The legal profession has been around a long time, with the first paid lawyers appearing in ancient Rome two thousand years ago.
Today’s lawyers, however, face a challenge their Roman predecessors did not — inordinately high student loan debt.
In fact, Earnest estimates the average law student leaves school $139,900 in debt.
That isn’t surprising considering the cost of tuition for one year at a private law school averaged $46,164 in 2017, according to U.S. News. Multiply that by three years of schooling, and you’re looking at a total tuition bill of $138,492.
Justin Lovely, now a lawyer at his own firm, encountered this financial hurdle on the way to getting his law degree. Read on to learn how Justin is tackling $120,000 in student loan debt, one monthly payment at a time.
Law school came with a high price tag
After graduating from the University of Tennessee, Justin went on to attend the Appalachian School of Law. Already $20,000 in debt from his undergraduate education, he took on an additional $100,000 in loans to pay for law school.
But Justin says he wasn’t concerned about the hefty debt at the time. “You’re in school and they tell you what the cost is, and you just do it,” he says. “Tuition, cost of books — and we haven’t even gotten to the cost of living, food, apartment, utilities, health insurance, gas, etc. You just do it and pray it works out!”
Justin took out a mix of private and federal loans with interest rates ranging from 4.00% to 8.50%. He also took out a private loan to finance the bar exam. Bar loans help students pay for the bar exam, which can cost $800 or more, according to data from the National Conference of Bar Examiners. You can also use them to cover living costs if you’re taking time off to study for the test.
In retrospect, Justin says that taking out a bar loan was a mistake. “If I could do it over … I would have never taken a bar loan. The interest rate [14.00%] is ridiculous.”
Job opportunities were scarce after graduation
Most student loans come with a six-month grace period before repayment kicks in. But six months isn’t always long enough to find a decent job, even among law school grads.
The American Bar Association reported that only 73 percent of graduates obtained full-time employment within 10 months of graduation. That means almost three out of 10 grads were still searching for work almost a year after law school.
Justin struggled with a tough job market after leaving school, which made paying off his loans impossible. “I deferred payments the first year, because the job market was awful,” says Justin. “The first year was about keeping the lights on, the phones ringing, and me fed.”
He also used this time to open his own practice, which eventually grew into the successful business he owns today. Once he got on his feet, Justin realized he had to take control of his student debt.
“After that year, I realized how the debt was compounding,” says Justin. “I needed to take it seriously or I would never see the light at the end of the debt tunnel.”
Justin took his loans out of deferment and got proactive about conquering his student debt.
He uses the debt snowball method to his advantage
Staring down more than $100,000 of debt, it was tough to know where to start. Justin knew he needed a game plan to deal with his student loans. He decided to give the debt snowball method a try.
“I used the snowball method to pay down these loans,” says Justin. “I became aggressive in paying back my loans, making several smaller payments throughout the month on top of my regular payment.”
The debt snowball method has you tackle your loans with the smallest balances first. You still make the required payments on all your loans, but you throw any extra money toward the smallest loans.
That way, you can completely pay off one debt before moving onto the next. Since you’re starting with the smallest balance first, you’ll get a quick win, which will motivate you to keep going. “The loans start to melt away,” says Justin.
Plus, making extra payments helps you get out of debt ahead of schedule. The faster you pay down your debt, the less you’ll spend on interest overall.
“I recognized that if I didn’t get on top of my student loan debt, I would be swimming in it forever,” says Justin. “Any extra income has been directed to my student loan debt, no matter how big or small.”
Justin paid off high-interest debt with a low-interest loan
Since Justin had six-figure debt, he also sought for ways to lower his interest rates. He decided to replace some of his student loans with a bank loan at a lower interest rate.
He qualified for a loan at a 1.99% rate and used it to pay off his student loans that had an interest rate of 6.80%. Although he still owed money to the bank, he was able to say goodbye to some of his student loan servicers.
Paying off a loan with another loan can help if you reduce your interest rate, as Justin did. But be sure you’re not spending more money in your effort to get out of debt fast.
If your new lender charges an origination fee, for example, you must factor that into your costs. Plus, you’ll need to keep paying all of your loan bills until you’re confident an account has been closed.
For many borrowers, a more straightforward way to lower your interest rate is through student loan refinancing. When you refinance, you transfer one or more loans into a new one with a bank, credit union, or online lender.
Depending on your credit score and income, you could qualify for lower interest rates. Plus, you can choose new terms, whether that means shortening your repayment period or adding a few years to give yourself some breathing room.
According to online lender CommonBond, attorneys were the second-most common occupation to qualify for refinancing in 2016. Because lawyers tend to have high incomes, they’re often strong candidates for student loan refinancing.
Whatever approach you choose, lowering your interest rate is a surefire way to save money on your debt.
Justin will soon be earning interest instead of paying it
Paying off a six-figure debt isn’t going to happen overnight, but it’s possible to pay it back if you stick to it, like Justin did with the debt snowball strategy.
“I have tried to make a strong effort to get my student loans paid off as fast as possible,” says Justin. “If I stay on track I should be paid off by the end of next year.”
Although making extra payments isn’t easy, Justin is eager for his money to start working for him. “I have realized that I will be earning a lot more take-home pay once these payments are off my back,” says Justin.
Once student loan payments stop eating up his income, he’ll be able to redirect his money into investments. That way, his money will start working for him, instead of going to student loan debt and all the interest that comes with it.
Explore your options for paying off law school debt
If you’re a lawyer dealing with student loan debt, research your options for paying it off ahead of schedule.
Learn about the debt snowball and debt avalanche methods to find the best approach for you. Depending on where you work, you might also qualify for federal student loan forgiveness or state-funded student loan repayment assistance.
Whether you come up with a foolproof strategy or refinance for better terms, you can take steps toward a debt-free life.
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