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Don’t let the numbers defeat you: Dealing with student debt

  • January 13, 2016
  • Carolynne Burkholder-James

When Mikaila Greene graduated from law school in 2012, she was overwhelmed by the debt she had accumulated.

“When I first graduated, I was very scared to talk about my debt. I felt very ashamed,” says Greene, a lawyer in Thunder Bay, Ont. “I felt like there was a lot of stigma around debt. It’s only been recently since I started to pay it off do I actually feel comfortable talking about numbers.”

Greene is not alone. A 2014 survey by the Law Students’ Society of Ontario showed that about 70 per cent of Ontario law school students graduate owing an average of $71,000 on government or bank student loans. This number does not include those who borrowed money from family and friends to fund their legal education.

Greene, as one of the top 10 students in her year at the University of Ottawa, initially owed about $85,000 – 75 per cent in bank loans and 25 per cent in government loans.

“And this was after scholarships, graduating awards and bursaries – I spent many hours chasing bursaries trying to get some financial relief,” she says.

Greene was the first person in her family to pursue professional post-secondary education. The survey by the LSSO found that in general, students whose parents are more educated have less debt. So-called “first generation” students, whose parents do not hold post-secondary degrees, owe about $25,000 more than their peers upon graduation.

This reality was sometimes difficult for Greene.

“I experienced a profound sense of unfairness,” she says. “Because of my economic status, I did not have my law school paid for as some of my colleagues did and I was indebted in ways that other new lawyers weren’t. I felt that I had an entirely different set of life challenges than those who had their legal studies paid for and did not carry as much debt.”

During her articling year at a public interest law firm in downtown Toronto, Greene took advantage of her mother’s offer to live at home in Brampton, to save money. But this cost her in other ways.

“It made more sense for me to sacrifice nearly 2 ½ hours a day out of my life to commuting and living at home, than to put the cost into housing. It was a significant cost-saving mechanism, but it came with significant stress as well,” she says.

Three years into her career, Greene has made progress in paying off her debt.

“I’m in a much better position than I was when I graduated,” says Greene, who has her own practice in employment and human rights law and also holds a contract with Kinna-aweya Legal Clinic to assist with poverty law. “I’m still actively working on it. I’m looking forward to the debt being gone.”

Greene has some advice for other young lawyers struggling to pay off their law school debt.

“I highly recommend new graduates and new lawyers study and invest in financial knowledge,” she advises.

Greene says that the book Debt Free Forever: Take Control of Your Money and Your Life by Gail Vaz-Oxlade was “fundamental to me overcoming my debt and a lot of the stress related to my debt.”

“The book taught me so much and really helped me shape my strategy,” she adds. “Before I was terrified – staring down this huge amount of money that was only getting bigger with interest. But now I feel that I have empowered myself through knowledge.”

A “really strict budget” also helped.

Tracking and controlling your cash flow is one of the best ways to pay off your debt, according to Andrew Seabrook, a financial adviser and certified cash flow specialist based in Prince George, B.C.

Seabrook says that it is very common for people to spend what they earn. That’s why he advises that graduates set up automatic payments to put money towards their debt before it becomes part of their cash flow.

“If paying down your student debt is near the top of your priority list build an automatic payment into your monthly structure,” he recommends. “This type of expense is easy to stick to once it is set up as an automatic payment and you no longer have to think about it.” 

This can also help alleviate the stress that many young lawyers feel, Seabrook says.

“Student loans and other debt are often an emotional burden and a source of stress,” he adds. “Paying down debt is often one of the best financial decisions you can make and also one of the most satisfying.”

As a social justice expert and advocate, Greene says student debt is more than just an individual issue.

“Student debt impedes access to justice,” she says.”Lawyers who are significantly in debt are less able to take on opportunities to increase access to justice, such as pro bono work, low bono work, unbundled legal services and limited retainers.”

 “We need to be paying attention to this in the public interest, never mind for each individual lawyer and their debt and their stress and their daily struggles,” Greene adds. “The student debt issue also transfers onto society and it affects people’s abilities to access legal services.”

Many students like Greene go into law school intending to pursue a career in social justice. However, because these opportunities are often not as lucrative as other legal specialties, some students are unable to afford to do that kind of work, Greene says.

“Law students, especially students dedicated to social justice, may have to make a career decision that they do not actually want to make for financial security,” she says.

Greene is still happy with her decision to work in social justice law.

“In terms of the big picture, I always like to remind myself it’s a privilege to be a lawyer, but it shouldn’t be an economic privilege,” she says. “My debt was incredibly stressful and it still is. But I’ve come to consider it as a necessary evil of getting to do what I want to do, which is social justice lawyering. However, it does not have to be like this for the next generation of lawyers, and we have the power to change this.”

Carolynne Burkholder-James is an associate at Heather Sadler Jenkins LLP based in Prince George, B.C.