It’s in the Numbers

by Nola

This post has been brewing for a while. I finally pulled my old records to be accurate on my numbers. So let’s get started.

Nineteen years ago, I started law school. My parents paid my way through (state) college but I was on my own from there. So I opted for the state law school. The requirement back then was that you were not allowed to be employed your first year in law school. So I wasn’t bringing any income in until the following summer–and then it was more for experience than cash. My hours were generally 3 to 4 a day, max. That didn’t even cover rent, let alone food, utilities (minus cable), and other living expenses. I lived in the ‘hood so that I didn’t need a roommate. My rent was $250 a month. Cheap even back then.

The tuition at my law school back then was just under $2,000 for a full-term semester. I also took 6 credits every summer. That tuition, in rough numbers, was $5,000 a year, for a grand total, tuition only, of $17,500. I got out of law school, as memory serves, owing $32,000 in loans. The extra being for living expenses. Looking back, I could have lived even leaner, and should have. But that’s neither here nor there.

I then decided, well the market was in the toilet back then too–so that nudged me along, to go for a graduate law degree. There’s no such program in Louisiana. The top programs then were NYU, University of Florida, and Georgetown, in that order. I went to UF. Why? It was cheap. NYU and Georgetown were in the neighborhood, again, if memory serves, of around $30,000 for the year, and New York and Washington cost a lot more in living expenses, too. UF’s tuition for a non-resident was $10,000. I borrowed $18,500.

So, upon graduation and entering the work force, I owed in student loans just about $50,000. As it turns out, starting pay for tax attorneys in the NOLA area back then was just about $50,000. It took me ten years to pay off all my student debt.

Fast forward to 2011.

My law school’s current tuition for a year is about $21,750. And UF’s master tax program is $28,500. If I went to both today, I’d come out owing, IN TUITION ONLY, just over $100,000. Add to that living expenses for 4 years, maybe another $50,000 if you do it on the cheap.

And starting pay for tax attorneys in the NOLA area? Well, honestly, I don’t know. I’d guess around, tops, $90,000. Not anywhere near $150,000 (the least debt I’d have coming out today). So instead of paying on student loans for TEN years, I’d likely be paying on them, like many young lawyers I know, for THIRTY.

This boggles my mind. It really does. These are STATE programs. Take off the masters’ degree. For just a law degree, students graduating from state law schools today get out owing somewhere in the neighborhood of $100,000. To likely get a job earning at least $10,000 less than that.

I am not sure the point of this. Not sure if I am saying a law degree is no longer worth the cost. Or that government is failing us by charging such high rates. Or that I should be grateful for the degrees I have that I would not be able to afford today.

Maybe that’s the point. I went to law school so that I could work using my natural aptitudes; so that I could earn a living doing something I LIKE and that came natural to me (the process, not the knowledge). I did NOT go to law school to get rich or to spend my days in court. And so now, 16 years after graduating from law school, and five years out from having paid off all that debt, I have a good deal of freedom because of my degrees. I COULD earn a lot of money. Or I could spend more time with my family or tooling around New Orleans or encouraging the artist in me while I work less but still earn a respectable salary using those natural aptitudes.

And so for those out there today that want to be lawyers so as to earn a nice living doing what they like but are not intending to be high-powered litigators, good luck. Because they will NOT be able to change their minds to work less for any reason. Well, at least not for the first thirty years.

And who many among us is doing precisely what we planned to do even five, ten years ago? It all seems so onerous.

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