- Rafael Regales was 32 when he started law school and took out a $200,000 loan.
- Regales failed the bar twice due to mental-health issues and is struggling under increasing debt.
- “It’s demoralizing,” Regales said. Here’s Regales’ story, as told to writer Fortesa Latifi.
This as-told-to 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 held the jobs I eventually wanted were lawyers.
It felt like the way to do important legislative work one day was to become a lawyer. So I started going to law school at night in the hopes of earning 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 costs, I took out a loan of $200,000. I was daunted by the number, but I was excited by the prospect of furthering my education and getting a higher-paying job. It felt like an important investment in my future and my family’s future.
That isn’t exactly how it worked out
Through the 10 years since I graduated law school, I’ve failed the bar twice due to mental-health issues. My debt has ballooned to more than $332,000, including interest.
Even if I were to try to take the bar again, the cost for a class and the test itself can be up to $3,000, which I just can’t afford — so I’m stuck with the debt of law school without the prestige of bar membership.
I was able to defer my debt a few times while looking for work, and now I work for the government. That means I’m part of the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which forgives, cancels, or discharges some or all student loans based on employment for the federal government.
I won’t be eligible to have my loans forgiven under the program for another seven years, so I still have many payments ahead of me.
I don’t know how much I’ll be able to chip away at my loans before they’re forgiven
But I do know that in the last two years, as student-loan payments were put on pause during the pandemic, I was given a new sense of freedom and what my financial life could be like. My daughters are in college now, and I was able to help them with school in a way I wouldn’t have been able to if I had to keep paying my own loans at the same time.
Being able to help my daughters feels amazing. When they’re done with school and don’t need that financial help anymore, I hope I can use the money that would go toward my loans and put it toward living a better life for myself — like getting a nicer apartment or actually taking a vacation.
Every time the deadline for student-loan payments to restart moves, I breathe a little sigh of relief
It’s demoralizing to be in this much debt, especially when it didn’t propel me into a new career like I was hoping for. Some days I feel like a failure, but I’ve been able to work through those feelings in therapy. There are jobs that look positively on law school graduates even without actually passing the bar, but those jobs are mostly in Washington, DC — and there are a lot of candidates.
Even my friends who graduated from law school and became barred lawyers are relieved when the student-loan payments get pushed further, but it’s hard to plan for a financial future when you don’t know what’s going to be expected of you. Some of my friends were already planning on having less money in May when they were expecting student loans to restart, but now that’s pushed into the future again. The delay is great, but it’s also difficult to not know what’s coming 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 this hard to pass the bar with my mental-health issues. I still care about my work as a paralegal and law clerk, but I make so much less money than a practicing attorney, even with my law degree.
Although President Biden promised to cancel $10,000 worth of student debt for each borrower, I never thought he would follow through on that talking point. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who’s very pro-student debt cancellation, was my first primary choice.
I think that whatever can be done to alleviate the burden for the inflated cost of higher education should be done, alongside other policy changes to make sure people are not having to take on such astronomical amounts of debt to attain educational goals.