Breaking generational curses can make you want to curse sometimes.
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Are you a smart, recently graduated 20-something with a liberal arts degree feeling the pressure to “do something with your life” in order to win your parents’ approval and stop living paycheck to paycheck so you’re considering law school? First, I’d like to apologize for sounding like the guy shaming you out of leisure to join Everest college. Second, don’t let spoon-fed, fifth-generation lawyers and admissions officers fool you: Law school is a major financial and stressial (is that a word?) commitment. Can it fix your problems? Yes. It can set you up to do very well in life. I know a guy who took the LSAT on a dare, appeared to breeze through classes, got a Biglaw gig and is doing very well for himself and his family. He’s also the anomaly. Many people put in hard work and still find themselves facing hard times.
According to the Education Department, about 70% of law students leave school with debt, with the average amount totaling about $138,500. And a survey by the American Bar Association in 2020 found that debt from law school had caused some graduates to “lie awake at night worried,” leaving them in “constant anxiety and stress” that forced many of them to push off buying houses or getting married.
As you consider if law school is right for you, try to temper your expectations with the current realities people are facing. Steve Pederzani may have benefited from this advice a couple of years ago. From Business Insider:
After graduating from college and working as a social worker, Pederzani, now 32, wanted to continue helping people and saw a law degree as the next big step in doing so. As a first-generation student, he said he was frequently advised by attorneys and those around him that pursuing a law degree would leave him well off — and keep a roof over his head, even while in school — so he thought taking out student loans would be worth it.
“I grew up in a working-class family, and I don’t want to wonder when the next meal is going to be. I don’t want to worry about putting food on my plate,” Pederzani told Insider. “And with law school, everyone said that I’ll never have to worry about those things.”
But after graduating from law school in 2017, Pederzani today has $347,000 in student debt that keeps growing. He took out graduate PLUS loans to attend Seattle University School of Law, which allowed him to cover the full cost of tuition, but medical complications with his fiancée delayed him from taking the bar exam, and their collective incomes took a major hit since his fiancée could not work.
While the numbers attached to the story may be different — Lord, I hope the numbers attached to the story are different — the story is not that uncommon. As important as it is to have a plan, it is also important to remember that life doesn’t just give you lemons. It throws monkey wrenches too. Speaking from personal experience, I went in to law school with the expectation that I’d make at least $30k from summer internships that I could put toward my student loans. Lo and behold, that part of the plan became much more difficult when the number of callbacks I got was goose egg. Banking on snagging an easy position from OCI? Ninety percent of students going that route don’t get it. Thinking that things were looking up when I was offered a research gig by the Vice Provost, COVID happened and I got ghosted harder than Danny Phantom when spooky cafeteria workers appear.
In short, life happens. When it does, it is a godsend to have a safety net or two available to catch you when you’re failing. As nice as the student loan payment pause has been, the high cost of law school and associated interest rates remain a problem. And while some people characterize Biden’s $10-20k student loan relief as a drop in the bucket, anything counts when you’re dying of thirst.
Those loans are included in President Joe Biden’s plan to forgive up to $20,000 in student debt for federal borrowers making under $125,000 a year. But the relief is currently on pause due to two federal courts that have so far blocked the relief, in response to lawsuits filed by conservative groups seeking to permanently throw out the loan forgiveness.
Regardless, Pederzani said he had no problem paying back the amount he borrowed. In fact, he wants to. But he said he wished more people — and the president — would recognize that high-paying jobs don’t benefit everyone who pursues them.
“There are people who would find $10,000 in relief from Joe Biden as miraculous,” Pederzani said. “But there are a substantial number of people like me that are being forgotten. We’re being left behind.”
The take away here isn’t to scare you. You should temper your expectations, though. Be wary of who is advising you — how bright a future in law can be will likely differ from the the mouth of a firm’s rainmaker and a doc reviewer. Which isn’t to say only listen to the best of the best! You should also listen to folks who did the right things and still ended up struggling and factor in the potential that you’ll end up somewhere in the middle.
Chris Williams became a social media manager and assistant editor for Above the Law in June 2021. Prior to joining the staff, he moonlighted as a minor Memelord™ in the Facebook group Law School Memes for Edgy T14s. He endured Missouri long enough to graduate from Washington University in St. Louis School of Law. He is a former boatbuilder who cannot swim, a published author on critical race theory, philosophy, and humor, and has a love for cycling that occasionally annoys his peers. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org and by tweet at @WritesForRent.