This essay is from a winner of the 2019 Student Loan Planner Scholarship.
Within a month of his passing in 2011 from acute lymphoblastic leukemia, my younger brother by 14 months, John, told me that he knew that I would make a “great lawyer one day.” At the time of his passing, I was an undergraduate student, a junior, studying English.
During college, I was not focused on taking significant steps toward securing my post-college plans. This included, of course, my intention to pursue law school, so that I could become an attorney.
Struggling with Grief While Planning for College
Before John’s passing, and especially as his health worsened, I struggled to think about the future, including my student loans and finances because I could not imagine a future without my brother.
How could I be concerned about money and finances, law school applications, and my student loans when my thoughts were weighted with whether John was admitted as an inpatient or whether a certain treatment worked?
For example, in the winter of 2010, I had considered signing up for an LSAT course that was set to take place in the spring of 2011, during the semester that he passed away. But the cost of the LSAT course was steep for my undergraduate work-study wage that I made working in the library on my college campus.
I did not want to burden my parents by asking them to pay for the course, especially because I witnessed their continuous visits to the clinic, administering medicine, and emergent admissions.
Much of my attitude about post-college plans rested on my grief over the loss of my brother to cancer, a disease that I myself endured from the age of 5 through the age of 12, culminating in the loss of my right leg above the knee in 2002, at the age of 11.
Paying for Law School without Scholarships
Law school admissions were largely based on one’s undergraduate GPA and LSAT score. Admittingly, I did not have a 4.0 GPA, nor was my LSAT score worthy of a top-tier school. Still, I applied to law school, and I was accepted by a few schools.
Law school was not what I thought that it would be. The academic rigor was intense, but I enjoyed the company of my classmates.
Some students in my class received substantial scholarships from the school, but I did not. I figured that I would pay off school after I landed a decent position as an associate “one day.”
As an undergraduate, I obtained approximately $30,000 in total loan debt. One year of tuition at the law school that I selected was about 33% more than all of the undergraduate debt that I accumulated.
To pay for law school, I took out Graduate PLUS loans, and I had the option of borrowing all of the money (even if I did not need it for tuition, per se) or only borrowing what I needed for tuition and fees.
Unfortunately, for the first two years of law school, I took out the maximum loan allotment each year, which helped with other expenses such as books, my on-campus apartment, and living expenses.
I was told by upper-level students that first-year law students should not work during their 1L year because the workload in law school is intense. I thought that it would make sense to take out more of a loan because I did not work for my first year. That may not have been the best decision.
My Six-Figure Law School Debt
Ultimately, I graduated from law school with a debt of six figures. Soon thereafter, the “Esq.” followed my name. Still, a heaviness loomed, and continues to loom, over me: My student loans.
I realize, however, that even with this burden, I had the opportunity of a legal education and the privilege of being licensed to practice law. That opportunity is one that the majority of people (alive or passed on) do not receive, and I am so grateful.
John told me that I would make a “great lawyer one day.” If “greatness” is measured in the amount of student loan debt that one has, then I am one of the greatest!
But I know that this is not the definition of greatness. I know that greatness is a kindness for others. It regards making a positive difference in the world, something that my brother saw woven into the fabric of my being because knowing him sewed my greatness together, one laugh, cry, or thought at a time.
Because of my debt, however, others ask me if I regret going to law school or if there is anything that I would have done differently. In a typical lawyer fashion, I typically reply, “‘it depends but….”
Courts often employ various balancing tests when making a decision about a particular matter, and I now apply a balancing test to the issue of law school and loans:
While law school loan debt is anxiety-producing, scary, and overwhelming, the regret that one might have in not pursuing one’s dreams might be even more terrifying.
As author Cheryl Strayed writes:
“Let whatever mysterious starlight that guided you this far, guide you onward into whatever crazy beauty awaits. Trust that all you learned during your college years was worth learning, no matter what answer you have or do not have about what use it is. [. . .]
You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score.
Anyone who expects you to do any of those things has no sense of history or economics or science or the arts.
You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth. But that’s all.”
You may hear that the financial cost of law school is not worth it. Or, you may be pressured to continue to work as an attorney because you already invested so much money into your career in the form of loans.
This burden is especially true for attorneys who enter the profession making less than $50,000 or $60,000 per year, if they can find a job at all.
What Motivates You?
While I leave the calculations and student loan leadership to Travis Hornsby, the Student Loan Planner, and his team, I invite you to consider your own greatness, what motivates you.
I ask you to think about my brother and others who do not have an opportunity to continue to pursue their dreams. Whether you have debt as an attorney or non-attorney, you still have an opportunity to inspire someone else to make a difference.
You can still, as Ralph Waldo Emerson writes, “leave the world a bit better.”