Four Lawyers Get Candid About Life, Career Aspirations, and Law School Debt
After graduating from law school, every aspiring lawyer has a vision of what his or her ideal law career will look like. One thing most new attorneys will attest to, however, is that their substantial student loan debt will probably factor into their career decisions for years to come. Whether pursuing the coveted partnership in a law firm, choosing a slower pace to leave room for work-life balance, opting to practice law that helps champion causes close to the heart, or working for a private client, law school loans loom large.
Here’s a closer look at how four motivated young lawyers are navigating different career paths and discovering new passions, while trying to close the case on their student loan debt for good.
Anthony: Financially focused and poised for partnership
Anthony, the son of Haitian immigrants, became the first person in his family to graduate law school when he earned his J.D. from the University of Minnesota Law School in 2014. “My parents always taught me that you don’t have to be the smartest, but you’d better outwork everybody else,” he says. That mantra shaped his strong work ethic, which has propelled him through high school, college, law school, and now, his law career.
“Working through school made me a better student,” he says. “It kept me grounded and scheduled.” It also minimized his student loan debt, since he only borrowed for tuition, while working to cover his living expenses.
In fact, all of Anthony’s career decisions—from working his way through school and taking three years after college to really contemplate the price tag of law school to the type of law he practices—have been strategic and focused on one main goal: eliminating his student loan debt as quickly as possible. For example, he chose Dallas over New York City when the firm that offered him his first position gave him the option; he knew the cost of living there would be more affordable.
“Within two years, I’d bought a house and paid down my loan. There’s no way I could have done that in New York,” he says.
Now 31, Anthony’s a new dad, making him even more committed to eradicating his student loans. He says that becoming debt-free should take about seven years, but if he can keep up with aggressive payments, he can do it in five.
So far, he has reduced his debt from $145,000 to under $100,000. He credits that progress to working long hours—between 55 and 65 hours per week—and to refinancing his two student loans through SoFi. He’s now paying low variable rates of 2.7% and 3.1%, down from the over-6% rates on his original loans. “That first year I wasn’t paying any of the principal or making a dent. Now I can see the amount going down,” he says.
As for the partner track, after two years with his first firm, Anthony made a lateral move to practice complex commercial litigation with Bell Nunnally Martin.. “My other firm did more nationally, but I wanted to focus on building relationships here in Dallas, and practicing law at a high level,” he says. He was attracted to the entrepreneurial vibe of Bell Nunnally Martin, and they were looking for someone who was committed to staying on long term, so it was a perfect fit.
If he had it to do all over again, there’s not much he would change, Anthony says, other than trying harder to pursue a scholarship for law school. Still, he’s glad he took time off after school to consider his options. That life experience is something he advises aspiring lawyers to seek before they enroll.
“Get out in the ‘real world,’ gain an appreciation for paying rent and making student loan and car loan payments, and understand the quality of life you want to have,” he says.
Hayley: Balancing family and law
Law school grads don’t typically equate becoming a lawyer with having a picture-perfect work-life balance, but attorney Hayley has indeed been able to enjoy the best of both worlds. The 31-year-old mom of two girls works on civil defense and workers’ compensation cases as an associate at McConnaughhay, Coonrod, Pope, Weaver & Stern P.A. in Jacksonville, Florida.
Her reasons for choosing that firm over others that offered more competitive salaries include its commitment to family values. “I once interviewed for an in-house position with an insurance company. They told me the legal team worked 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and some weekends. That was not the job for me,” she says.
By contrast, her current practice, which includes a lot of women with children, is more flexible. Halyey puts in 45 to 50 hours a week, but she’s still able to juggle parenting responsibilities between courtroom appearances with support from her husband, who works in the financial industry (and does 75% of the cooking at home). “It’s a great, family-oriented firm,” she says. “I have the flexibility I need to raise a family and enjoy life.”
Considering that her priority isn’t to bring in a higher salary, but rather to care for her family, she’s has done some financial maneuvering to tackle her law school student loans, which originally totaled $117,000.
First, she consolidated and refinanced her loans with a traditional lender—a move that left her with one 30-year loan at a 7.25% interest rate. But with those terms, her payments were only covering interest; the balance wasn’t going down. So she refinanced again—this time through SoFi.
SoFi brought her interest rate down to 4.9%. All told, that will save her approximately $70,000 over the lifetime of her loan. And, since she’s been able to make progress on the principle, she finally owes less than six figures.
