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How to be financially happy outside of Big Law

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Piggy Bank

A common concern facing law students—and a majority of students in the United States generally— is how to manage post-graduation student debt. For law students, this concern is especially complicated due to the vast disparity in income based upon the type of career being pursued.

According to a 2016 ABA report, an attorney practicing intellectual property will make an average of $155,037 each year. Comparatively, an attorney practicing immigration law will make an average of $62,500 annually. Also, The National Jurist reported in 2017 that even though salaries at large law firms are rising on average, the median salary for all attorneys has remained essentially the same.

Despite this reality, many attorneys have found very successful careers in the public sector as government and not-for-profit employees or in creating their own, smaller law firms. Attorneys have found a number of ways to do this despite facing the shadow of the mountain that is student loan debt.

While working at a large law firm has the potential to be lucrative, attorneys worldwide continue to demonstrate that it ’s absolutely possible to pursue your career goals regardless of the salary you’ll earn.

Fresh air, exercise, and money

Kevin Patrick is a trial attorney in Atlanta and the owner and founder of Kevin Patrick Law, which represents individual clients in a variety of legal matters. Patrick practiced at a large firm representing several large corporate clients for years before clerking for a state judge and subsequently founding his own law firm.

Patrick said working part-time, flexible jobs throughout law school helped to decrease his student loan debt while also preventing him from spending unnecessarily.

“One of the best ways to cut expenses was refereeing youth sports during law school,” Patrick said. “For example, I used to referee soccer games on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. It not only helped me cut back expenses because I wasn’t going out to dinner with classmates, but I was also able to save for books, living expenses, and, of course, tuition payments.”

Having a job during law school also helped break up Patrick’s routine, which can get to be a drag if you’re going only from class to the law library to home each day. “It was a great way to get some fresh air and exercise,” he said. “We all know that you can be in a law library for only so long.”

Pay attention to your debt

Along with opportunities available outside of law school, there are not-for-profit organizations throughout the United States with the mission of helping law students and attorneys eliminate their student debt.

Jeremy Wine is a student loan supervisor at Take Charge America, a non-profit organization that provides credit counseling, debt management, and student loan counseling. Wine said budgeting and remaining aware of the amount of money you’ve borrowed can help you pay off your student debt faster.

“Although graduate studies offer an enormous amount of available student loans, this doesn’t mean you should just borrow and borrow more,” Wine said. “It’s important to borrow only what you need and to research refinancing options for private student loans that offer a lower fixed interest rate with no transfer fees and no prepayment penalties.”

Understanding the real cost of law school—rather than considering only the cost of tuition—will also help you as you budget, Wine added. “It’s important to consider the true cost of law school,” he said. “Most financial aid packages focus on tuition and fees but don’t include books, school supplies, a computer, housing, travel, and other miscellaneous items, such as your cell phone, your Netflix or Spotify subscriptions, food, and entertainment.”

While working at a large law firm has the potential to be lucrative, attorneys worldwide continue to demonstrate that it’s absolutely possible to pursue your career goals regardless of the salary you’ll earn. All you need is some planning, a little fiscal restraint, and, maybe, a part-time job.

Matt Buck Matt Buck is a 2L student at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law. He graduated from Central Michigan University where he studied public policy. He is an Admissions Fellow at Indiana University and a Legal Fellow in United States Senator Todd Young's Office of General Counsel.