Pro Bono Publico

Alumna’s investment in public service law eight years ago yields dividends today

"I can't imagine any other job in the legal field that could be as fulfilling, exciting, demanding, or rewarding," says public defender Tom Borton, JD '09.Photo by Frank Miller
"I can't imagine any other job in the legal field that could be as fulfilling, exciting, demanding, or rewarding," says public defender Tom Borton, JD '09.

Even before starting law school, Tom Borton, JD ’09, knew that helping people in crisis was his calling. He spent three years as a legal assistant at a Portland nonprofit that defends clients who can’t afford an attorney. The experience had shown him the importance of caring, competent legal counsel for parents and children with legal troubles.

The only hitch: Borton left law school deeply in debt—a tough nut to crack on a public defender’s salary.

Enter the Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP) for UO School of Law graduates seeking careers in public service. Thus far, LRAP has provided debt relief to twenty-eight alumni, allowing them to follow fulfilling career paths that might otherwise be blocked. “LRAP helps me make those payments,” Borton says, “but it also provides support and encouragement to push on.”

Credit the vision of Eugene attorney Jackie Romm, JD ’81, who often took on cases at no charge for clients whose causes she believed in. Romm decided, prior to her death in 2004, to turn her unspent retirement savings into a $200,000 bequest to LRAP—a decision that reflected her desire to help those seeking to use their law degrees not simply to make a living but to change the world.

To be eligible, applicants must earn no more than $50,000 per year in a qualified public-interest law job. LRAP provides up to $5,000 per year for up to three years. Twelve alumni are currently enrolled in the program. Additional donor support would allow LRAP to help more alumni.

One recent LRAP recipient coordinates a human rights program for Oxfam America in Haiti. Another works to protect and restore wild places through the nonprofit organization Wildlands CPR. Several provide legal services to low-income clients at legal aid agencies or, like Tom Borton, work as public defenders.

“Having your child removed from your custody is one of the most painful things that can happen to a person,” explains Borton. “And for the children I represent in these cases, it can be an extremely confusing and traumatizing experience. The children charged with crimes face an equally intimidating system with lifelong consequences. Without the resources to hire an attorney, parents and children would be absolutely lost.”

“The LRAP program is vital to our public service mission,” says Jane Steckbeck, associate director for public service initiatives at the law school. “Without this assistance, many of our LRAP recipients would be struggling financially and in some cases, unable to remain in their public service jobs.”

For more information about LRAP, visit law.uoregon.edu/lrap. To learn more about making a gift, contact Paul Elstone, 541-346-2166.

—Bonnie Henderson