Keeping post-J.D. hopelessness at bay?
May 26, 2013 6:10 PM   Subscribe

I graduated from law school this month. I got great grades, and have a good job lined up that will keep me busy for three years after the bar exam and before entering law firm life. The problem is that I'm the new cliche: I have accumulated close to $250,000 in educational debt through undergrad and grad school and I don't want to be a lawyer. At all. Blizzard to follow.

Extremely messy family/personal drama, and a hefty dollop of rose-colored stupidity, has brought me to this financial place. An acrimonious divorce led one of my parents to file for bankruptcy, which led to my assumption of all the financial risk related to my education. The divorce was accompanied and preceded by abuse, which led to my estrangement from my parental abuser (the wealthy parent, of course, who has offered me nothing and from whom I wouldn't accept a penny). I lived life in a whirlwind for years, flitting all over the country and the world to go to school and (I think in no small part) to run from the pain of everything.

Though I worked full-time throughout my education, I am still staring down the barrel of this humiliating near-quarter-million personal financial deficit, and despite my fancy degrees I feel like I have nothing to show for it. How I wish I could go back in time and tell my seventeen-year-old self that it was more important to take on less debt than to go to a fancy, prestigious university. How I wish I could talk to myself three years ago - when I was agonizing over the decision to go to law school so much that I deferred matriculating for a year and took a job in an unrelated field for a time - to do anything, anything but take on more debt to get a J.D.

I guess my question is: how do I fight the feeling of hopelessness? the feeling like I've wasted my young years? the feeling that because of this monster pile of debt I'll never be able to do what I really want to do? I'm in therapy and have been for a while; about a year ago, when disillusion with my choice to go to law school reared its ugly head and a toxic relationship exploded with incredibly traumatic fallout, I was hit by a wave of clinical depression, the worst of my life. I've fought my way back to stasis, but all the coming changes (moving away in a few short months from the city that now feels like home, studying for the bar, separation from close friends) have sort of wreaked havoc on me all over again. It's not so bad, this time; I can get out of bed and I don't feel like the days are sliding by in a fever dream. I feel okay about 60% of the time, but like I'm constantly beating back that 40% blackness, and if I give that 40% a centimeter it will swallow me whole.

As far as the freshly-minted-J.D. situation goes, I'm one of the lucky ones. I have a job. And there's this voice in my head that keeps sternly telling me that no one really gets to do what they want in life, at least not all the time, and that I just need to put my head down and get through the next six years or so somehow. But I'm very afraid, as the kind of job that will enable me to pay down this debt with any reasonable expediency is the kind where you're a slave to the 100-hour work week, and I'm in my late twenties with no life partner in sight.

I have ridiculous fantasies: that I will inherit a large sum of money, that I will win the lottery, that I will find a bag of money on the street. I have disturbing thoughts: that I would sell my body in exchange to pay my debt, that I can't run overseas or kill myself because my grandmother is a cosigner on some of my loans and she'd be stuck with my debt in the twilight of her life. (I'm not actually suicidal - it's more that I examine the thought with a weird longing and detachedness that is itself very frightening.) I spin out incredibly shameful scenarios: that I will meet some incredible man and we will fall completely in love with one another and after we're married he'll reveal that he's actually a secret millionaire and my debt will evaporate and I'll go back to school and do what I actually want to do and we'll live happily ever after. These thoughts all disgust me completely, particularly because I am so drawn to them. More accurately, they make me feel disgusted about myself.

I journal. I try to divert my thinking away from these damaging patterns when I recognize that I'm falling down a hole. I spend time with friends. I exercise regularly. I've read Thich Nhat Hanh and When Things Fall Apart. But. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.
posted by sevensnowflakes to Human Relations (30 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I have two separate lines of advice. First, if you feel overwhelmed and hopeless and depressed, and you're not getting help, you should get help. Therapy can help whether your depression is situational (e.g., because of your career or personal circumstances) or longer-term and physiological. You might feel better just having someone to talk to, and a qualified professional can help you explore the options available to you. Just because you can function, that doesn't mean that you don't deserve help or couldn't benefit from it.

Second, you are not locked into the path you are currently on. Yes, you're lucky to be employed and to have had the opportunity to get a fancy education and to have the resources to get where you are. But if you're not happy, you don't have to keep going the way you're going. You don't have to take the job you have lined up, and you don't have to go to a law firm. You don't even have to be a lawyer at all (though I'd still probably take the bar, since this is probably the easiest time to get that credential). You are not locked into this path, and even if there are costs to getting out of it, you can get out of it. If you were smart and savvy enough to do well in law school, you can find other things you'll be successful at, and you might like them better.

