Why I Took a Lower-Paying Job When I Still Had $35,000 of Student Loans / by Jennifer Chan


In October 2016, I was a three-month old lawyer and sitting on $35,000 of debt.

For a year and a half, I had been working at the same organization, and although I loved so many aspects about the job — my colleagues, the work-life balance and, most importantly, the generous paycheques. But I became restless and felt, deep down, that I needed to pursue knowledge elsewhere.

Within a week, I noticed that a legal aid clinic that specialized in workers’ rights was looking to hire a lawyer. Although it was a contract position and most certainly involved a pay cut, none of that mattered to me. I was hungry to learn.

The $35,000 of student loans were on my mind, but it was not enough to stop me from accepting the position. I had 4 main reasons.

I Maintained a Frugal Lifestyle

When I first accepted the new position, I was 26 years old, had no dependents, and lived in a junior one-bedroom apartment with my girlfriend. Over the prior 10 months, I had taught myself the fundamentals of personal finance — from making a practical budget to saving for retirement. I stopped “treating” myself to fancy clothes, dinners, and the other usual vices that are associated with high-income professions. My peers were making more and spending more, but I told myself that what made them happy wasn’t what brought me happiness.

Instead, I started to regularly bring my lunch to work, take public transit, and brainstormed inexpensive date ideas with my girlfriend.

By avoiding the high-consumption lifestyle that often comes with being a lawyer, I was able to take a pay cut and contribute the same amount of money towards my student loans.

I Sought Not What Will Pay Me the Most, But What Will Teach Me the Most

Unlike most of my peers, who also have large student loans, I didn’t care about landing the highest-paying job right out of school. I just wanted an environment that would teach me new skills, and consequently, push me to become a more well-rounded lawyer.

This usually means seeking a company/organization that: (1) has a collaborative environment, and (2) practices a few different areas of law.

Because it's high-volume clinic with only 3 lawyers (aside from myself), there were lots of opportunities for me to do real, meaningful work. Within a month, I had my own clients and was already scheduled to run my own hearings. While junior lawyers at big law firms were stuck writing research memos and attending routine motions, I was managing clients, communicating directly with opposing counsel and writing legal submissions.

I Play the Long Game

I focus on the big picture.

I strongly believe, more than anything, that patience and persistence will eventually get you to where you need to go. It’s not about where you’re at right now. It’s about where you will be in a year, two years, and five years from now.

In the legal profession, you typically won’t hit the peak of your career until you’ve been practicing for at least 10 years.  A freakin’ decade. And it’s not like after a decade, you can just leave the office at 5:00PM and shirk all your responsibilities to others. My legal idols - all of which are seasoned female lawyers who call out sexism in the legal profession - still work late nights and do some of the grunt work in their files. 

What does this mean for new lawyers who have little to no practical skills? You have to start somewhere. And you can't be too picky about the small print.

Instead of searching for the dream salary, I sought out the type of work that I wanted to be doing and, more importantly, the kind of lawyer I wanted to be. I aspire(d) to be an advocate who stood for integrity, social justice and procedural fairness. The more experience that I gained, the more money would eventually come my way.

I Measure “Success” Differently Than Others

Contrary to preconceived notions about lawyers, I’m not hungry for success. At least, not in the way that word is traditionally defined.

I want to be better than I was yesterday.

I'm chasing the moment when I experience a breakthrough in my skillset, and the corresponding feeling that it came from nothing more than days, weeks and months of consistent effort.

I want to look back at myself in a year, two years, five years, and ten years, and measure how much I have grown and learned.

I want to make a living through work that aligns with my aspirations, beliefs and values. It may involve the easiest, quickset or most straightforward path, but it will undoubtedly be the most rewarding.

It Was an Easy Choice (because of my privilege)

I am BLATANTLY aware of my privilege in being able to take a lower-paying job. Some, if not most, of the people who come through our office will never be able to exercise this choice. In fact, most of them are completely overqualified for their existing jobs, but the interlocking systems of oppression (#capitalism #patriarchy) have made it extremely difficult for them to find better employment. I definitely don't deserve the luxury of choice, but it is something that I have - and acknowledge.

If you are privileged like me, I do think it's important to have a conversation with yourself about what you are or aren't willing to compromise for the sake of money. Know your limits. For me, there is no amount of money that would entice me to work at a slaughterhouse or an oil company. 

It may be hard to find a job that aligns with your beliefs, but I do think, with lots of patience, ingenuity and persistence, it is possible. You may not get paid as much and it may first involve working several unglamorous jobs, but eventually you can make money in ways that feel good to you. It may not be right for everyone, but so far it's worked out for me.