With a son and wife to support and hefty student loans to repay, ex-law student Phil Segal did the responsible thing: He returned to law school. This is his story.
Law School, Take One
Phil Segal was miserable. As a 2L at University of San Diego School of Law, Phil was working part-time as a valet and legal assistant/clerk. He had a newborn son at home, his wife (due to the pregnancy) had not secured the job they’d been banking on, and his parents had run into hard times. His daily law school life pit him against fresh, recent college grads with all the time in the world to devote to their studies.
“I managed to pass all my classes, though skipped a lot due to sheer exhaustion and general time constraints. The peak of difficulty was when I had a final exam the day after my son was born,” says Phil of his time at USD Law. “I was not enjoying school at all and really wanted to quit, but I was trapped because we were living off loans and we started to accumulate debt. ”
Despite the realities of caring for a newborn son and working part-time while in law school (i.e. no sleep, ever), Phil powered through until the end of his 2L year when he accepted an internship in online advertising with Todd Harmon, Inc.
“It was creative, interesting and fun for me, and it started taking off,” Phil says of his internship. “I really started to run with the ball and actually landed a client in addition to the internship. So after my 2L year I said, ‘I’m going to take a break.’ It was just going to be a year, but during that year, I got a full-time position with one of my clients. Then the year after, I got another position with more pay.”
Law School, Take Two
Phil, now a full-time Analyst & Account Manager (SEM/SEO) at Shopzilla, is finishing his law degree after a two-year hiatus by obtaining his 3L credits online through Concord Law School. We caught up with him on his first day back at school in hopes of gaining insight into his decision to flip-flop.
So Phil, why go back to law school now?
I realized there was only a certain amount of time that I could retain my units from USD Law and that the two years of misery I already lived through would soon be lost. I also had a debt-to-income ratio deferment on my loans that would soon expire, and the imminent loan payments are way above my current budget while trying to raise a young family. So the question ‘Am I making the right decision by not finishing?’ became a very poignant and timely one.
I had the stress of caring for a family, and I began wondering if I’d look back and regret letting go of the work I’d already done. I worried that in ten years I might think that I could have had that door open for me, if I only had finished my law degree. One of my fears, too, is ever having to look my child in the eye knowing that I can’t provide for him and that I hadn’t done everything I could to not face that scenario.
If I didn’t have a child, I would be more inclined to take risks. Now I have to be more cognizant of and more cautious about things like the ability to take on a huge expense on a monthly basis. It’s easy to say just go do what you want with your life if you don’t have anyone else to take care of.
What do you hope to gain by finishing law school?
You don’t really walk away from law school with a whole lot of knowledge per se. What you do walk away with is the ability to have that knowledge. For example, I can look at a contract and understand its ramifications, though someone without a legal education might just be intimidated and ignorant of its consequences. It gives me a leg-up in that sense, and I hope that with my unique combination of skills, the whole will be greater than the sum of the parts. I’m also hoping that I’ll be in a better position to repay my loans even if they will be slightly higher when I finish my education.
I do think the education will be valuable in certain ways in a business environment. Whether the benefits ever exceed the $100k+ price tag, well, perhaps I’ll be able to answer that down the road.
Do you expect to practice after graduating?
There are times when I could see myself being a trial attorney, but ultimately no.
Realistically, the facts are that I’m not gaining any legal experience right now, my day-to-day work has nothing to do with the law, and I’m finishing my degree through an online school. For me to enter a law career, I would have to really devote myself to it. I know I could be a very good lawyer. I have the skill set and intelligence, but it’s not where my passion lies.
Why an online school this time?
At the end of the day, it was a matter of balancing cost versus benefit. To finish this education will cost me $20,000 online which would have cost me another $62,000 at a brick-and-mortar school.
Let’s get to the four-letter word: Debt. Any advice on that front?
My advice is only take out what’s necessary. Do what you need to do, but don’t take out loans for living expenses if you can afford not to.
Debt really puts you in a hole so that you just can’t leave law. The debt takes something from you. Unfortunately, no one really tells you that, and disclosure documents certainly don’t do anything other than fulfill a legal requirement.
What advice do you have for law school hopefuls?
I would say think really, really carefully about it.
Get some practical experience in the law and see what it is you’re working towards. People saying ‘Oh you’re going to be a great lawyer,’ isn’t a good reason to go to law school.
Also, don’t go to law school, because you don’t know what else to do. See what is out there and compare it to other careers. A law degree doesn’t mean nearly what it used to.
If you’re the kind of person who is passionate about something else and you don’t have a personality that works well in law, you will likely leave at some point anyways and it will be harder the longer you wait. Cut your losses.
Finally, know that what opens doors is working really hard and gaining experience that’s valuable in the business world. What speaks to people is experience in the real world, not the degree.
In fact, a legal degree can actually be a detriment if you choose to pursue a non-legal career, as people will constantly wonder why you’re not practicing (maybe you couldn’t hack it), or on the other end of the spectrum might doubt your motivations for seeking that job (perhaps you’ll leave when you find something in the legal profession?). I had much more success in the real world when I removed my legal education from my resume, ironically.
What are your answers to our modified five?
1. Life for a lawyer who returns to the law is…a return to that continual pendulum of indecision about whether I should buckle down and power through or run away again.
2. The hardest thing about returning to the law is…having to juggle life and law again.
3. The best thing about returning to the law is…the satisfaction of at least knowing I am trying my hardest to complete what I began.
4. The primary misconception about lawyers is…that we can advise anyone on any legal issue competently.
5. The main difference between my life now and my life when I was not in the law is…more stress, less free time, more mental strain.