I've known I wanted to be a lawyer ever since I was in high school, when I witnessed police officers disparage the people they were supposed to be protecting. This sparked a desire in me for transparency and accountability in our criminal justice system. I also knew from the start that a law degree would come with a high price tag, one I wouldn't be able to handle on my own. It's been said that a law school education is a "$100,000 gamble" - and I was going to have to borrow some poker chips.
Before I could start changing the world in law school, I had to earn an undergraduate degree. I spent my freshman year at Seattle University before transferring to the University of Chicago. I had always assumed attending an elite private school would be too expensive for me, but was surprised to discover it was actually a cheaper route to earning my degree. In fact, my three years at UChicago cost me the same in tuition and fees as my one year at SeattleU.
After graduating with a bachelor's degree in history, I spent two years working in the Registrar's Office at SeattleU while I decided whether law school would be a good investment. At that time, I had incurred around $23,000 in student loan debt and had to ask myself some important questions: did I really want to increase that deficit at least five-fold by pursuing a law degree? Did I really want to live in the shadow of seemingly insurmountable debt for the next 20 or 30 years of my life? The answer, as I had known in my heart since high school, was "yes."
My first choice for law school was UC Davis, but I discovered that the cost of tuition there would force me to max out my government-backed loans — a scary idea due to the automatic interest accrual and immediate repayment expectations that come with unsubsidized loans. I ended up selecting the University of Washington School of Law, which allowed me to receive more financial aid and a great education in a familiar environment. For the next three years, I worked harder than I've ever worked in my life — poring over countless pages in textbooks, briefing cases, and sitting for four-hour exams. And I was paying money (that I didn't have) to do it! But my drive never faltered, because I knew I was working toward a career where I could help the people who needed it most. That meant more to me - and still does - than a dwindling bank account.
Today, almost three years after graduating with my law degree, I'm passionate about my work as a public defender. Though it's not the most lucrative of paths available in the legal field, my job is personally rewarding because it gives me the opportunity to serve and protect the rights of our most vulnerable populations. Additionally, my role as a public defender allows me to participate in a loan forgiveness program that will erase my debt in return for 10 years of regular payments and service in the government sector. Without that option, I would never have been able to afford a law degree. If the current administration were to eliminate loan forgiveness programs or other benefits for borrowers (like income-based repayment programs), it would be financially devastating for me and countless others in similar situations.
I owe nearly $200,000 in student loans. People often think that's an insignificant debt for a lawyer, but my salary is far from the six figures some might expect. Living with that much debt means I have to be extremely conscious of my expenditures. My monthly student loan payment takes a big bite out of my paycheck and doesn't leave much for living expenses or personal spending, which makes things difficult. I'm a trial lawyer who wants to professionally represent my clients but has to wear the same suit to court multiple times each week. Also, I can't afford to attend expensive legal trainings that would help me become a more effective attorney. I've had to make peace with the fact that I'll never be able to afford a house and will always be restricted to renting apartments and living with a roommate. Even my hobbies are affected - I love to travel, but balk at the financial irresponsibility of putting expensive trips on my credit card.
Do I regret my expensive decision to go to law school? Absolutely not - I love being a lawyer. To me, there is no work more fulfilling than protecting the most vulnerable members of our society using the Constitution. But are there things I'd do differently given the opportunity? Sure. For one, I'd be more responsible about money before and during school. Establishing and sticking to a budget early on could have helped me manage my finances more effectively.
All things considered, student loans are a necessary evil. Most people lack the funds to pay for school outright, but that shouldn't preclude them from pursuing a higher education. With that said, our nation's student loan system could use some improvements. Indebted students and graduates shouldn't have to worry about the potential elimination of loan forgiveness programs or other benefits for borrowers.
We need to work with our legislators and other policymakers to design and implement security measures to protect those with student loan debt. We must also incentivize future students to take advantage of loans to enable them to pursue a higher education. The children are our future, but only if they can afford to reach their true potential.
Tamara GaffneyAttorney, Snohomish County Public Defender Association
Tamara Gaffney is an attorney at the Snohomish County Public Defender Association in Everett, Washington. She practices criminal defense for people who cannot afford to pay for an attorney on their own. After growing up in Eastern Washington, Tamara attended Seattle University for one year before transferring to the University of Chicago where she majored in history and graduated with honors. After earning her bachelor's, Tamara worked in the Registrar's Office at Seattle University for two years before attending law school at the University of Washington. She has approximately $190,000 of student loan debt and lives in Seattle with her dog Percy.