Even with your student loan debts hanging over your head, you have options. For example, if your loans are federal (as most of them are for those of us who have borrowed in recent years) there are numerous repayment options available to you if you want to take a lower-paying job that you might personally find more fulfilling, especially if you decide to go into some form of public service. Prostitution and rich spouses are not your only ways out. The debt is scary, I know, and you're not wrong to regret taking it out, because it does change the calculus for your future decisions, but it doesn't have to dictate the course of the rest of your life unless you let it.
posted by decathecting at 6:24 PM on May 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

But I'm very afraid, as the kind of job that will enable me to pay down this debt with any reasonable expediency is the kind where you're a slave to the 100-hour work week, and I'm in my late twenties with no life partner in sight.

On the very off chance that your loans are mostly/all federally subsidized, you could go on income based repayment and pursue a job that wouldn't otherwise allow you to repay your debt, provided you're willing to accept a massive tax bill in 25 years when the residual amount left over is forgiven. That way, you just push your debt onto other taxpayers (like me).

Otherwise, be realistic. You don't really have any option other than pursuing a legal profession because you need a very substantial income to repay your debt. There aren't many options outside law with a JD background.

Some perspective is good here. You have a job lined up, so you're more lucky than half of law grads. Even if your job is not $160k/year as a law partner in Big Law, you're going to have a salary that puts you in the upper quartile, and likely upper 10%, of society. You just have to pay the price. There are a lot of people that would prefer to be in your spot rather than being unemployed or having no job prospects whatsoever.
posted by saeculorum at 6:28 PM on May 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

you should get help.


I also second trying to pass the bar (you only have to do it once, and you can get used Barbri materials from lots of places so it won't cost a fortune to prepare.)

And don't forget, for your federal loans, the options of forbearance, deferral, etc. Just don't use the "current student" deferrals, because grad school is not likely on the top fifty list of good choices.
posted by SMPA at 6:29 PM on May 26, 2013

Response by poster: Just this, and then no more threadsitting: I am in therapy and have been for a while (said that above, but I know the post was long). Also, I will absolutely be taking the bar exam. The job I have now is not a traditional firm job, but it does require bar passage, and I've enrolled in a bar study course, etc.

Finally, most of my debt is indeed federal but there's enough private left over from undergrad that it's a serious thorn (hatchet?) in my side. I have lots of documentation and spreadsheets about all my loans and know all of my options related to deferral/forbearance/IBR. I'll definitely be pursuing IBR and consolidation for the federal ones.
posted by sevensnowflakes at 6:34 PM on May 26, 2013

Sorry, I did miss the therapy bit of your post. Have you told your therapist that you still feel 40% hopeless? Because it sounds as though what you're doing right now hasn't gotten you to where you want to be. Your therapist should be able to explain to you how the work you're doing with her/him will get you there, or be able to give you options for other sorts of treatments that might work better.

Even with private student loans, I'd reiterate that you're not locked into the job you have now. You've made choices that limit your options (e.g., you couldn't both take a job that doesn't pay enough to make minimum payments and maintain a pristine credit score. But of course, you know that.). But if your job makes you feel like you're being half swallowed alive, you should start exploring those other options. Think of your current path as an option, not a foregone conclusion. It may turn out to be your best option, but it's certainly not your only option. Just thinking about this path as a choice you're making to secure your future, but that you can change your mind about, rather than as something you have no control over, might make you feel a little less awful about the whole thing.
posted by decathecting at 6:40 PM on May 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: What is is that you do want to do? There are in fact many other professions, even high paying careers, that require (or prefer) a J.D. such as legal librarian, law professor, some other kind of professor, pre-law advisor, judicial clerk (not super high paying, but actually pretty good), legislative aide (state or federal, or similar), legal editor, sales representative for legal software companies, risk management positions in hospitals and other industries, advisor to legal TV shows and movies, and of course writer. You are not locked into being a lawyer. (There are many more that I'm not thinking of right now, but if you post what you do like, I can brainstorm more.)

That said, you might also discover that you find you like the law once you're not studying it, but instead practicing it. It's very different. I love my work as a lawyer, because it's meaningful, thoughtful, and surprisingly intellectual. I love that I make a difference in people's lives, an absolutely incredible difference, and that I am respected and valued for that work. I love that I need to think creatively, and to write, and to be both logical and passionate. I love being a lawyer. Maybe you will too, once the stress of finishing law school/passing the bar/moving to a new city/starting a new job all pass. What is your new job? Where is it?

