Many of today’s law graduates are faced with law school debt of more than $150,000 upon graduation. With a median starting salary in civil legal aid of less than $60,000, these mortgage-size debts prohibit many graduates from pursuing public service legal jobs.

Thanks to generous support provided by Catherine Herrmann, Prairie State Legal Services (PSLS) is offering a new Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP) to help offset the cost of student loans for its employees. The program will be administered by Fosterus.org beginning June 1.

Before retiring from PSLS in March 2019, Herrmann spent more than 20 years as Managing Attorney of the Telephone Counseling Service in the Waukegan Office, helping clients with legal issues affecting their basic human needs. Over the past three years, Herrmann has contributed more than $100,000 for the purpose of loan repayment.

When asked why she has given back to PSLS, Herrmann humbly replied: “Hal Goldman. He is the reason I made this very specific donation.”

Hal started as a volunteer attorney in the Waukegan Office shortly after Herrmann was hired in 1997. “I felt connected to Hal,” Herrmann said fondly. “His grandson attended the same university as my daughter and we bonded over college stories. Then in 2005 he passed away just a few days after my own father. After Hal passed, his family made a $100,000 donation to Prairie State to help attorneys pay back student loan debt.

For several years I heard stories of how this money helped my coworkers pay off loans, that to me, seemed overwhelming compared to their salaries as legal aid attorneys. Being older, I was fortunate to have just a small law school loan that I was able to pay off easily, but law school costs were much higher 25 years later and many Prairie State attorneys had large loans. The loan program that Hal’s family created is something I never forgot, and at some point I decided that I also wanted to give back in a similar way.”

The LRAP’s goal is to help remove the barriers to public interest practice faced by employees and recent graduates who have incurred significant debt to finance their legal education. To provide tax-free loan repayment assistance, a one-year service commitment is required. Eligible full-time employees may receive a $150 monthly student loan payment, and part-time employees (less than 30 hours per week) may receive a $75 monthly student loan payment. Eligible staff must work in a position that requires a bachelor’s degree or higher and be in good standing.

“When I retired, I wanted to do something to make life a little better for younger staff near the beginning of their legal aid careers,” Herrmann concluded. “I am so incredibly grateful that Prairie State initially gave me the opportunity to practice law in a part-time setting, and then let me grow into more responsibility as the years passed. When you sum it all up, we’re here to help other people, and attorneys do that every day at Prairie State. For more than 40 years, Prairie State staff have worked for the same cause: equal access for justice. I hope my donation can make it a little easier for attorneys to provide that access.”