I love to have readers write in and share their successes, struggles and experiences.
The following was written by a current member of the Leave Law Behind Program, who as we speak is in the process of leaving the law behind. She reflects on a topic so many of us struggle with and fear facing … leaving the law in spite of our law school debt.
I know you’ll find this essay insightful, personal and motivating. I’ve re-read it multiple times and learn something new each time. I’m hoping she will write more for us!
How I Overcame My Fear of Debt in the Face of Leaving the Law
After financing my law school education in full, I had no idea what I needed to do to pay my debt down. I told myself that my only option was to survive at my firm as long as I could until the debt was paid.
The next two years were spent trying to work as many hours as possible to get a bonus that would help lower my debt. I didn’t do a lot of things for myself, and I told myself that I couldn’t have nice things because my debt load was so high.
My debt became a way that I could complain about my life and reinforce the story that I was trapped with nowhere to go. It became a measure of how much I was succeeding. I became so good at self-sabotaging my own chances that I couldn’t take any risks, not even ones that I realize were only “baby steps” for leaving the law, like contacting Casey for an introductory call or spending time feeding my soul with volunteer activities. My student debt consumed by thoughts like a black hole. Interestingly enough, no matter what debt payoff milestone I reached, I still felt just as paranoid and trapped as before.
It was then that I realized that I needed help. With some guidance from Casey and a lot of elbow grease from myself, here’s how I overcame my fear.
1. I learned to focus on abundance, not lack.
If I only think of my limitations, I would be the limitation and nothing else. The more I thought about how scarce my resources were, the more I felt miserable. That led me to be more stressed, miss time at work, and stay unhappy. But as I focused on what I already had–qualities like being grateful for my job, my various interests in writing and photography–I became a lot happier.
The debt in the sense of money was still there, yes, but I was more fulfilled. I could be more productive and not have to use my debt as a crutch. I didn’t feel the need to buy new things to make me happy. Once I realized that I could choose a mindset of abundance, it suddenly became a choice whether or not I wanted to think about my debt. Once that happened I was able to put the problem aside.
2. I realized I had options.
First, I didn’t have any savings and was scared that I would not be able to support myself if I left the law. But I didn’t know how much I needed to save and for how long. After using a financial projection to estimate my expenses, loan payments, and savings over the next two years, I could finally see clearly exactly how long I had to stay. While I initially was unhappy with the result, I realized that I could be grateful that I had a clear drop dead date in mind.
Second, I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to afford debt payments after I left the law. Because I had refinanced with a private company, I convinced myself that I had no options and wasn’t willing to explore anything else. But that was wrong. After I worked out my financial projections, I got curious and went to the loan payment website. In two minutes, I found out that I could adjust my minimum payments to account for the extra payments I had made. It took one phone call to process the change. While I keep making extra payments, this, too, became a choice, not an obligation.
3. I practiced gratitude.
Now when Casey told me to practice gratitude for my debt, I was skeptical. After all, I thought I had to force myself to be happy about how I was not aligned with my job. But after doing some thinking about it, I realized that my resistance to gratitude was not that it wasn’t useful, but because it was unfamiliar to me. It was easy to have regrets about the past because I had been conditioned to do that. If I could have negative thoughts easily because I had practiced them all my life, then I realized that I could easily start having positive ones too.
I started small by identifying all of the good things that my debt had brought me: it had taught me how to live simply, get to a job that gave me great skills, and showed me how to value myself beyond a number.
And as I took baby steps in gratitude, it became easy to be even grateful for my job. For example, I volunteered for projects at work that spoke to my Unique Genius instead of trying to hide and be small. I was more confident in what made me happy instead of struggling all the time. Work is still hard and not what I where to be long-term, but gratitude has allowed me to live day by day instead of worrying about what’s up ahead.
Ending thought: If you’re scared about money or how you will survive after leaving the law, don’t be. There are a lot of ways to help you overcome your fear. Start with these three and you’ll find other ways that will help you. Take “baby steps” and before you know it, you’ll be on your way to something new.