How not to be a lawyer

“I assumed the more education, the higher salary,” Lisa S. — we don’t know her real name — tells Forbes.com. “I was aware that with a master’s degree, in certain jobs you can get a higher pay grade, and that you’d be eligible for more jobs, even with just teaching.”

She’s from Minneapolis and Forbes is telling her story in its report on whether grad school is worth it.

According to the story, she got a master’s in film after getting her undergraduate degree from Minneapolis College of Art & Design.

But the work she was able to get didn’t pay the bills nor the student loan bill.

She had a child and was a single mother.

To delay the student loan repayment and try for a better job, she went to law school, pushing the total loans amount to $275,000.

She graduated in 2009, just in time to catch the recession for lawyers.

She moved back to Minnesota and had to take the Bar, a period during which she ran up $40,000 in credit-card debt.

Now a solo practitioner in a small Minnesota town, where the median income in her field is $50,000 a year, she is just starting out and making about $20,000 per year. Even with that income, and $500 a month in child support, she and her son are on food stamps, and he is in the free school lunch program. She is aware that her low income is affecting the extracurricular choices she makes with him and tries to take advantage of some of the special programs offered by her state for food stamp recipients, such as $9 tickets to the science museum, where the actual price is $30.

Though she has good credit — between 650 and 700 — “I have this big mark over my head because I have too much student loan debt,” she says. Though she once had hoped to buy a home, she cannot even afford the median home price of $150,000 in her small town, where many of the local farmers who don’t have degrees own their homes. She also rues her inability to save for retirement or for her 10-year-old’s college education and doesn’t know what she’ll recommend to him when it is his time to consider higher education.

The debt even affected her marriage this past February. Though they consider themselves married, she and her husband had a ceremony but skipped legally tying the knot for several reasons: Her debt could hurt him financially, plus their combined income would force some of her loans out of deferment. However, though they are nervous about the cost, they did decide to have a baby, due next spring, because of her age.

Forbes says she’s now working in a small Minnesota town making about $20,000 a year. She’s on various forms of public assistance.

The article doesn’t say what conclusion we’re supposed to reach with the choices she made or the system in which she tried to thrive.

(h/t: Minneapolis St. Paul Business Journal)

  • Veronica

    Yeah, I’m not sure it’s the system’s fault. (And I tend to be pretty generous in giving people the benefit of the doubt.)

    Although, that student loans are the only kind that can’t be discharged in bankruptcy is really, really awful.

  • clost

    Been there. Done that. Except for the Master’s Degree in between. I was in the top 10% of my law school class, but was a married female with children. Hit the 1980’s attorney recession, and thankfully did not have to use food stamps or free lunches. But probably would have qualified. I shake my head at all of the law school students who have bought into the idea that being a lawyer means big bucks. I’ve been working in the public sector now, and the lawyers often earn less than the clients. It is not a career that I would recommend for anyone who a) completely devoted to helping others, or b) just loves to beat their head against a brick wall. Is it the fault of “the system”? Let’s just say that the system is not helpfu, and the unrealistic expectations that society and law schools plant in the heads and hearts of the law students is a setup for failure.
    It does get better…..eventually. But it is a long road, and it is not easy. No one will sympathize, except for those who have been through it.

  • EHP

    As a 2009 law grad myself, I’m always very interested in these stories. I, too, bought into the idea that the average starting wage for attorneys is $80k – without stopping to think about the fact that’s an AVERAGE, and the top-wage earners seriously skew the numbers.

    I was lucky – I got a job in a corporation, not practicing, but a job that required my degree and pays benefits. It was jaw-dropping to learn just how many of my classmates made $20k – $30k annually, without benefits. I made $45k, and learned quickly to stop whining about it.

    I’ve seen the articles (and read the complaints of lawsuits) blaming the law schools for not presenting the reality of a newly graduated attorney clearly enough. It’s a mixed bag. You can’t reasonably say law students are unsophisticated consumers. You can’t say with a straight face we didn’t affirmatively chase down this dream by incurring massive amounts of debt. That said, the seductive allure of ‘more, bigger, better degrees equates to more, bigger, better jobs’ is a hard call to ignore, especially because on its face, it makes sense.

    For some, living debt free is the new American dream. I’m just grateful that I have a partner with health insurance and a steady job.

  • Amy

    Wow! If I needed an answer to the “go back to school?” question this morning, I got it with this article and the answer is a strong NO!
    I just finished paying off my 10 year student loan debt from my bachelor’s degree this year two years early and I am so happy just to be debt-free, that although I’d love to make a career change, I’ll take the freedom from having to work in a field I no longer enjoy that being debt-free provides any day! That or it can come with a full scholarship! 🙂

    • Kassie

      But it isn’t that simple. I have a significant student loan. I also make more money each month than I did before I went to grad school to cover that student loan, then some. While law is probably not the best choice, depending on where you are and what you want to go into, it may be worth it to take on the debt.

  • Jack

    Sorry – I do have a problem here and it is related to the marriage that they did not have legally recognized. I understand the concept of keeping the debt to the party that took it on. Where I have the problem is with the fact that apparently she is still able to be on “food stamps” and her son is getting free lunch at school. There are two incomes in the household (making the assumption that the husband is earning one) and I don’t see how she can still be on benefits.

    Just for the record, I am a liberal and always have been. I just don’t like seeing anyone taking advantage of a system that is already overtaxed with folks who truly need the benefits.

    You took out the debt, now deal with it.

    • Kassie

      Why should someone have to pay for someone else’s kid? The boyfriend is just a roommate in the eyes of the welfare system and the law. Should someone who has a roommate to help meet the bills not be eligible for food stamps because the roommate or roommates make a $100k when they make $20k? And even if it is a boyfriend, why should he be required to pay for the child? And is there a way for the welfare department to distinguish between a roommate and boyfriend/girlfriend?

  • jaime

    Wow. I totally empathize with her situation. I don’t think graduate school is a bad idea and can really be beneficial in the long run. But you have to think long and hard about the cost/benefit ratio and if you have the means/support to weather starting on the low rung of the ladder. I think there were some poor choices made on her part – the schools she went to (MCAD, USC, Pepperdine) are SUPER expensive and she most likely paid out of state tuition rates for the graduate work – but my heart goes out to her as she tries to make the best of her situation and raise her child the best she can.

    I think this is a cautionary tale for those planning for college in general. Tuition and scholarship opportunities should not be taken lightly, and sometimes the local state school (or starting at a 2-year college and then moving to a 4-year one) isn’t so bad. Also, if possible, NEVER take out private loans for education. The interest rates are horrible compared to the federal govt (FAFSA) rates and you’ll never get ahead.