Next up for Hayley? She’d like to have another child and pass the bar exam in a neighboring state, Georgia, to gain access to more career opportunities—but not necessarily in that order, she says. Making partner is also on her long-term to-do list. But for now, she’s enjoying life as a working mom while gaining valuable experience in court.
“I think I’m a better parent because I take full advantage of my limited time with my daughters,” she says. Although she knows she won’t make partner as early as some of her colleagues without families, she’s pleased with her progress. “I am definitely advancing my career at a steady pace while getting to enjoy my kids at a young age. I’m not in a hurry.”
Christopher: Hedging his career bet
It’s not every day that a promising young attorney walks away from a prestigious job at a New York law firm, but for Christopher, a 30-year-old University of Chicago Law School graduate, taking a non-traditional career path seemed like the right move.
After signing on at Sullivan & Cromwell for $170,000 per year (with an increase to $210,000 plus bonus after two years), he was growing weary of the long hours required on the partnership track. “I didn’t want to work 70 hours a week until I died,” he says.
When a recruiter called him out of the blue for an in-house counsel position at a hedge fund, he applied on a whim. “I wasn’t actively looking to leave the law firm, but I was won over by how intelligent the company was and how important legal matters figured into their business. I felt respected right away,” he says.
The new role pays a comparable salary, but now he works 20 hours less per week.
Getting off the partner track was a risky move, Christopher admits. “Hedge funds blow up all the time; elite law firms don’t.” On the other hand, bonuses can be substantial in the financial sector if the company has a good year. Plus, the decrease in work hours adds up to more than 40 days of free time annually, he says.
Christopher grew up in a poor Atlanta neighborhood, and was the first person in his family to attend college, so he’s no stranger to beating the odds. Still, graduating law school $198,000 in debt was a challenge. Even with a healthy income, between his student loan debt and the cost of renting in New York City, money was tight.
Refinancing his loan through SoFi, with a variable interest rate (currently 3.77%) and a 20-year term, made his debt obligation more manageable. “Refinancing allowed me to reduce the amount I pay monthly by about 40%, while keeping the same maturity on the loans,” he says.
His career switch has allowed him to focus on excelling professionally in a less taxing environment, while chipping away at his remaining debt. His advice to other young lawyers is to take time to network and see what opportunities might be up for grabs.
“Attorneys don’t spend time networking with peers, which is valuable,” he says. “They should teach that in law school.”
Kate*: Paving a new route toward social justice
After graduating law school with a student loan debt burden of $250,000, Kate, a 32-year-old attorney living in New York City, planned to pursue a traditional partnership path. Working in the lucrative field of commercial real estate litigation was a practical choice for the talented American University Washington College of Law graduate.
But after some time, Kate realized that the work wasn’t a great fit for her, despite being only two or three years away from making partner. More and more, the role felt “lonely and solitary,” she says, and a far cry from the collaborative work environment she craved.
Still, Kate stifled those feelings because she liked her colleagues and the position paid well. But after the 2016 presidential election, her outlook changed dramatically. She was uneasy with the resulting political and social climate. That’s when she realized her true career calling: litigating civil rights and women’s issues.
Walking away from a future partnership won’t be easy, Kate admits, especially given her considerable law school debt. But she yearns for a gratifying career—one that won’t place an overwhelming financial strain on her lifestyle, as she and her husband are hoping to buy a home and start a family within the next couple of years. So she’s taken the first step to ease the transition before leaving her job—refinancing her student loans.
After researching her options, she chose to student loan refinance with SoFi—a move that lowered her interest rate from 7% to 4%. Now, because she and her husband have been diligent about saving money, they have a cushion of funds to help them adjust to a potential pay cut.
Her next move will be to seek out an opportunity that allows her to work closely with others who are seeking justice for their clients. That, along with starting a family, is “part of my five-year plan,” she says.
While Kate has no regrets about her career choices thus far, she does wish she had taken some time off after college to gain some real-world experience and earn money to help offset the cost of law school. Nonetheless, she’s grateful for how far she’s come, and she’s looking forward to the privilege of doing meaningful work standing up for the rights of others.
As these lawyers prove, whether your law career results in your name on the door of a corner office, doing work that benefits the public, or fitting legal arguments into a busy family schedule, you can get your law school debt under control and define your own success.
Not a lawyer yourself, but know one struggling with student loan debt? Be a friend, and share! And, no matter what career path you’re on, speak to SoFi’s career coaching team for personalized career advice and services.
* Name has been changed