I guess I'd tell you mostly this: open your mind and your heart to the positives that can come from your situation. You're away from the abuser. You're educated and qualified for many interesting career paths, a really tremendous variety of them. You're young and have a great deal of life ahead of you, and although people tell you that life is short, that's bullshit. Life is really long, and you can change directions many, many times before you get old and die. And lots of people meet their spouses in law firms, or in law libraries (Barack and Michelle met that way :) and the intensity of the work makes both you and them more interesting.

I am more than happy to talk to you about this if you like.
posted by Capri at 6:44 PM on May 26, 2013 [26 favorites]

If you think creating and implementing an action plan will help you gain control of your emotions, try this one: Consider your job a temporary one that will, if you live frugally, allow you to pay down your loans and put some money aside to fund you when you decide what you'd like to do with your life. Then spend some of your spare time researching what your background in the law will help you do, look into those fields, and think about a five- or ten-year plan of getting further education or experience to help you transition into that field. I'm a librarian, so I immediately think of law librarianship, but there's various legal and political things you could do for sure, and probably plenty of other obscure (to me) fields that would be open to someone of your background.

(On preview: what Capri says.)
posted by telophase at 6:48 PM on May 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

Hmm. This may come across as a little harsh, but I think you should start by counting your blessings and possibly making a gratitude list. It's a drag to be saddled with $250,000 in debt, but at the same time, it was your choice, and you are also saddled with a fine, white-collar career, which may not be what idealistic 15 year old you dreamed of doing, but the reality is that it has the potential to bring you in loads of money and to lead a very comfortable (ahem, non-homeless) lifestyle.

I would recommend buying a Fender stratocaster (or the equivalent recreational companion activity to whatever it is that you wish you were doing) to play on the weekends and after work and reminding yourself that life is not bad. I have no doubt that the internal state that you are feeling is very sad but there is not much to be sad about in the external circumstances.

Re: late twenties with no life partner in sight, you have plenty of time.
posted by mermily at 6:52 PM on May 26, 2013 [12 favorites]

I'm not even an expert and even I know there are millions of jobs people do where a law degree helps that aren't "lawyer" per se. Hollywood agent is one I happen to know of off the top of my head. Not saying you should do that, but just an example of the galaxy of choices in the world.

You're doing the right thing by getting therapy. It's always easy to feel boxed-in when you're depressed about other things. Just keep plugging ahead, explore your options and never ever ever listen to anyone who tells you there is only one path for you in life. That's horrendous advice and completely untrue for almost everyone on Earth.
posted by drjimmy11 at 6:57 PM on May 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

A few more semi-harsh things. Late twenties is still very very young but I would dispel the notion of 'going back to school to do what you want'. No more school until this is paid off. Also, that's great you have a job for three years. I would just live as frugally as possible (ie no more city/country hopping) and pay off as much of your debt as possible. Keep seeing your therapist and plan to make no sudden moves until this three year phase is over.
posted by bquarters at 6:57 PM on May 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

Best answer: What you're going through sounds incredibly intense and scary and I don't really feel qualified to give advice about it. But on the off-chance that some clumsy cheerleading might help, here goes.

You say you read Thich Nhat Hanh, who is also the writer I turn to when I'm overwhelmed. His thing, right, is that anything is bearable -even beautiful- if you can concentrate on the moment itself; forget the past, forget the future; just see and feel and be. And it works. He is right, without question. The problem, of course, is that there are a lot of times when it feels right and even necessary to think about the future, to worry about it and obsess about it; it's easy to convince ourselves that spending our time thinking about the past and the future is a fun and useful thing to do...and it is, until the night comes when you realize you're anxious and terrified and worried about everything and you have been for as long as you can remember. And then you have to go and pick up the book again.

Six years is a very short time, a fraction of a life. So many people are in jobs with no way out, or else they have to fight and claw for years to have even a chance at the lives they want; if they don't spend all their time thinking about their future nothing will ever change. You're not in that place. All you have to do is stay where you are, do your work, and wait for a certain period of time to pass. Once that time is over, if you live frugally and thoughtfully, not only will you be free of debt, but you will have a substantial amount of savings and a degree that will take you anywhere you want to go in the world.

For the next six years, you are going to be surrounded by people who will be anxious and stressed and miserable all the time because they are desperate to crawl their way to the top of the heap. You, though, are not going to be anxious and afraid, because you're going to know a secret: that none of those office politics matter as long as your paycheck shows up in the mail every month. You'll do your work. You'll go to therapy. You'll go to yoga. You'll eat nice meals. You'll work long hours, but not quite as long hours as the people for whom being the best and getting the next promotion is the most important thing. All your mental energy will be focused on being as happy as you can in each particular moment, because getting through it - putting one foot in front of the other - is all you're going to expect from yourself. Maybe you'll meet someone, maybe you won't. Either way, you'll practice being patient.

