid services by taking pro bono cases.
Abeska made an initial gift of $25,000 to LRAP in 2010. He was inspired to do so from his service on the IBF board and his desire to support those lawyers going into public service.
His donation, he said, will have a ripple effect by sustaining legal aid attorneys who then provide assistance to marginalized people who might otherwise go unrepresented.•