Friday, March 07, 2008

New York Stories #14: The Lonely Lawyer Who Left

Here's another New York Story: the person who submitted it described it as a sad tale and when I read it, I had to kind of agree. New York, and any city really, can be such a lonely place, and when you feel depressed about that, money worries just make it that much worse. This is also one of the few stories I've received where 9/11 became a factor in someone's financial life:

I had no idea what I was in for -- none -- but I'd always wanted to live in New York. I thought then that it was something about the excitement of the city; I know now that it was probably more about the anonymity it affords. I moved to the city in early 1997 at the age of 26, right after finishing law school. I was an ambivalent lawyer, though, and had lined up a non-paying television internship. I had no money other than what my parents gave me. Lucky for me, they kept me afloat for about six months in those early days -- even though they were going through a nasty divorce at the time and were not there for me in other, more meaningful ways.

I was totally alone. I had one friend in the city, but he was a total asshole. He was making nearly six figures at the outset -- something that he was all-too-eager to rub in. Asshole. I did, however, have some things going for me: There was that law degree (though I had not passed the bar at that time), and my father, through a professional connection, secured a really nice apartment for me (with a roommate I didn't know) on the Upper East Side for $1000/month. I took the bar, left the unpaid internship abruptly and, after a few 2-3 day temp jobs, landed a long-term assignment at a big law firm in midtown. I think I was clearing about $1,800 per month, enough to cover rent but not much else after paying my student loans. I had to be quite careful with my money. I was never one to make budgets, but I had a good sense of what I could or couldn't afford. There were a few times when I overspent and my bank account was in the negative. I remember my first trip to a supermarket on the UES and being shocked at the high cost of food. I bought one of those small jars of peanut butter because I didn't feel I could afford more than that.

Around April, I learned that I passed the bar (phew!) and promptly started looking for a full-time job. It was not easy; it took months. I finally landed a job with a shady solo securities lawyer. I was paid $40,000/year, with no benefits at all, no 401(k), no health insurance, none of that. I finally managed to get the cheap bastard to pay for my health insurance about six months later but I felt like I was getting screwed by this guy. I've felt that I've been screwed by most, maybe all, of my employers: a chronic condition. Just over a year after I started that job, I got an offer with a much better, small law firm, at $80,000 per year. I had nearly doubled my salary -- woohoo -- but it was still quite a bit less than what other firms were paying, something I was very conscious and resentful of. After a year there, I got a $10,000 bonus, and a salary increase to $95,000. I remember that when they told me I'd get a $10,000 bonus, I determined right then and there that I would leave that firm. I may seem like an ingrate for saying that, but I worked really hard and that was not a lot of money in those days for what I was doing. There were some good times, to be sure, but I was a nervous wreck most of the time. I had the weight of the world on my shoulders. I was depressed, I gained weight. It was no fun. These were anxious, scary times, for me: my parents were splitting up, my whole world was coming undone and I didn't have anyone (other than a therapist) to talk to.

About two years later, in 2000, with the economy booming, I jumped ship again for a job that paid $135,000/year. I was living in another apartment by that time, but still paying about $1,000/month for rent and utilities. It was a sweet deal and, even though I desperately wanted to live alone, I couldn't bring myself to pay the going rate of twice or three times that per month. Plus, I was able to save a lot of money -- several thousand dollars a month. Before long, I had enough for a down payment for a one-bedroom in the Village. It was a great place (East 11th between University and Broadway), and I felt like finally I was living the life I wanted to live.

But: Right after I signed the contract and made the 10% deposit for the down payment... 9/11 came, and I lost my job. I still closed on the apartment but spent an anxious six months out of work -- with no income to pay my $250K mortgage. I don't know how I did it exactly, but I still had about $30,000 in the bank -- I wasn't close to being broke. I guess I led a rather frugal lifestyle, although I always went out to eat with friends, etc.. I did the things I wanted to do. I didn't feel deprived. I finally got another job at a much reduced salary of $100,000. I stayed at that job for about four years, before leaving the city for Washington, D.C. This was two years ago. I had a serious girlfriend. She was pregnant; my life was about to change.

