In an effort to make it easier for young attorneys to pursue careers in public service, University of California, Berkeley's, law school says it will pick up the tab for up to $100,000 in student loans accrued by graduates who embark on public interest work.

A number of law schools offer similar programs, which are intended to help students manage loan debt while they're entering careers that typically don't offer lucrative salaries. Many graduates shy away from careers in public service — where starting salaries can be as low as $25,000 a year — out of fear they won't be able to pay their bills.

"Our students should have the freedom to follow their dreams after graduation, whether those involve litigating intellectual property rights at a leading law firm or corporation, or providing legal services to underserved communities in a non-profit organization," said Dean Christopher Edley Jr. of the Boalt Hall School of Law in announcing the new loan repayment program Thursday.

Edley said Boalt's new program is among the most generous in the nation.

The loan program is funded by student fees and alumni donations. To qualify, graduates must work in government or public interest jobs that pay less than $58,000 a year. Alumni in qualifying careers may also have a portion of their loans forgiven.

Previously, the law school offered up to $55,500 in loan repayment assistance to students who entered a limited number of public interest careers. Salaries were capped at $52,000.

Officials boosted the amount under urging from students, who are taking on a larger debt load in order to afford higher fees.

"Fees were going up tremendously — they doubled in the time that I was there," said recent Boalt graduate Claudia Medina, one of the students who pushed for the increase. "There was concern the current loan repayment program wasn't sufficient for the new graduates."

Medina, 27, now working for a nonprofit tenants' right advocacy group in Los Angeles, hopes to take advantage of loan repayment program. She has about $90,000 in student debt, and makes less than $40,000 a year. Plus, she's helping support her mother and siblings.

Medina always planned to pursue a career in tenant advocacy, but admits she was daunted when she realized how much her legal degree would cost. "I was scared my first year, to think of what I would have to do when I graduated," she said.

Annual fees at Boalt Hall are $25,476 for California residents, plus another $21,000 for books, supplies and living expenses, according to campus figures. Most students rack up about $60,000 in debt by the time they graduate, officials said, although that figure is increasing as student fees rise.

"We see the debt burdens for graduates and students going up, and we feel we need to make this change now to enable people to have careers of their choice," said Laurent Heller, director of strategic planning at Boalt.

Applications are due Nov. 15 for the first group of graduates who'd like to participate in the program.

Contact Michelle Maitre at mmaitre@angnewspapers.com.