How a Non-Profit Attorney Who Provides Legal Services to Low-Income NYC Residents Does Money

ND: So, Brian,* tell us a bit about your financial situation.

Brian: I’m a first year attorney at a non-profit legal services organization, in New York. Right now, my salary is $50,000, which I think is not bad! People always talk about New York as an expensive city, and it is, but it does feel like enough for a person in his late twenties to live on here. I also have about a quarter of a million dollars in student debt.

$50,000 in NYC is doable, if a little “meager rations at grueling pace.” Do you have roommates?

I live in a one-bedroom with my girlfriend. She’s a paralegal at a different non-profit legal services org, and makes $38,000. Our apartment is about $1,500 per month. So, some budgeting is required, but it’s not bad. Simple things like bringing lunch from home and not taking cabs allows us to actually save some money.

One thing I think about a lot is how the median household income in New York is around $50,000. So, literally half the city — around four million people — are making it with less. My girlfriend and I also lived on a lot less when I was a student and she was an Americorps. So I think that shapes the perspective a bit.

Do you mean “save money” in the “put money in a savings account or IRA” sense, or in the “just don’t spend all our money right away” sense?

Especially the latter, but I have managed to put some money in the 401(k) my job provides. Around 5 percent of my income right now, which I think is probably way less than I’m supposed to be saving? Although I love The Billfold, I haven’t read any websites or books on saving.

Five percent of your income is probably more than a lot of people are saving! I’ve heard you “should” be saving around 20 percent, but that’s so hard especially when you’ve got debt to pay off.

I want to jump back up to what you said a minute ago about how four million people are making it in NYC with less than $50,000/year. I actually thought of it myself as soon as I made the Oregon Trail joke — you’re not actually the person doing meager rations at a grueling pace. Talk to me a bit about the kinds of income distributions you see in NYC and in your work.

I work exclusively with low-income people in New York, many of whom are immigrants. My girlfriend does, too. What is apparent to me is that people manage to survive here, but it is simply that. A lot of my clients are putting up with really unpleasant housing and working conditions. For instance, it’s not unusual for my clients to be working way more than 40 hours a week, and still only be earning 12 to 16,000 dollars a year.

That’s incredible. Not unbelievable — but still incredible.

Public benefits are also miserly. The federal poverty line for an individual is $14,000. So if a person is earning more than that, they are technically considered to not be in poverty. That doesn’t mean a person is barred from public benefits, necessarily — but that’s the line that is drawn.

Wow. And that’s in a city where rent on a studio apartment (and not even a nice studio apartment) can be more than $14,000 a year.

Exactly. A lot of my clients are grown adults who have literal roommates — as in, people who share their bedrooms with them. I don’t know if it is actually against the fire code for so many people to be crammed into small apartments, but the people I see often have to live in cramped housing like that in order to live.

Hot-bedding, probably?

Seems likely, although I don’t ask. Since most of my clients are immigrants, they are also often trying to save money to send home to their families, so they often will undertake any cost-saving measure.

So let’s flip back to your finances. How do you feel about how much you’re earning? Do you want to earn more? Do you expect to be earning more in a few years?

I would like to be earning a little more, and based on what I now know about legal services attorney salary scales, I expect to be earning more over time. Although my salary now is totally livable, it would be nice to save more money and have more amenities. I think everyone feels that way, probably. Until recently, I had no idea what a legal services attorney made, since I didn’t really know any lawyers growing up. But it seems like after five years the average salary is around $65,000, and after 10 years the average is $80–85,000. So, that’s nice.

So when you were in college and law school, was your expected salary not part of the conversation?

Not for me, no. I actually found law school refreshingly transparent about salaries, if you were going into “BigLaw” — a large New York law firm. The top firms all compete with one another and maintain rough parity in their salary scales, so everyone knows how much they pay. But I wanted to work for a non-profit, and there was no information on how much people got paid five or 10 years in.

That is again not unsurprising but incredible. So what are your biggest expenses? I’m guessing rent and debt, but I could be wrong.

Rent is definitely the biggest expense, by far. Debt would theoretically be the next biggest, but my law school has a loan repayment assistance plan for people who work in public interest law, which currently covers all my debt payments. Besides that, groceries and going out (restaurants, drinks, etc.). Socializing is expensive!

Socializing is extremely expensive, especially when you’re in a city where space is at a premium. I’m cribbing a bit from this week’s New York Times and that article about spa parties for kids, where a commenter mentioned that of course NYC parents have to take their kids to spas for their birthday parties, because they don’t have enough room to throw a birthday party in their apartment.

For a lot of us (me included) if you want to hang out with people, you need to go to a place with enough space and seats, e.g. a restaurant or bar.

Yes, the lack of space really does make a difference. This is especially noticeable to me in the winter, since parks are no longer usable. Whereas in California, where I grew up, houses were spacious enough to comfortably hang out in with your friends in any weather, here it is pretty uncomfortable for everyone to be standing around in my kitchen/living room/office.

It’s one of the unforeseen costs of an urban adulthood.

So, as a wrap-up: what else would you like people to know about how you do money? Do you have a One Weird Trick to save cash?

One Weird Trick for any future public interest lawyers is to pay attention to whether your school will help you with loan payments, and what the terms are. I literally could not have afforded to go to law school without it. Also, that salad in a jar thing is a really great way to bring lunches to work and it looks cool.

Explain to me a bit more about school helping you with loan payments, because theater school did not offer me that deal.

Haha, I bet. So, I’m editorializing a bit, but basically some law schools have so much money to burn from the tuition they charge that they can afford to cover some or all of the debt payments of a public interest law graduate. The way it works is, I borrowed money from the government for school tuition like everyone else, but now that I’ve graduated and work for a non-profit, the school covers my monthly loan payments. Eighty percent or so of my classmates go to BigLaw and make so much money that they can actually afford to pay back the school in full, and the school is then willing to cross-subsidize me with that money. I think it’s because having some number of students working for the government or non-profits is good for their PR.

The school covers my payments for 10 years, and then it gets forgiven through Public Service Loan Forgiveness, which I think The Billfold covered in an earlier piece. [ED: this one.]

Oh wow!

Yeah, it’s a great deal. I’m being snarky about the school’s motives, but I recognize what a privilege it is for me to receive that kind of assistance.

As Shakespeare put it: “Has a person ever done a thing, no matter how fair, were it not good for their PR?”

Thank you for sharing your money story with us! I hope you continue to pack jar salad lunches.

*”Brian” is a pseudonym.

Photo credit: Alex

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