I'm really grateful in some ways to NYC for helping me to launch my career, and I love NYC so much (I still own that apartment; I rent it out now but hope to hold onto it as a second home). But it's a really hard place to get started in life. The pressures are enormous, the loneliness sometimes crushing: there are some ups and downs to be had. Know that. Of course, it doesn't have to be that way -- I know that -- but that's the way it was for me.
The interesting thing about this story is that although our Lawyer made a pretty good income during his years in New York, his frugality was just as important-- he saved money for an apartment, and weathered 6 months of unemployment without going into debt. It sounds like everything worked out for him in the end, but I'd love to know more about what his life is like now! Unfortunately, I seem to have lost his original email so I haven't been able to ask any follow-up questions-- Lawyer, if you're still reading, I'm sure everyone would love to know how you're doing!

Other posts in this series:

New York Stories #1: Bronx Chica
New York Stories #2: Orange
New York Stories #3: Bama Babe
New York Stories #4: K
New York Stories #5: Frugal Female
New York Stories #6: SandyVoice
New York Stories #7: Escape Brooklyn
New York Stories #8: Comfortable Couple
New York Stories #9: Upper West Sider
New York Stories #10: Debt-Free in Harlem
New York Stories #11: Little Miss Moneybags
New York Stories #12: Starving Artist
New York Stories #13: Cheap Healthy Good

This is an ongoing feature at My Open Wallet, so if you'd like you submit your own New York Story, please email me at openwallet1 [at] yahoo [dot] com. Or, if you have a relatively brief story, you can call me using the Google voice button and record it as a voicemail which I'll post here so everyone can listen!


Escape Brooklyn said...

That was a great story and I could really relate! I hope he's doing well in D.C.

Anonymous said...

boo hoo

L. Marie Joseph said...

Good story he shared. For as NY and any other big city, you will get lonely and learn how to discipline yourself with money to survive.

With his attitude, I'm sure he will do well no matter what city he is in

Anonymous said...

Interesting story, and very touching writing. I'd love to know how he's doing... please update us!

Noel Larson said...


I believe you have the makings of a really good book...too bad you don't know anyone in do!

You really should pitch it. But I get a signed copy for the suggestion :)

Anonymous said...

It is a good story...however I was put off by the comment: I've felt that I've been screwed by most, maybe all, of my employers: a chronic condition.
He obviously takes control of his life by switching jobs when a better one comes up, but sometimes dropping the "poor me, it's not my fault" attitude will go a long way in the level of one's happiness. I've been there too, so it's less of a criticism and more of an observation.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, that's how I felt too. This guy complains too much, and nothing is his fault: his parents give him money, but not enough attention; his only friend is an asshole, all the companies he works for try to screw him, and so forth. Man, 135,000 is soooo much money! Try to look at it on the bright side for a change.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Poor-me Lawyer definitely has a gift for writing. My writing teacher would applaud his 'cadence and euphony'. I'd like to hear more of his story and how things panned out with the pregnant girlfriend. If I got a 10K bonus, I'd be over the moon!

Anonymous said...

I agree with Valerie.
How on eart was this story touching? I think this (his) sentence says it all: "I had one friend in the city, but he was a total asshole. He was making nearly six figures at the outset -- something that he was all-too-eager to rub in. Asshole. "

Seems to me that all that matters to him is money.

Anonymous said...

I think some of the above comments are too harsh. It's difficult to understand the "exquisite pain" of living in NYC unless you've personally experienced it. Yes, the lawyer was focused on money. But everyone in the city is! Considering how expensive everything is, you almost have to be.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Valerie and others; how is it that this guy--who has an advanced, marketable degree-- is somehow always securing jobs for less than he's (alledgedly)worth; and his girlfriend is pregnant? Besides being a complainer, he sounds like a poor planner to me.