Thursday, January 17, 2008

Law School the debt that keeps on giving (you heart aches)

Finally, finally, someone writes and speaks out on the little known and hidden aspects of going to law school. It costs a lot and most of us will never make the $185,000 that first year associates get at the Tony law firms.

Try looking at places like St. Mary's Law School in San Antonio where students graduate into a glutted legal market owing well over $100,000 in law school loans and very little chance to ever pay it all back in a timely manner.

Love of the law is one thing but there are plenty who jump into the field fed on dreams of becoming multi-millionaires and living the good life. That is all well and good however, the reality is different.

A brief item in the New York Post’s Page Six magazine caught our eye. In a story spotlighting women up to their ears in debt, the Post interviewed Kirsten Wolf, a 32-year-old BU Law grad. It left us wanting more, so we connected with Wolf this morning and had her tell us her story. From time-to-time, we’ve focused on the dark side of the law. Put this interview in that category.

Give me your CV.

I grew up outside of Boston. I started college at NYU for a year but had to leave for money reasons. Because it was the early 1990s and there was a recession I decided to learn a trade so I had a skill. I went to culinary school, which I did for two years. I then cooked at night and put myself through school, graduating from UMass-Amherst with an English Lit degree.

And post college?

I then worked for about a year doing data entry work for an engineering firm. I decided then that I need to be doing something more interesting so I was trying to make some decisions about graduate school and thought about getting a doctorate in English Lit and going into academia. But I knew too many smart, well-educated people who were unemployed so I wanted to make a more practical decision and considered getting an MBA but wasn’t sure what I would do with that. So law school seemed to be right in the middle. It was esoteric enough to satisfy the part of me that had made me consider academia but practical – I wouldn’t be, I thought, poor for the rest of my life. I had just put myself through college working full-time and I didn’t want to live like that anymore. So I applied to law school and got into BU.

How’d you afford it?

I got enough financial aid to make it work as long as I took out a lot of loans and figured that would be okay because my expectation was that I would be making a reasonable amount of money when I got out, based on both conventional wisdom that lawyers do okay and from the law school admissions material that I had been reading. BU and schools like it listed an average starting salary of $85,000.

How’d you like law school?

I hated it and loved it. I found the intellectual exercise fascinating. But what I didn’t like was the sense of “I gotta get a job, I gotta get a job” and the tense competition for what I realized as time went on was just a few lucrative jobs.

How were your grades?

I was like a B+ student, right there in the middle with most people. So it was the fall of second year when everyone was applying for summer associate positions and I realized I wasn’t going to be one of the chosen few who was going to get those jobs. I had a moment of realization that once that golden ring was taken away I realized I didn’t want to be a lawyer for the sake of being a lawyer and I reconsidered everything I was doing and realized I probably was in the wrong place, but I was about $45,000 in the hole at that point and if I walked away I’d have nothing and still have debt. So I finished law school so I could at least have the degree and maybe a miracle would happen and I’d get a job.

Did you get one?

I passed the Massachusetts bar and there was no job. This was 2002 when the dot-com bust was hitting white-collar trades. It was a bad time. The dean of our law school apologized to us in our graduation speech. So I continued to work for the engineering company I had worked at through law school and spent the year trying to figure out what I wanted to do. And I realized the directions I had gone in up until this point were wrong and I needed to rethink everything. I was 27 years old and I had been trying to do the right thing and that all that had gotten me was upwards of $100,000 in the hole.

What’d you do next?

I moved to New York City not knowing what I was going to do. Once I got here I spent about five months unemployed and became interested in publishing. I thought maybe that would make me happy. I got a job by accident as an office manager for a literary agency and realized it was the perfect place to be. It was the job I was uniquely designed for, using my literature skills, my legal skills and the small business management skills I acquired doing the jobs I had been doing through my 20s to pay the bills.

What’s your debt situation now?

Right now I owe $87,000 on my student loans. I work in a business now that’s not lucrative, so I’m on a 30-year repayment plan. But I’ve decided doing something I care about is worth financial sacrifice.

You mentioned to the Post that you’re on a mission.

I’m on a one-woman mission to talk people out of law school. Lots of people go to law school as a default. They don’t know what else to do, like I did. It seems like a good idea. People say a law degree will always be worth something even if you don’t practice. But they don’t consider what that debt is going to look like after law school. It affects my life in every way. And the jobs that you think are going to be there won’t necessarily be there at all. Most people I know that are practicing attorneys don’t make the kind of money they think lawyers make. They’re making $40,000 a year, not $160,000. Plus, you’re going to be struggling to do something you might not even enjoy. A few people have a calling to be a lawyer, but most don’t.

But is there any value in your law degree?

Yes. I do get value out of it. It helps in the work that I do as there is legal component to being an agent. It makes my clients feel better. But is that worth paying student loans until five years before my social security kicks in?