When you've been in the job for five years, but not before (because you're living in the moment, remember) you'll start daydreaming about the life you might want to live next. You'll take some of the interesting people you've met along the way to lunch and find out about how they got to where they are. You'll start polishing a resume. Talking to a headhunter. But you won't make any big decisions, not yet.

And one day, six years from now, the amount you owe on your debt will click to $0. You'll have known that moment was coming for a while. And on that day, you will pack a bag. You will go to the office. You will clean out your desk. You will say goodbye to your co-workers. And then you will hail a taxi, climb on a plane, and fly wherever you want to go, because on that day you will be absolutely free.
posted by pretentious illiterate at 7:14 PM on May 26, 2013 [49 favorites]

I have ridiculous fantasies: that I will inherit a large sum of money, that I will win the lottery, that I will find a bag of money on the street. I have disturbing thoughts: that I would sell my body in exchange to pay my debt... I spin out incredibly shameful scenarios: that I will meet some incredible man and we will fall completely in love with one another and after we're married he'll reveal that he's actually a secret millionaire and my debt will evaporate and I'll go back to school and do what I actually want to do and we'll live happily ever after. These thoughts all disgust me completely, particularly because I am so drawn to them. More accurately, they make me feel disgusted about myself.

Oh whatever. No, I sympathize with you 100%, but fantasy and escapism are FINE! Don't add another unnecessary thing to your mental burden by beating yourself up over something that's totally human and natural that WE ALL DO!

I live in an area where there are a lot of millionaires and billionaires. When I get overwhelmed with life and bills, and start having wild fantasies, I'm not thinking I'll innocently meet some wonderful man and accidently find out later on that he's loaded. I'm thinking I will go directly to where these guys hang out, in a hot outfit, find one who is super wealthy and super old, marry him, and live the rest of my days on a large ranch where I care for over 100 dogs.

I have a friend who is a scientist from a struggling European country. He had a postdoc position here, followed by a postdoc position lined up in France, and then his future was up in the air. He is also perpetually single. He told me his plan was to meet a French girl while he was still in the US, learn French from her, then dump her when it was time to go to France, and meet an American girl in France, so that then he could come back to the US when his job there was finished.

He wasn't serious (I hope), it was all just silliness, we just have brains that like to come up with solutions for things when we're faced with problems. They get creative. When my friend told me his master plan about the French and American girls I laughed my head off. I did not say, "You are a bad, disturbing, disgusting person who thinks ridiculous and horrible things!!!"

I also fantasize that I will buy a super cheap ranch out in the middle of nowhere in Nevada, do some kind of subsistence farming, get a rifle, get super sunburned and wrinkled and crazy looking, and just hang out on my porch with my rifle drinking beer all evening playing poker with my friends. Or go to Hawaii and build a shack on the beach and be a squatter there and just hang out with hot surfers and eat coconuts all day. Do you think it is disturbing and disgusting for me to think about these things?

Give yourself a break. If you have fantasies about finding tons of money and changing your life maybe you can journal them. Eventually you could turn that into a screenplay. There's a reason why escapist fantasy is so popular in film...

Okay. Now about this.

But I'm very afraid, as the kind of job that will enable me to pay down this debt with any reasonable expediency is the kind where you're a slave to the 100-hour work week, and I'm in my late twenties with no life partner in sight.

This may be an obvious question, but do you know about debt forgiveness? I don't know what percentage of your loans are federal or private, but for federal loans, if you work in a qualifying non-profit job, and you make payments for 10 years, everything after that is forgiven. If you're already looking at 6 years to pay your loans down, 10 years doesn't seem like a huge difference...
posted by cairdeas at 7:46 PM on May 26, 2013 [7 favorites]

I'm in agreement with bquarters - go super-frugal for a few years or maybe a decade, like capsule hotel / trailer park / vandwelling frugal, and put everything you would have paid towards rent into paying down the debt. Then you can feel more free to take a less lucrative position than you might otherwise.

Plus, you'll be in a great situation to be dramatically rescued by a knight in shining armor and/or become a secret millionaire yourself by extending your hyper-frugality-optimized lifestyle for a few more years and retire at 40.
posted by XMLicious at 8:00 PM on May 26, 2013

You're judging your potential enjoyment of a law career from an unhealthy place. Right now, law is a big unknown to you and it's scary. You've spent years and money preparing for this place and you're right on the precipice. Of course, there's some anxiety and fear and even dread.

Here's is what I suggest. Since you have a job give law a try. If you hate law you can bail out and look for something else. In the meantime, put as much money as possible into savings. That will give you a safety net if you decide to change careers.

