This article from Slate about the oversupply of law school grads scared the hell out of me. Seriously, I wanted to crawl under my desk, rock back and forth in the fetal position, and vomit at the same time. Not because I am currently experiencing the hell of unemployment, but rather, because I know how precarious life as a new attorney is.
The first thing that everyone should know is that when it comes to starting salaries, there are two types of lawyers in the U.S. - big firm attorneys and everyone else. Big firm attorneys, starting from day one, are paid six-figure salaries, and make big bucks (there's also an element of soul-selling involved, but whatever). Everyone else generally makes around $100,000 less than that. But regardless of what the new lawyer makes, he/she starts out with a mortgage-sized debt called student loans.
From personal experience, I graduated from law school with around $85,000 in student loan debt (and I was able to get it that low because I worked part-time throughout law school and lived with my parents). Because I am a liberal sort, I went to work for a non-profit, civil rights organization, that paid me $32k per year. During this time, my monthly student loan payments were approximately $900 per month, or about half of my take-home pay. I then consolidated my federal loans (so it will take me 25 years to pay them off), and cut my student loan payments to a more manageable $500 per month. Even then, I was living with my parents and asking for student loan assistance from my law school.
I share this because I was "doing the right thing" - taking out only student loans that I needed, saving as much as possible, had no credit card debt, and working to make the world a better place. Even then, I stuck living with my parents until I was 32 years old. It was only until I got a job at a law firm, which still pays significantly less than what partner-track, first year associates get from large firms, that I was able to move out of my parents' house. Oh, but I need a roommate to make the rent.
Again, I did everything right - I went to a good (Order of the Coif) law school, got good grades, passed the California Bar on the first try, etc. - and I still was too poor to afford my own place. If I did the "wrong" things (the things that most law school grads do) even just one or two of the wrong things, I would be in serious trouble right now.
I say all of this, despite the fact that I have absolutely no regrets about going to law school. I love being a lawyer, I love being a litigator, and I still love the law. Of course, my practice for the past seven years has been either in civil rights litigation or class action litigation. I've never had to defend a DUI to pay the rent, or represent a client I found odious. And that's a good thing, because this job is one of the most taxing, most difficult jobs around. I rarely have time to date, see friends, work in politics, and I had to get a dog to create some work/life balance.
Still, I understand how lucky I am to be where I am. And that's why when I read the Slate article, I thought, "There but the grace of God, go I." I get the same feeling whenever I read about a lawyer falling into drug or alcohol abuse - because every lawyer comes so close to falling into the abyss.
On a broader, policy oriented scale, we now have an opportunity to do some good for people, and I think we should take it. Here are my ideas to help out the legal profession:
1) Treat Student Loan Payments Like Mortgage Payments: Only $2500 of my student loan payments are currently deductible, which is totally ridiculous. Even after consolidation, I regularly exceed the max deduction every year. That's ridiculous. If I had a mortgage, I could deduct the amount I pay from my taxes in full. Keep in mind that I cannot walk away from my student loans like I could with a bad mortgage, and even if I declare bankruptcy, my student loans will never be discharged. Ever. So, give me a break.
2) Lawyers who work for non-profits should have their loan repayment suspended - Look, we want lawyers to do good in the world, from fighting injustice, to helping people with wills, trusts, etc. And we have a growing pool of unemployed attorneys out there who need something to do. Why not help by suspending repayment of the federal loans for as long as they work for a nonprofit?
3) Law School Transparency - Let's be clear. Being a lawyer is not the best way to make money. Those rich lawyers who drive BMW's and whatnot, really do work hard for their money. Now, there are harder jobs out there, but this idea that graduating from law school is the ticket to wealth is a total fiction for 99% of the law students out there. So, law schools should be clear about that. And they should be clear about how much the MEDIAN income of the 1st year attorney is (not the average income, which would be skewed by big firm salaries). The thing that helped me was that I was working for a non-profit, and I knew going in that I was going to get screwed financially.
So to all you newbie attorneys out there - good luck, and keep on hustling.