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You’ll Pay For This: The First Step Is Admitting You Have a Problem

I owe $226,020.79 in federal student loan debt for my legal education.

Let’s start at the very beginning. I was extremely fortunate to have my undergraduate education paid for through a mix of scholarships and parental-aid. When I graduated with my shiny new B.A in Modern Languages and Cultures (yeah, I know), I had no clue what I wanted to do, and I had no concept of how different my life would be with student loans breathing down my back.

In my infinite 21 year old wisdom, I decided “I don’t know what I want to do, so I will go to law school.” Hindsight is 20/20, and I now realize that I broke my cardinal rule: always have a plan. I also broke my 2nd cardinal rule: always have a contingency plan.

So, with no regard for how I would pay for law school or what I wanted to do with my law degree, I planless-ly forged ahead with taking the LSATs and applied to roughly 20 law schools. As the acceptance (and, trust me, the rejection) letters starting rolling in, I had a big decision to make: where will I go to law school?

I considered many factors when my making my decision: prestige, location, convenience, whether I liked the campus, the commute, the surrounding community, etc.

I completely ignored one factor: cost.

Now seems like a good time to mention that I got into a state school, which would have cost me $10,000 a year to to attend.

I can’t say I wasn’t warned. My mom, bless her heart, desperately tried to advise me against taking out loans. But did I mention that I was 21 and knew absolutely everything? So I picked the school I wanted, based on the very sophisticated aforementioned list of factors, and signed on the dotted line. Both to attend the school and for the loans to fund it.

I also can’t say in good faith that I regret my decision to attend the law school that I did. I received an excellent legal education, have a career that I truly love, and met amazing friends. However, I can say wholeheartedly that I deeply regret almost every decision I made about how I funded my tuition.

For three blissfully ignorant years, I continued to sign for my loans without ever fully absorbing what those papers meant. Look, I’m not stupid. Somewhere inside I knew they would have to be paid back at some point. But that was so far in the future and I was going to be making so much money (insert eye-roll emoji here) that I felt completely disconnected from it.

When that long awaited day that I worked so hard for, graduation day that is, finally arrived it also dropped a giant bomb. I had to start thinking about actually paying back these loans.

Or not. Instead, I filled out some paperwork to defer my loans (because I was busy saving the world at a non-profit fellowship and making $30,000 a year) and promptly forgot they existed. This denial worked to protect me for a little while, but eventually I became completely overwhelmed by my situation. For about 6 months I couldn’t even bring myself to log into my account to check the balance.  

I also had a massive amount of shame. How did I let this happen? How will I fix it? What if people find out? I am a ”lawyer” now, and I am supposed to have some discretionary income and not need my parents to pay for, well, everything. That clearly wasn’t the case.

Eventually, I slowly crawled out of my deep dark hole, and I discovered that I am not the only one who was suffering with this problem. I realized that there were many people in the legal community who were in the same position. And, if a high percentage of a community is suffering from something, it is the entire community's problem, right? Right. The good news is that in realizing I was not alone, I found out that there were some people doing great things to solve this widespread problem. I found hope and I started to create a plan.

My friends, this story is about student loans, but it is also a lesson in what happens when you are not paying close attention to something important. I didn’t heed wise advice, I didn’t listen to counsel, and I made my choices. That is on me. But I am not the only one who needed to acknowledge a problem.

According to the 2017 U.S. News & World Report, the average law school debt ranges from $56,173  to $182,411 and the overall average is probably somewhere slightly north of $100,000 (what? Lawyers don’t do math). Cleary this problem reaches far beyond my personal debt struggle.

These numbers are bonkers and something must change.

And that is why I’m here with you for the next year. I want to raise awareness about law school debt and break the shame cycle. I want to share resources and find solutions.  I want to spread hope to those who feel as hopeless as I did. And maybe, just maybe, I can stop someone from getting into this situation in the first place.

Join me back here next month when I break apart the bottom line of my student loans. We will delve into the mechanics of student loans in a digestible (and endlessly entertaining) way, as well as some terminology you must know to understand your student loans.

Hey, if you know people who need to read this, be sure to share it with them.

Thoughts on this article? Want to share your own story? Tips for this column? Or just want to connect? You can reach me at info@vincoprep.com or find me over on linkedin.

 

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