California Lawyers Association

ABA Approves CLA-Sponsored Resolution on Rural Practice Loan Forgiveness

October 2023

By Michaela Posner

California Lawyers Association (CLA) sponsored a resolution encouraging jurisdictions to create and fully fund rural practice loan forgiveness programs. The American Bar Association’s (ABA) House of Delegates approved Resolution 400 at the 2023 ABA Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado, on August 7, 2023. 

Rural practice loan forgiveness programs help address ongoing issues of access to justice in rural communities across America and the mounting student loan debt crisis for recent law school graduates. CLA’s Board of Representatives unanimously approved the resolution, aligned with our mission of increasing access to justice, in April 2023. 

As background, approximately 20% of the American population lives in a rural area. While there has been a 14.5% increase in the number of lawyers in the United States since 2009, the prevalence of attorneys in rural areas has been steadily declining. Many rural counties across America do not have a single practicing lawyer within that county. California is no exception to this trend. Statewide, the ratio of attorneys to residents is 1:626; however, just over 3% of all California attorneys have addresses in rural and frontier areas. For instance, in the Central Valley, Merced County has an attorney-to-resident ratio of 1:1,282, and Kings County has the worst ratio in the state of approximately 1:1,400. This is in stark comparison to urban parts of the state, such as Los Angeles and San Francisco, where the ratio is approximately 1:175. 

Simultaneously, the average law school graduate completes law school with approximately $200,000 in debt. With an average income of $70,000 for new attorneys, it takes, on average, 15 years to pay off these loans, and up to 25 years for attorneys who practice in lower-income geographic areas or fields of law. The financial burden and prolonged repayment period of these loans impact young lawyers’ decisions about where to live, what jobs to seek out, and whether to buy a home or even start a family. 

Resolution 400 is a template that jurisdictions can customize to fit the jurisdiction’s financial resources and the legal needs of rural communities. The resolution’s report provides several options for defining an eligible “rural” area, including population density, distance to the nearest urban market for legal services (in both miles and average drive time), and total county population. The resolution also recommends a service period of seven years for participating attorneys, which is shorter than the 10-year period for public interest loan forgiveness (PILF). Law school graduates and young attorneys have up to seven years after graduation to decide to participate in the program. The resolution template provides that graduates of ABA-accredited law schools with public student loans can participate in the program. Jurisdictions like California that have state-accredited law schools can also make graduates of those institutions eligible to participate. Finally, qualifying employment in a rural area is limited to small firms that represent members of the local community and public agencies representing the public interest, rather than corporate entities with business in rural areas. With the exception of public agencies and nonprofit organizations (which are not subject to a size limitation), the resolution proposes a 30-attorney maximum across all locations for eligible participating firms. Jurisdictions can set a different size maximum if they so choose, but the goal is to exclude rural offices of large, for-profit law firms and corporate interests. 

South Dakota was the first state to pioneer a rural practice loan forgiveness program in 2013. Since its inception, the program has consistently enjoyed full participation and created a reliable pipeline of young attorneys to practice in rural communities. Approximately 272 young lawyers participated in the South Dakota program, which has provided an estimated $17 million in debt relief since its inception. The South Dakota program inspired Resolution 400 and has already motivated other jurisdictions to create similar programs. 

I am grateful for the opportunity to conceptualize and principally draft Resolution 400. Thank you to CLA members Emilio Varanini, Beth Whittenbury, and Ireneo Reus, who assisted with drafting and moving the resolution for approval by the CLA Board, and CLA President Jeremy Evans, who joined me in presenting the resolution to the House of Delegates.

The resolution was co-sponsored by the State Bar of South Dakota. The resolution was supported by the New York State Bar Association, the ABA Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, the Young Lawyers Division, and the Racial and Ethnic Minority Caucus of the ABA House of Delegates. 

Michaela Posner is a member of the ABA and CLA sections of labor and employment law and serves as the Young Lawyer Delegate for CLA in the ABA House of Delegates. She is a union-side labor and employment attorney at Weinberg, Roger and Rosenfeld, APC in Los Angeles. 

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