Regrets, Regrouping, and Student Loan Debt

I missed the memo about regrets, regrouping, and student loan debt.

After being a practicing attorney for nearly seven years, I recently resigned from the private law firm at which I had been working for nearly six years and took a job with the city.  My new job did not require a law degree, though my legal education and experience will probably come in very handy.

With my new job, comes a bit of a pay cut, but it’s a small price to pay for my mental health.  In recent years, I was getting pretty miserable in private practice.  As a defense attorney, the business model required me to keep track of my work day in six-minute increments, with lots of pressure to maximize the total amount of time I billed.  The elephant in the room with this business model is that what’s good for business isn’t always good for the client…this inherent conflict of interest weighed on me increasingly in recent years. 

I was also finding that so much of civil litigation was just posturing;  I would spend months and months going through the literal and figurative motions only to reach a conclusion that was pretty much foregone from the outset.  I started feeling that I was wasting a lot of life force in this process, and so many factors in litigation seem to unfortunately militate against people doing the right thing sooner rather than later. 

So, I’ve made this big transition, and so far so good with my new gig.  Now I’m left with trying to make sense of the last decade and I’ll admit it’s been a bit trippy.  As I was beginning to struggle in private practice, I would find myself cursing the day I ever decided to go to law school.  But then, as an eternal optimist, I tried to talk myself out of the conclusion that law school had been a mistake.  And because I’ve gotten some transferable skills out of the deal, my legal career hasn’t been a total loss. 

But…and it’s a big but…I’m left with the collateral damage of tens of thousands of dollars of student loan debt.  How I kick myself as I contemplate what other less expensive routes I could have taken towards a meaningful career.  In recent weeks, some of us within the 99% have been calling for student loan debt forgiveness, and for me, that is a delightful daydream.  I will honor my student loan debt, but the thing that kinda bugs me about it is that it’s one of the only forms of debt that can’t be discharged in bankruptcy.  If you max out your Visa on Jimmy Choo’s or buy a dream house that turns into a nightmare, you can waltz into Federal Court and say “oops!” but if you mortgage your future on an educational endeavor that turns out to be completely misguided, too bad. 

Forgive my crude artwork…

Your break it, you buy it.

Ever read the Guy de Maupassant story, “The Necklace”? Here’s the short version…a vain social climber is married to a petty bureaucrat. He wrangles an invitation to a glamorous ball at which she can rub shoulders with all the beautiful and important people. She’s delighted only momentarily, until she recalls that she has no gown befitting such an occassion. Her husband scrounges together the money she needs for a beautiful new dress, and still she is not satisfied, as now she recognizes she has no jewelry to go with her dress. Her husband suggests she borrow something from a well-to-do friend, so she goes to her friend and selects the most elaborate diamond necklace in her collection. They go the ball and have a glorious evening, but as they enter the car to go home, she realizes the necklace is gone. Rather than admit to her friend that the necklace has been lost, they borrow every penny they can, burdening themselves with an unthinkable amount of debt, and they buy a replacement, which is returned to the friend.

For decades, they work tirelessly to repay their debt. Then one day, the social climber, who is now old and weary from over-work, meets her old friend in the street. Her friend is shocked by how changed she is and feels pity. But the social climber feels pride and tells her friend the truth of how she lost the necklace but has worked all these years to repay the cost of the replacement. The friend is horrified and tells her, “But my dear, the necklace was a fake!”

So yeah, that’s kinda how I feel about my law degree.  I’m paying dearly for something that turns out to be fake.  Well, not fake exactly, but you know what I mean.   Some memos are really, really expensive, but memo received.

8 thoughts on “Regrets, Regrouping, and Student Loan Debt

  1. catastrophywife November 12, 2011 / 9:14 pm

    Agreed! And unfortunately, there are so many of us out there who feel the same way. I sometimes even wish I were one of the people “kicked out” after first semester because I’d have a lot less debt. Scary and sad.

  2. Jamie Walker Ball November 12, 2011 / 9:41 pm

    The crazy thing is that it is really hard to talk anyone out of going to law school. I actually liked law school and feel I’m a smarter person for it, but private practice chewed me up and spit me out. And I was fortunate to work at a fairly nice, boutique firm where things were actually kinda casual. I can’t imagine what it would be like to work at one of those ginormous firms…no amount of money would have been enough.

  3. sheila clapkin November 15, 2011 / 12:21 am

    Thank you for letting some of us see a side of your life that we would not have known. Now we will be able to understand much more about the practice of law and the chewing up and the spitting out, plus the six-minute time clock. I am glad you made a new place for yourself in life and I can tell, you will be happy. I am happy for you. Your life will be so much more open to living in freedom. Lucky for you and your family you found out how to make a new career. Lots of love and respect.

    • Jamie Walker Ball November 15, 2011 / 2:07 am

      Thanks, Sheila. This really is a little revolution in my life and it is going to take some getting used to, but I am feeling really liberated and peaceful about the whole thing so far. Still tough writing those student loan payment checks every month, though!

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