Beth Hayes

"I feel really good about what I do almost all of the time." - Beth Hayes

How many people can say this about their jobs?

“I feel really good about what I do almost all of the time.”

That’s Beth Hayes, an attorney at the Montana Legal Services Association’s Missoula office.

She’s been there 3 1/2 years now, ever since she graduated from the University of Montana School of Law, and she still feels that way.

It’s a natural fit, said Hayes, who worked for the Missoula Housing Authority before attending law school.

“Helping people navigate through a very confusing and overwhelming system – that’s something I wanted to deal with.”

Legal Services is a statewide organization, supported by federal and private funds, that helps low-income people with civil matters such as landlord/tenant disputes, domestic violence, debt collection and bankruptcies. It recently received funding for foreclosure prevention work, she said.

Even in law school, said Hayes, “I knew I wanted to work with lower-income folks. ... That sometimes was not the most supported (goal) among the faculty.”

There’s the unfortunate fact that such work is among the lowest-paid in the legal profession, which can present problems to law school graduates facing a mountain of debt.

Hayes often speaks to law students, “and I try to be very honest and open about some of the challenges. The work can be difficult, and there’s the financial aspect related to student loan debt. … I’m not very private about it.”

Hayes said her salary barely allows her to pay the interest on her student loans. She graduated $90,000 in debt and, more than three years later, has chipped away at that and now has “only” $87,000 left.

Lest that seem daunting, she points out that her work at Legal Services brings a certain amount of loan forgiveness, as well as income-based payments.

“These are ways you can make this type of work feasible financially,” she said. “I think a lot of people look at the lower salary and think, ‘I could never afford to do that.’ I look at it and think, ‘How could I afford not to?’ ”

That last comment isn’t just about the help paying off loans. There’s an intangible component as well.

“I feel like I’m making a real difference, I’m actually helping people. People are better off after talking to Legal Services.”

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Missoulian reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268, gwen.florio@missoulian.com, or @CopsAndCourts.

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