Another Case Study of a Ruined Lawyer’s Life And His Rationalizations

Josh was kind enough to share his story publicly. He’s a 36 year old lawyer who went to law school in the hopes of upgrading his lifestyle. But like many others before him, he was in for a rude awakening which has negatively affected his personal life and forced him to say “fuck it” alter his life perspectives.  

Prior to law school, Josh had a steady job with health insurance, a 401K, and had no debt. He was living with his girlfriend and her parents offered to front the wedding expenses. His “prospects were looking good”.

Josh then went to law school (and a top tier school at that) thinking it would lead to greener pastures. He married his girlfriend, had two children and bought a condo. He had a realistic career plan in public service work (assuming he is being truthful and not harboring the “Biglaw $160,000 or Bust” mentality. I’ll get more into that later). But he ran into the familiar problems facing 90% of law school graduates who don’t graduate in the top 10% of their class. He hopped from job to job (each with its own problems), tried his hand in solo practice resulting in unpaid taxes, and his student loan and credit card debt continued to grow. He divorced and left his house while agreeing to pay a portion of the mortgage for a while.

He sums up his current situation:

And now, fifteen years after graduating from college, I’m living very much like I did back then, and very much like recent college graduates today. My [new] girlfriend and I just moved into to a 2.5-bedroom apartment in a converted factory building. Our rent is $900 a month. We live in the second-poorest neighborhood in one of the poorest cities in the country. We love New York and Boston, but are satisfied with Hartford’s small but accessible art and music scenes. We play in a band. We share a 17-year-old truck that we almost never drive. We slowly pay our debts.

Of course, I make more money than most Millennials [$70,000 from the article], but my expenses include not only the usual $400 monthly loan payment, but an $800 monthly subsidy of my ex-wife’s mortgage and a $208 monthly installment payment to the IRS. And my girlfriend and I have two deadbeat roommates who eat a ton and don’t pitch in at all: my two sons, six and nine years old.

A few commenters say that Josh put himself into this situation because of his rash decisions. He and his girlfriend should have delayed marriage and having children until they both had stable careers. Same for buying the condo. But like the typical special snowflake, everything was going well for Josh and he figured that going to law school would be one more financially sound decision.

Spoilers aside, in the end, Josh pulls through and imparts his wisdom to the young and the clueless:

If there’s a lesson to be learned from my decade and a half of treading water, it’s to resist the pull of material things. I don’t mean that we should all renounce our possessions and become ascetics—I like smartphones and cool sneakers and going to the movies. I mean that it’s worth questioning our assumptions about what it means to be grown up, and about how we measure success. In the nearly two decades since I left home, I have lived in $400 ghetto apartments and a $325K three-bedroom house in the suburbs, and I am certain that the house and the suburbs made me no happier than the apartments and the city. I have driven a fresh-off-the-assembly-line Scion and an aged truck with no radio, no power steering, and no automatic anything, and the new car made me no happier than the old (except for the power steering; parallel parking without power steering is hard work). I’ve been lucky to find work I loved during most of my adult life, and I’m lucky to have two wonderful, healthy children. Those things have consistently made me happy, and I realize now, I could have had them without a lot of the debt and stress and suburban ennui.

Josh tries to be positive and is trying to make the best of it. He says he is grateful for what he has while rejecting gross materialism, consumerism, etc. Mo money = mo problems, right? He is careful about not sounding like a deranged malcontent. Like others who shared their stories publicly, he begins with the obligatory line “I’m happy with my decision to go to law school”. He also says that he loves his current job as a public defender which I wholeheartedly believe. However, he gave some hints that he had biglaw champagne wishes and caviar dreams:

[G]oing to law school was the first step in a quest for a conception of middle-class life that was always slightly out of reach, a quest that proved financially disastrous. I don’t know whether this was simply a question of biting off more than I could chew or whether I was led astray by easy credit and an unrealistic notion of how I ought to live.

It will not surprise you to learn that I did absolutely no research on the financial or practical realities of law school. [No, it didn’t surprise me.]

Some will interpret Josh’s epiphany as capitulation and rationalization in disguise. Like many 0Ls and 1Ls who secretly dream of making the $160,000 salary and sneering down at everyone else, once they realize that Biglaw does not want them, they publicly reject it. They point to its influential decline, the greediness and cutthroat politics, the psychotic bosses (which also exist in law firms of all sizes), the 80+ hour work weeks, and working for “evil corporations”. Coincidentally, they all of a sudden care about work-life balance, quality of life, family and other feel-good topics they previously didn’t give a shit about.

When life does not turn out the way you dreamed as a kid, especially after all of the years of hard work and sacrifice, you have to rationalize or you’ll eventually go crazy or kill yourself. They become too ashamed to hang out with their successful friends and sooner or later disappear. Their confidence collapses.

So is Josh’s life ruined? Because this is a subjective question, he alone can make that determination. He seems to be happy so it is best to leave it at that. But people his age would not want to be in his situation.

I wish Josh the best of luck. For someone who is supposedly happy with his career decision, he issues very ominous warnings. His story should be shared to the idealistic, the delusional and the desperate. Thankfully, looking at the decline in law school applications, more people are becoming aware that going to law school can be a financially ruinous decision.

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