A graduate prepares to enter the floor before a morning University of South Florida commencement ceremony Friday. Dec. 9. 2011 in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/St. Petersburg Times, Kathleen Flynn) (Kathleen Flynn/AP)

It’s getting harder for public interest lawyers in the District to make ends meet.

For the first time in its five-year history, the privately funded program that helps lawyers at Washington nonprofits repay law school debt — the Loan Repayment Assistance Program — fell short of covering the majority of lawyers’ eligible monthly loan payments. In past years, the program managed to cover at least 90 percent of those monthly loan repayments; this year, they only have enough money to cover about half.

That’s because the need for aid is outpacing the money coming into the program. In 2007, the first year of LRAP, 14 percent of lawyers applying for the grants had debt of more than $150,000, and their average debt was $92,000. Today, 27 percent have debt of more than $150,000, and their average debt has jumped to $119,000.

“Law school has gotten more expensive, and we’re seeing it,” said Katia Garrett, executive director of the D.C. Bar Foundation, the charitable arm of the D.C. Bar that administers LRAP. “While that debt load has increased, the average salary of our applicants in each of those years was the same.”

LRAP is geared specifically toward “poverty lawyers,” a subset of public interest attorneys who work to alleviate poverty in areas including homelessness and access to medical care. In the District, the program is run by the D.C. Bar Foundation and the D.C. City Council through two separate but parallel veins.

The foundation raises money from law firms and corporate legal departments and distributes it to eligible lawyers at D.C. legal services providers who are serving D.C. residents; the city’s program is funded by taxpayer dollars, and money goes only to lawyers who work and live in D.C. The foundation, which administers both funds, just approved a combined $300,000 to be distributed to 49 poverty lawyers in 2012.

To help meet the growing demand, the D.C. Bar Foundation in 2009 launched “Go Casual For Justice,” a fundraiser to collect donations from law firms and corporate legal departments to help fund LRAP. The fundraiser is now the single largest source of private funding for LRAP, this year bringing in a record $80,000 from nearly 100 law firms, companies’ legal departments and a handful of small businesses and nonprofits. That’s more than double the $36,000 the fundraiser collected during its first year in 2009.

Those funds are needed now more than ever. In a city where the legal landscape is dominated by law firms and government, the salary gap between public interest lawyers and those in the private and government sectors is huge, Garrett said. And it’s not just new lawyers who are struggling. LRAP goes to attorneys with up to 10 years of experience, and the average poverty lawyer in the District makes $49,000. The cap to qualify for LRAP grants is $65,000 a year.

“For some people, [salaries] are in the low 30’s,” Garrett said. “There was a time when legal services programs started in [1960s] that the gap between public interest and government and private salaries was not huge. It was present, but not huge. Now, it’s breathtaking. You can get six figures as a first-year associate at some big law firms.”

Lauren Onkeles-Klein, an attorney at the Children’s Law Center, received an LRAP grant in 2009, which helped her make a dent in $100,000 of debt from attending Georgetown Law. Onkeles-Klein, who has worked at the nonprofit for almost eight years, was paying $830 a month in loans. For the one-year period covered by the grant, the program relieved her of all but $10 a month.

“LRAP has been a lifesaver,” said Onkeles-Klein, whose work focuses on improving housing conditions for children with medical ailments. “A lot of nonprofits can’t afford to pay competitive salaries, which wouldn’t be a big of deal if I hadn’t graduated with over $100,000 in debt. LRAP was a gamechanger for me to be able to stay here for so long, be able to do the work I love, and not have to look elsewhere to do work I don’t want to be doing because that work pays more.”