My friends and I used to joke that we were “law school loan rich.” Living in Manhattan and attending a private law school, this was our reality. In our early 20s and all from places other than New York, we were living a life that wasn’t all that realistic. Don’t get me wrong, we weren’t living in penthouses on the Upper West Side; we were sharing studio apartments with little to no privacy (I spent 2 years in a 605 sq. ft. apartment with fake walls and 2 other roommates – certainly not an ideal situation), but it was a dream.
I often think about the choice I made to attend law school in one of the most expensive cities in the world and whether that was truly a smart financial decision. I still have loans in the six figures, but the 3 years in law school and 2 subsequent years I spent in New York City were probably the best times in my life.
Looking back I realize that I never would have made the journey halfway across the country on my own to start a new life had it not been for the safety and security of starting school and knowing the my loans would cover my expenses. I was probably in quite a bit of denial about just how much money I was borrowing, but at the time, it afforded me a life I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to have.
When I moved to New York, I had this idea in my head that after 3 years in law school, I would combine that knowledge with my film degree and become an entertainment attorney making more than enough money to cover my loans and continue to afford to live in the City I came to call home. However, increasing popularity in that field (with not very many opportunities) and graduating in 2012 (a year with a large uptick in law graduates due to the 2008 downturn in the economy) in New York City where everyone wants to be, left me without a job as a lawyer upon graduation.
Several other personal factors came in to play, but 2 years after earning my J.D., I was still not working as a practicing attorney and the time came to make some difficult life decisions and decide what I really wanted.
So, with only 3 large suitcases (not a lot, but you try lugging that through JFK on your own – quite the ordeal!) and 8 boxes shipped separately, no job in hand and a plan to live with my aunt until I could get on my feet, home to Texas I went. I made a choice to take a turn in my career and pursue something related to the law, but that didn’t require me to take the Texas Bar – I do business development for attorneys. I lived with aunt for almost 2 years, giving me the time and space to start saving, buy a car (public transportation in Houston doesn’t compare to the NYC subway), and find an apartment in an area I wanted to live, that would fit my budget.
This past May, was the 5 year mark since I graduated, and this August I hit my 4 year mark since leaving New York. There is a lot financially that I’m still working on – it’s an ongoing process and each day/month/year, it gets a little better. While I wouldn’t change a thing about going to New York and the time I was able to spend there, there are some things I wish I would have known or at least considered in more depth beforehand.
- Decide if this is the profession I truly want. The idea of being a lawyer is very different than what it is actually like to practice each day – big firm life v. government v. small firm v. solo practitioner – each of these varies drastically and I didn’t understand all of that before embarking on my law school journey. I would encourage anyone considering a specialty advanced degree to do your research. Meet with people who work in the field, conduct informational interviews, ask about the day-to-day minutia that exists in the job. Ask what they like and don’t like about what they do. Make sure you have that full picture before deciding to borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars to get your degree.
- Get a clear picture of how much money you may realistically make upon graduating. Big law pays very well, but it is a small percentage of law school graduates who get those coveted big firm jobs. If you aren’t at a prestigious law school, or at the very top of your class, you can’t count on the $190k paycheck your first year out of law school. I personally probably made less after law school than I could have as a recent college graduate. And even with a second job, I was living paycheck to paycheck for over a year. $300k may not seem like that much if you can make $190k + bonus your first year out and increase from there, but that’s not the reality for most law school grads.
- Make money during school. If you can – get a part-time job. I worked retail from my sophomore year of college up until a year or so after I graduated law school. The amount you make isn’t huge, but there are other perks. For me, having something other than school to focus on a few times a week kept me sane – like many Type A high-achievers, I work best when I’m busy, so having a job was really helpful to me. I will also say that the discount on clothes was a bonus. Not only could I purchase clothes to survive the east coast winters (remember I’m a Texas girl where winter means 50 degree weather, with the occasional possibility of lower temps – I was not prepared for less than 20 degrees and snow!), it also helped me when it came time to buy a suit for interviews and I didn’t have to spend hundreds of dollars. I also took on a part-time nanny position. This paid better than retail (but no discounts). Any extra cash you can make helps. If I had been smarter, I would have tried to pay off at least the interest on my loans while I was still in school. I’m not even sure I could have afforded it, but in an ideal world, that would have been a smart thing, at least to attempt, to do.
- Don’t live in denial and get organized early. After I graduated I was making so little that I paid very little on my loans each month. It wasn’t until I moved to Houston and got a job here that I started to get real about my finances. Now, I keep a color-coded spreadsheet with projected payoff dates for all of my loans. But for all of the years during undergrad and law school, and for a few after, I chose to be totally unaware of how much I owed. I actually missed a payment on a loan that I didn’t even realize I had. It’s easy to take the money and ignore the reality, but it will make it so much easier later if you get organized as soon as you take the loan out; keep track of how much you borrowed and who the lender is.
I often get asked if I want to take the bar, or practice one day and my answer is firmly “no”, or actually, more like “hell no!” Practicing law is not a life I want. A lot of people can’t understand that – how I can have a job where I don’t “use my degree.” And yes, I could have the job I have now if I didn’t have a law degree, many do, but it has helped. I can leverage those years spent in school as additional experience, it changes the dynamic with many of the attorneys I work with, and has helped with the advancement of my career.
The years I spent in law school and New York were amazing. I learned so much about myself, experience so many new things and met lifelong friends, who to this day are available to discuss everything from career advancement and salary negotiation tactics to the latest episode of Real Housewives or Bachelor in Paradise. And the loans I took out allowed me the freedom to feel brave enough to move halfway across the country to a city I’d only visited twice to start a new life. So, I don’t regret getting my law degree – it brought me so much more than being able to write “J.D.” after my name.
(Jessica Cox is one of four finalists for her category for the 2018 Student Loan Planner scholarship. To vote your preference, make sure to share her story on social media with the share buttons below and leave substantive comments on what you think of her essay.)