Your debt is significant, but you have an opportunity to get rid of it by your early thirties. You'll have a long life ahead of you debt free.
posted by 26.2 at 8:06 PM on May 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think your problem is 80% that the depression, constant stress, burnout, and/or bummed-outness at having moved away from your friends is making everything look bleak.

On the one hand, judging from the outside, your situation is pretty good. Soon enough, you'll have passed the bar and settled into making routine payments, and everything will look a lot better. Or it will only look somewhat better, in which case you'll trade the firm job for a job you like better and find a way to make it work with the loan payments. So, if possible, just pass the bar and start your job. Don't borrow problems from 2014. Your situation now is stressful enough. It is more stressful than your life will be in 2014. Your future self will be able to handle questions like "6 years?" and "life partner." Your current self has enough to worry about, so leave those things aside and see if it helps.

On the other hand, you do have a big problem: that your mental state is creeping from the yellow zone up into the orange. You've been hit by a huge storm of things that would be hard to handle. All this mental "I'm doomed" noise is (I believe) your physiological self saying "I'm unhappy," "I can't handle this stress," and "I can't manage to figure out a way to feel better." If you can't handle the stress of the bar now, maybe you need a way to chill out substantially, and I don't know what that would be. Could you defer acceptance at this job and start next year? I have the sense that trying to take a mental health sabbatical might complicate your life, though, and make the debt a bigger problem for you.

What if you look at it this way: the BEST thing you can do for your long term future and to avoid the very situations you seem to most fear is to nurture your present-day well-being enough that you can keep this job and pass the bar. What can you do, both day in day out, and in terms of your mental focus, to feel a bit happier day to day, happy enough to make it through this stressful transition? With the bar behind you, you will have a lot of mental and emotional energy freed up to direct toward these bigger questions, I suspect, and they will seem much more manageable.
posted by salvia at 8:19 PM on May 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

Re: late twenties with no life partner in sight, you have plenty of time.
I'm almost 31, and my friends are only *just now* starting to move in together and get married. You're fine! I met my friend C when she was 34 and single and she talked openly about starting to accept the partner+kid thing just might not happen. Right before I moved, she went on a blind date... she's now married to the guy and they have a baby. I've known her for three years! Take care of yourself, and the rest will take care of itself. You really can't plan these things. one really gets to do what they want in life, at least not all the time...

This. You are exactly right... part of being a responsible grown up is accepting limitations. School is expensive. 17 yr olds shouldn't be making decisions that get them into significant debt (but do!). The economy tanked. Etc. Use whatever programs you can to make payments manageable...and set the damn thing up on autopay with your bank so you don't have to constantly, manually, "make payments". When you get letters from SallieMae or whoever, open them in case there's been a mistake (at one point they were crediting my payments to the wrong account - yikes!). Proactively taking care of it, instead of hiding (and letting things default) is empowering. Know that you can negotiate with them if you can't make the payments they think you can: call them. They WANT to be paid back. They're letting my mom pay them $50/m for her Master's because that's what she's got, so know that whatever happens, it's more than likely they'll work with you. Also You're not alone - soooooo many people are in the same/similar boat; and it's not like you blew the money on new handbags and a Porche, you know? You did the best you could with the information you had at the time. That's all any of us can do. Having finished college will, in and of itself, open doors in the long run.

Try FLOW by Mihaly C. and Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor... (sorry, blanking!).
I think if you can find meaning in your job and enjoy your free time, it'll help a lot. I'm still working on this too, btw!

My aunt (60-something) talked about the whole squandered youth feeling with me once. She, like a lot of us, wanted to do everything while young... as if the stuff you want to do is only worth doing if you get to do it while you're young. Which is impossible, because almost no one has the time/money for that! We have to work, pay off student loans, start families, etc. She says "I'm still me! I STILL like the same stuff! It is no less meaningful/fun just because I'm 60!". This made a big impression on me. I can't do everything I want, but I can probably do a lot of it over the course of my life... watching my partner explore the Roman Forum for the first time isn't going to be any less fun/exciting/meaningful when we're 40 or 50 or 60 - and right now we have other priorities than endless travel or whatever. I know I'm guilty of imagining my "older self" as "someone else", but you'll still be you when your loan is paid off! At 31, 40 no longer looks "old". I can't have babies when I'm 60, but I CAN go to Rome when I'm 60. Patience. One thing at a time.

