Wednesday, August 31, 2011

You Are Not Alone

Whenever I begin to think I'm the only lawyer out there who's happier doing admin work, I am reminded that I am not a beautiful and unique snowflake.  In this edition of Dear Prudence, a woman who once practiced law and now works as a secretary, seeks advice from Prudie on how to respond to the snobby comments she receives from friends who look askance at her.    One thing I love about Prudie is that she is aware of how tough the legal job market is these days and acknowledges that a JD is not something to boast about on a resume.  You tell 'em, Prudie.  Scroll down to the second letter.  Oh, and be sure to read some of the comments below the column, which are often more entertaining than the column itself. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Trap of Student Loan Debt, Part I

Many people who would like to quit practicing law have an enormous hurdle to overcome before they can even consider it: all that student loan debt they took out to receive those invaluable JD's (which caused that slew of doors to fly open upon graduation, right?  Or did you miss that?).  

Rather than repeat myself by reminding you that a JD does not make one more marketable, and in fact works against one's marketability, I would like to discuss a more positive topic, that of paying off these soul-sucking debts and getting out of student loan prison forever.

Before I left the law, I assumed that the size of my debt would render me unable to pay off my loans any sooner than the 25-year repayment period I had agreed to just a few months after graduation.  I think the fact that I was practicing law somehow helped me justify a longer repayment period.  After all, if I was actively using my degree on a daily basis, the expense seemed like the cost of doing business.  And since I owed about $80,000, I figured 25 years seemed reasonable.  

Once I left the law, I began thinking more about my financial future and became angry that I had made such stupid financial decisions.  I had basically trapped myself into working full-time in a field I hated for the better part of my adulthood.  Was I going to die a bitter, alcoholic ex-lawyer, still owing thousands to Sallie Mae upon my death?  I couldn't believe my life was becoming an Arthur Miller play.

I should backtrack a little here and fill you in on my professional transitions since my first temporary gig ended.  That gig netted me about $380 per week.  Once that job ended a few short months later, I obtained another job at a call center (my personal low), and then miraculously I was offered a permanent, full-time position at my husband's company working in customer service.  This all happened within one month after leaving my first temp job.  The salary at my customer service position?  $33,000 per year.  Not quite the almost $60k I was making as an attorney, but it would do since it came with benefits and a guaranteed paycheck.  When I accepted that position, however, I did something radical.  I decided not to quit my call center job right away, and instead I cut back to part-time three evenings per week.  So I was working about 55 hours per week, with a combined income (from both jobs) of about $42,000 per year.  Coupled with my husband's income, we would still be doing pretty well, except for our crippling student loan payments. 

My payments totaled about $565 per month, and my husband's were $180.  So basically, we were paying two mortgages, our real mortgage and our student loans.  And the payments were only going to go up because we were both on graduated repayment plans.  Thinking about these numbers is what led me to work two jobs and try to come up with a plan of action.

I didn't have time to think long because about a month after working my two jobs and getting used to my new, hectic schedule, my husband was offered a position with a higher salary about two thousand miles from where we lived.  In a matter of three weeks, we had to put our house on the market, find an apartment in our new city, and pack up.  It was exciting, but scary.  I had no idea what I would do for work, but I was looking forward to the opportunity to start over with a clean slate in a completely different area of the country, where no one would know me as an attorney. 

Fast forward a month after we arrived (which was November of last year).  I am once again an administrative assistant (pretty high level) and I assist professionals on an individual contract basis as needed (a few hours per month).  Everyone I work for knows I used to practice law and no one seems to have a problem with it.  And the real plus side is that I now make 30-40% more than what I used to as an attorney.  This can be attributed in large part to a different job market, but since my husband and I have managed to keep our expenses down, it has made a huge impact on our budget, so much so that I am now hopeful about seeing my student loan balance decrease to zero within the next few years.  

I can't really attribute my new found hope to a simple increase in salary, though.  In reality, I can attribute it to discovering Dave Ramsey's plan for living debt free and building wealth slowly.  It's funny, I disagree with him on so many things - religion, politics - but his books and podcasts have been so inspiring that I don't really care about our differences, as long as I am getting out of debt. 

And I am, more and more each month.  In fact, this month my husband and I are paying off our car (the big shiny one I bought a year and a half ago to try and make me feel better about practicing law), and then we are on to the student loans.  It is not easy, and I am still resentful of the law school scam, the higher education scam, and every other scam I've been taken in by as an adult.  But I figure if I am ever going to have a chance at the life I want (a little cabin somewhere with my dog, my husband, and some good books wouldn't be bad), I am going to need to pay off my "stupid tax" sooner rather than later.

I am going to discuss more of the particulars of my get-out-of-student-loan-debt plan in my next post, but for now I just wanted to put something positive and hopeful out there.  A year ago, I was miserable and depressed, thinking I would forever be in debt and would never be able to have children or even take a vacation.  And now I am getting closer and closer to being debt-free.

Life can be so shitty sometimes, but every once in a while it is simply amazing.  

Are your student loans or other debts holding you back from the life you want?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Does Quitting Law Lead to Happiness?

One of the questions I get from a lot of people (mostly through anonymous emails) is whether I am happier since quitting my lawyer job. I think the answer is more complicated than whether I am more or less happy. What I do know is that when I was practicing law, most of my days were spent feeling trapped and hopeless. At the same time, however, the outside world provided me with validation in the form of respect (from non-lawyers), interest in what I do (again, from non-lawyers), and approval from my family and friends (mostly non-lawyers).

Since quitting the law, I feel more at peace and hopeful about finding my purpose in life. I do not wake up each day dreading work, although some days I find work a little unchallenging. Since we both now make more money, my husband and I have more control over our finances, and have created a plan for paying off our student loans within the next two to three years.


The outside world does not provide nearly as much, if any, validation anymore. When people find out I used to practice law, they inevitably ask me whether I plan to take the Bar in the state in which I currently reside. When I tell them no, they seem puzzled and I can tell they are probably wondering whether I "burned out" or was disbarred, or had a nervous breakdown. Rather than try to disabuse them of any such notions or explain my choices, I tend to simply change the subject. This is a struggle, since leaving the law was a major decision and it is a part of who I am, but I also think it is healthier at this point in my life to look forward rather than dwell on the past.

All this is to say that when one is weighing the decision of whether to quit law, one must consider how self-assured he or she is. If you are the type of person who must please your family or cannot live without a shiny job title, quitting might not be a good option at this point. Let me be clear that I do not sit in judgment of those who need approval from family or who enjoy working in a seemingly prestigious field. I get it. I used to be like that. I am just cautioning those who need these things to think twice before quitting the law. Try to create a support system that will be in place once you take the plunge.

You may also want to think about what you plan on doing with your free time once you begin working fewer hours per week at a job that most likely will not require your undivided intellectual and/or emotional attention 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  You need a hobby.  Or a passion of some sort.  Otherwise, you may end up falling back into law because you need to do something that the world recognizes as valuable, rather than what will bring you fulfillment or may actually be useful. 

One thing I began doing when I left the law was reading more about personal finance and trying to come up with a financial plan for the future that would hopefully lead to a dignified retirement for me and my husband.  I did not consider this a "hobby" at the time, but these days, when I am not working like a mad woman, I tend to be reading up on finance or listening to podcasts about it, or looking at spreadsheets documenting my journey out of student loan hell.  I believe this now officially qualifies as a hobby.

What are some of the obstacles that have been holding you back from leaving the law?