Becoming a lawyer is a great career choice if you want to help people when they need it most — and let’s be honest, the perceived paycheck isn’t a bad incentive, either.
But the crushing weight of student loan debt from a pricy education can eclipse even attorneys’ earnings, with monthly payments sometimes costing more than housing.
These figures can be financially devastating, and not just at the beginning of a lawyer’s career. Six-figure debt can hang around for years, especially for those in public defense — a role that carries all the same hard work at a fraction of the paycheck.
Three lawyers told us about their struggles with student loan debt and how their loans have affected their lifestyle and career choices.
A Milwaukee criminal defender who’s stressed out
Matthew Meyer didn’t get into law for the money. “Criminal defense was something that always interested me,” he says; being a district attorney struck him as “very important, good work.” He wanted to “help people in difficult situations — situations where it’s sometimes hard to see why those people need help.”
But when he joined the workforce in 2012, he’d accumulated more than $170,000 in student loan debt, the lion’s share of which came from his three years at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
His $40,000 salary at a local law firm wasn’t making a dent, so he waited tables by night.
Even working two jobs, things were tight, so Meyer enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan. It kept his monthly bill down to $150 for a couple of years… during which time his debt skyrocketed to more than $260,000 with interest. Although his low monthly payments made ends meet, they also meant he was barely keeping up with accruing interest.
In 2014, Meyer managed to scrape together $5,000 to start his own law firm, where he finally started seeing more substantial earnings, around $170,000 per year. After three years of more aggressive payments, he refinanced his loans — with a 10-year plan whose minimum monthly payments are a staggering $2,324.21.
“I have a hard time explaining exactly how much stress I’ve experienced working through this,” Meyer says. “I have a hard time looking at my actual account.”
While he’s glad he followed his dreams to become a lawyer and loves his practice, his loans continue to give him pause. He still has $200,000 left to pay off.
“It’s scary,” he admits, especially running his own practice. “If I have a bad month [at the firm] — what happens then?”
A public defender who ran out of options
Alexis Rado had just about graduated with her masters degree in international relations before she realized she didn’t want to work in the field. Feeling like she was “out of options,” she says, “I figured, OK, I’ll go to law school and figure it out from there.”
Fortunately, she didn’t have loans from any of her schooling up to that point. But she went into debt to earn her J.D. — and although she graduated in 2011, she owes $210,000 today, which is significantly more than she took out because of accrued interest.
With standard monthly payments that would top $2,400, Rado’s income as a public defender simply wouldn’t keep up. She enrolled in Income-Based repayment (IBR), which kept her payments down to $240 per month… and ballooned her balance with interest.
“At this point, I’m going to die with the loans,” Rado believes. She’s lucky enough to supplement her income with an inheritance, which she credits for her ability to get by.
Rado’s happy with her work; it feels fulfilling and important. “I can’t imagine myself doing anything else,” she says.
But without what she calls the “additional privilege” of her supplemental income, she doubts she’d be able to do the work she’s doing. “I think a lot of people have that issue,” she says — “that they can’t do public service, because how the hell are you going to pay [the loans] back?”
An attorney-cum-entrepreneur who actually paid it off — eventually
Emily D. Baker spent 10 years as a district attorney before establishing her career as a legal consultant. She graduated from Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles in 2006 with about $130,000 in debt.
Thanks to her sheer grit and years of patient determination, Baker successfully paid off the loans in early 2017. The payoff took more than a decade, even though she had a successful career and was married to a doctor.
Right out of the gate, she was paying $1,500 per month, which she bumped up to $2,000. She soon surmised that she was destined for something “more entrepreneurial” than the D.A. position she’d dreamed of in her 20s, but she couldn’t jump ship until the debt was taken care of.
“My student loan debt made a lot of decisions for me,” Baker says — both in her career and her personal life.
She was lucky enough to have health insurance through her husband’s medical practice, but the loans still caused stress when the couple was deciding to have children. They had to think carefully before adding child care costs to those existing bills.
“It was a lot of years of not buying a house and not taking vacations,” Baker says. “Budgeting was very, very conservative” — which is hardly what you’d imagine for a family headed by two high-paid professionals.
Baker is happy with her path, as costly as it was. “I love my career, and I wouldn’t have been able to get to this point [without the education],” she says.
But she does wish she’d thought through her law school decision a bit more before taking on so much debt; perhaps she could have gone to night school or avoided paying for a private university’s tuition. Because even with the debt gone, the legacy of her loans lives on.
“I wish we had more in retirement savings at this point in life,” she says. She’s in her early 40s, and her husband’s in his early 50s. “But it all went toward student loans.”
She feels fortunate to have been able to get past the debt and find her dream career, because she knows first-hand that loans “handcuff a lot of attorneys.”
Need help getting out from under your own student loans?
No matter your career trajectory or your paycheck, student loans can be financially crippling — which is why we’re here to help you find a way out. Click here to learn more about your options for hitting the reset button on your student loans.