Also, I'll nth escapism. Sometimes you just need to NOT deal with things and "let them be" for awhile... just sit with it. Distract yourself... I obcessively read loads of mystery novels, watched epic amounts of BBC (Kingdom, Being Human), anything engrossing that let me "lose" myself for a few hours a day. Confession: only just finished the Being Human marathon last week. Same problems are here, but a tiny break from them has helped me achieve some perspective. If you want to see squandered youth, watch Trailer Park Boys! They're all on YouTube. Spoiler: every season ends with the main characters in jail (exactly where they started). ;)

Also, I like the cheery little Maven Minutes videos/podcasts. Nothing new, but life is hard it's strangely comforting to listen to them. (maybe it's just me?)
posted by jrobin276 at 8:29 PM on May 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

humiliating near-quarter-million personal financial deficit

That cool quarter mil was you investing in your business: you. You spent money to acquire intellectual capital, and make connections, that will pay returns over your lifetime.

There is a strong, and unfortunate, prudishness and priggishness in American culture about debt and credit-worthiness. Fuck that. Your worth is separate from your FICO score. Do you think the fat cat capitalists flense themselves raw with guilt for taking out loans to build their businesses? (And for writing off business losses when they fuck up?) Nope. And neither should you.

In re: your loans, a bit of practical advice:

Prioritize the repayment of the ones your granny is co-signed on. You have a strong sense of ethics towards her, which is honorable, and so you'll want to make sure those loans get dealt with without her having to stress.

The granny-less Fed loans can be dealt with as a lower priority. The Feds will work with you to make payments doable.

And I'll get my head ripped off by the goody-two-shoes Debt Nannies among us, but: defaulting on loans isn't the end of the world, should it come to that. There are protections in place that limit the amount of your income that can be extracted from your checks; and if you are savvy about how you manage your money, and where it is stored, you can prevent a lockdown of your accounts. (Remember, the big boy fat cats have no scruples about working the system; neither should you.)

You'll be fine. Chin up. Just keep taking the next best step, and don't feel like you have to lock yourself into any one choice for the rest of your life (or your young years, at least).
posted by nacho fries at 8:58 PM on May 26, 2013 [5 favorites]

I don't have much advice except to second what's been said above. I just wanted to point out more detail on the books jrobin276 suggested: Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl.
I also like Gretchen Rubin's website The Happiness Project where she studies what exactly makes people happy.
posted by EatMyHat at 10:08 PM on May 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I am just here to say that I had one of those supposedly soul sucking law firm jobs that you are dreading and it was not what you made it out to be. I enjoyed being part of a team, working to achieve something. For me, working at a law firm was a lot of research and writing, and for the most part I loved that. Many weeks were just 50 hour work weeks. It was possible to have a life, date, fall in love, and make excellent friends.

So I hear you, but at the same time you are possibly worrying a great deal and making much drama over something that is very manageable. Three years of law firm life is completely doable. What I don't understand is why you are not trying to work at a law firm now, and not put it off for three years at this (presumably somewhat low paying) job while your interest on your loans accumulates. It is one thing if this was the best job you could get, and I understand the market is very rough right now, but you say you have great grades so I wonder if you are just postponing things unnecessarily. The job you have now seems to put off working at a firm --where you can make enough to repay your debt quickly-- for three whole years, and that doesn't seem like a good idea. If you worked at a big firm sooner you could male $120-140K per year plus bonuses, and with frugal living you could have your debt paid off in 3 years, and be done. By adding in this other job you let your interest accumulate and your period of "servitude" doubles.

For what it's worth, I graduated law school in '99 when I was twenty-nine and immediately went to work for a big firm. At that time I had not had a serious relationship for many years. Six years later I was married, despite living far from my family and friends, despite my previous lack of success with relationships, despite the work my job sometimes demanded. Your late twenties are just the beginning of your life. All is not lost.

If you simply decide that hey, you can do this thing and repay your debt, I really think you will find that you can do it, and you will learn a great deal about your abilities and how strong you are in the process. Good luck!
posted by onlyconnect at 11:16 PM on May 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Bankruptcy does not discharge most student loan debt.

You racked it up. Welcome to adulthood, when you stop trying to become something and start being something. You are lucky. With a solid law firm job and extrapolating a bit, a quarter mil is not much more than a modest suburban house in the Midwest. You can pay it off fast if you live frugally. But you must pay it off of course. You are too old to waver on this, and too young to sound so resigned. Go to work every day and keep at it.
posted by spitbull at 6:07 AM on May 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

PLENTY of people work outrageous hours in the law and still find the time to have fun and meet potential life partners. Suck it up for the next three years, live extremely frugally and give every bit of extra income to paying off your debt. Three years is not a long time when you're in your late 20s, and things will look a lot different with some years of real work experience under your belt and a big chunk of that financial monkey off your back. If you still dream of doing something else a the end of the three years, you will not only have plenty of time left to do that but you will have a much better idea about how to do it and whether you can make a living doing it.
posted by slkinsey at 6:49 AM on May 27, 2013

There is another thread on the green today about how a dream job is not all it's cracked up to be, and the best advice in there is that it's not the JOB it's the PEOPLE you work with that make the difference between a good place to work and a shitty one. I'll add also that your attitude plays a large part.

