I took out a $200,000 loan for law school but never became a lawyer

  • Rafael Regales was 32 when he started law school and took out a $200,000 loan.
  • He failed the bar twice due to mental health issues and struggles with mounting debt.
  • “It’s demoralizing,” Regales said. This is the story of Regales, told to the writer Fortesa Latifi.

This narrated essay is based on a conversation with Rafael Regales, a 47-year-old paralegal. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

When I started law school, I was 32 years old. I was married and had two children, and I knew it was going to be difficult. But I was working in politics at the time, and a lot of the people who were doing the jobs I wanted were lawyers.

It was as if the way to do important legislative work one day was to become a lawyer. So I started going to law school at night in hopes of getting my law degree and getting the job I wanted.

Law school is expensive – the average law student takes out $160,000 in loans. To cover my tuition and help offset living expenses, I took out a $200,000 loan. I was intimidated by the numbers, but excited by the prospect of furthering my education and getting a better paying job. It felt like an important investment in my future and that of my family.

That’s not how it worked

In the 10 years since I graduated from law school, I failed the bar twice due to mental health issues. My debt soared to over $332,000 including interest.

If I tried to retake the bar, the cost of a course and the test itself could reach $3,000, which I just can’t afford – so I’m stuck with law school debt without the prestige of membership in the bar.

I was able to defer my debt a few times while looking for work, and now I work for the government. It means that I am part of the Cancellation of civil service loans program, which cancels, cancels or repays all or part of student loans based on employment with the federal government.

I won’t be eligible to have my loans canceled under the program for seven years, so I still have many payments ahead of me.

I don’t know how much I can nibble on my loans before they’re forgiven

But I do know that over the past two years, as student loan payments have been suspended during the pandemic, I’ve had a new sense of freedom and what my financial life could look like. My daughters are in college now, and I’ve been able to help them with school in ways that I couldn’t if I had to keep paying my own loans at the same time.

Being able to help my daughters is amazing. When they have finished their studies and no longer need this financial assistance, I hope that I can use the money that would be used for my loans and use it to live a better life, such as buying a nicer apartment or take a break.

Every time the student loan repayment deadline to restart moves, I breathe a little sigh of relief

It’s demoralizing to have so much debt, especially when it hasn’t propelled me into a new career as I had hoped. Some days I feel like a failure, but I was able to overcome those feelings in therapy. There are jobs that look positive for law school graduates even if they haven’t passed the bar, but those jobs are mostly in Washington, DC — and there are plenty of applicants.

Even my friends who graduated from law school and are called to the bar are relieved when student loan repayments get pushed back, but it’s hard to plan for a financial future when you don’t know what’s expected of you. Some of my friends were already planning to have less money in May when they expected student loans to restart, but now that’s pushed back into the future again. The delay is great, but it is also difficult not to know what will come next.

When I took out my loans, I knew what I was getting into

I had my eyes wide open when it came to the cost of law school. I just didn’t know it would be so hard to get past the bar with my mental health issues. I still care about my job as a paralegal and paralegal, but I make so much less money than a practicing lawyer, even with my law degree.

With President Joe Biden promising to forgive $10,000 in student debt for each borrower, I never thought he would follow through on this talking point. Senator Elizabeth Warren, a big supporter of canceling student debt, was my first choice.

I think anything that can be done to ease the burden of the inflated cost of higher education needs to be done, alongside other policy changes, to make sure people don’t have to go into debt from such astronomical sums to achieve their educational goals.

Jon J. Epps