At this point in your career, you have NO IDEA what exactly it will be like to work, either in your 3-year job or jumping right into law at a big firm. You don't know whether the person in the next office will be the bane of your existence or the love of your life or just meh. You don't know if your 3-year job will start to require you to work weekends, or if you would/could land a plumb assignment in a family firm where they respect work/life balance. You just don't know.

Every job I've ever worked has led me to the next one, without me having a grand plan in place to know about it in advance. I gained skills and a specific work style and met people, which then enabled me to see/be seen for the next step. Some of the steps I took myself, but quite a few were essentially handed to me by others who saw something in me that they figured would work for another better position elsewhere.

My advice: pick something, make peace with it. Concentrate on the present, do your best, live frugally and pay that sucker down. Be open to new opportunities as you move through your days, but don't fret about it if they are not obvious. Figure out a mantra if you need one: it's just for now; I'll think about that later; I can do this; whatever. And go ahead and daydream if it helps, but if it's making you feel worse, then try to direct them into specific scenarios that would work better for your mental health.
posted by CathyG at 7:46 AM on May 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Ok, let's focus: so you have 250k in debt, a job that will help make a dent in it (and apparently not even at a big firm!) and a JD from apparently good school. Fantastic! Now all you need is a good course of therapy to help you get out of your hole.

And let me let you in on a little secret: practicing law can be a blast. No, really. Even at those giant beastly law firms, there are plenty of people having fun. The hardest part is the sheer hours, but people manage to get through that. You can totally suck it up and do it for a few years for the payoff. You just need to prioritize getting rid of the private loans, then hopefully income-based/income-contingent repayment will help with the federal loans.

I don't have a good idea of where you are going to be working if it's not a big firm, but it sound like it must be something similarly intense and goal-driven. That's going to be stressful, but on the plus side, will be filled with adrenaline, teamwork, and victories. You need to seek out mentors and good coworkers to make it into an exciting and satisfying experience. Yes, you will collapse in bed too many nights at 2am, to wake up at 6am the next morning, but you'll also have wins, deal closings, and lots of other good stuff in between.

Even if you have to spend the first few years doing grind work (like discovery at a big firm, I don't know what the equivalent is for you), realize that it's not really grind work. It's a chance to see and master the very foundation of your industry. For example, the first year associates at big firms who really get down and dirty into massive e-discovery projects, learn the software, etc, are the ones who the following year are managing a team of first-year associates on the discovery project, and the next year taking on more responsibility and meeting with partners, and the next year meeting with clients, and so on.

In short: life has not handed you lemonade. Life has handed you the (very expensive) keys to the super-charged 21st century economy. Ok so it's going to be crazy for a few years, but as long as you prioritize keeping yourself sane, it will be a good ride. Eat lots of salads with protein, get to the gym religiously every day, and find the one or two coworkers who you really mesh with, and don't develop and alcohol problem. You're golden.
posted by yarly at 8:27 AM on May 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Dude, i think that for a while, you need to be a lawyer. The stress of 'not following your passion' can be trumped by the stress of bankruptcy.

Live the next several years as as frugally as possible, paying down your debt as fast as possible. While you're doing that, do the things 'on the side' that will give you satisfaction - as a volunteer, as a freelancer, as a person who reads a lot of magazine articles about whatever the thing is you want to do. You'll be surprised that you can pay that debt down in a reasonable number of years with a good paying law job. You'll be able to mentally and emotionally sustain yourself by doing what you love on the side, and by knowing that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

Not taking the law job in the face of that mountain of debt would just compound the spoiled and stupid behaviours, it won't solve them or absolve you. Go be a lawyer for a while.
posted by Kololo at 8:55 AM on May 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

You are not alone. I finished law school a year ago. Along with plenty of my friends I was entirely fed up with the whole law thing. Completely burnt out. No idea why I wanted to go into it, no memory of the excitement I felt when I got accepted into my top choice, or how gladly I saved up $ to help me get there. Ask me or many many of my friends what our dream job would be and the only response you'd get is blank stares or completly unrelated fields (open a cupcake shop. become a field paleontologist. Be a wilderness survivor skills instructor. make Jewish babies). All that drive that had gotten us there and kept us going had dried up entirely. For several months after graduating I would day dream about going into a PhD program in an unrelated field. I was still willing to work and study hard but just Not.This!

Studying for the bar is only going to make that feeling worse. But you're going to have to do it. Just keep marching on because you've got bills to pay.
Count your blessings that you have a job that isn't at Starbucks where some of peers had to work. And eventually the cloud will lift. Your brain will enjoy new challenges. And you will remember that you are still that same person that truly wanted to do this.

TL/DR: you are not alone. Keep marching on. It gets better.

PS: Having a social life that brings you joy and fulfillment is always a good thing. Contrary to what professors and society has lead you to believe, that kind of joy should be your main goal in life, your purpose for being. Good luck!
PS 2: getting a dog really helped me too.
posted by Neekee at 9:26 AM on May 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Best answer: You are having mental health issues because you are in the mental health equivalent of a coal mine. You have black lung? OMG, it's all your fault. NOT.

You are in a tough situation, and that's why you are feeling bad. Our educational system, with its built in indentured servitude in certain professions, sucks.

The good news is that there is no debtor's prison. Your creditors cannot actually make you do anything you don't want to do. You won't be released from the debt through bankruptcy, but you don't have to pay it either. You are, in fact, free. Numbers on a piece of paper are not as important as your life and health.

I'm not sure if this has been mentioned yet: I would suggest thinking about non-profit jobs that would allow you forbearance on your debt that you would enjoy. They don't have to be "legal" jobs, but might involve a totally different skill set (like running a non-profit, doing fieldwork, etc.) There are non-profits in just about any field of endeavor you might care about, from women's issues to archaeology to sports. After 10 years, you will be debt-free, no matter the pay. Find some alternatives to what you have going and see if any are better than what you have. See if any are overseas, so you can have some exciting adventures as well. If not, you can settle into your three-year commitment and your six-year plan (and change at any point).

Your fancy degrees will help you at some point down the line, even if not now.
posted by 3491again at 9:41 AM on May 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

Sorry, here's a great link to a FAQ on repayment. Apparently, you can take ANY job at a qualifying public service organization (nonprofit, government, etc.) and if you make IBR payments, you are done in 10 years. They don't have to be consecutive, and you can change jobs any time you like.

So you can... open a cupcake shop, become a wilderness instructor, or a paleontologist or whatever, as long as it's for a qualifying organization.
posted by 3491again at 9:54 AM on May 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

Just as a data point. I also graduated law school with over $200K in student loans. I went to work in Biglaw, lived very frugally, and the minute I received any paycheck or bonus check, I put the maximum I could towards my loans (at least half of each paycheck, sometimes more, and all of my bonus). Two years later I had paid off $160K, starting with the highest interest rate loans first.

The 40K remaining was consolidated government loans which have a 1.75% interest rate (yes I lucked out by graduating in 2005 when rates were lower, but still...). Since the rate is so low I've been paying those off at a leisurely pace but I'm down to $18K now and I have a lot of savings -- I could pay it all off now but I'm getting a better return just keeping the money in index funds.

If you really want to get these loans off your back, do the biglaw job for 2 or 3 years, do the best work you can, learn as much as you can, and focus everything on paying those loans down. You can do it!
posted by banishedimmortal at 10:55 AM on May 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

As others have pointed out, you have a number of repayment options with regard to the federal student loans. My only advice is to be proactive in setting up the most favorable repayment plan available to you. US DOE contracts with third party inc's to service loans. I'd suggest that a stream of harassing phone calls and letters from them to you, and to anyone you listed as a reference, may not be good for your mental health.

But that still leaves, what? ... the federal limit is usually $138k, so about $100k in private student loans? As others have pointed out, prioritize the loans your grandmother cosigned. Figure out that lenders rules (if any) for releasing a cosigner. See if you can make that happen.

As for the other private student lenders? If payments aren't made promptly, the lenders are likely to be very aggressive. They'll likely use third party debt collection firms to try to collect. Many will employ tactics designed to intimidate and harass. Here's the thing: You went to law school. You've been trained in how to conduct legal research. You understand there's no such thing as debtors prison. You understand that they can't 'send the police to your house to arrest you.' You can easily figure out the debt collection rules in your jurisdiction. You likely will have a friend or colleague (or be able to find someone who has a practice focusing on student loan debt) who will be willing to send off letters saying 'I represent sevensnowflakes, you can't contact my client.' You understand terms like 'judgement proof.'

None of the companies you owe money to would be humiliated by debt. They'd play the game. You can play it too.
posted by mattbcoset at 7:15 PM on May 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

If you don't want to be a lawyer, then the sooner you start doing something else the better because the longer you stay in law, the harder it will be for you to get out and start something new. Do something you love, that energizes you, that you are passionate about, that you feel you are great at...and the money will come. Plus you'll be happy and alive (in the spiritual sense). Your well-being is worth a LOT more than $250,000.
posted by Dansaman at 10:26 PM on May 27, 2013

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