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The Ethics of Ethics

It’s been a while since my last post, but life has been anything but boring.

I recently attended “Guide to the Basics of Law Practice” which is the ethics course all new lawyers are required to take within their first year of licensure. I’ve had this brochure in my brief case since I received it back in November with my bar results, so it’s about time I took care of this.

Ethics is a word that you’ll often hear in law school and the State Bar, for one, thinks it’s crucial to the legal profession. We are required to take an ethics course in law school (at Texas Wesleyan it was called “Professional Responsibility”) and there’s even a separate state administered ethics exam (MPRE) that is part of the whole bar taking process.  Once licensed, we have to take this ethics continuing legal education (CLE) ethicsclass almost immediately and must earn three hours of ethics CLE every year to keep the license current. Any way you slice it, that’s a lot of ethics.

So why, if we lawyers are so steeped in ethics, is our profession generally thought to put little of that education into practice?  Maybe as we get good at “thinking like lawyers” we get better at creating gray out of situations that are truly black and white. I suppose, a lot of times, that’s the essence of our job. The problem arises, however, when we start believing in the gray we create. I think the more mental gymnastics you have to do in order to get someone to buy into your argument, the more likely it is that you’re creating something out of nothing. That’s not good lawyering, that’s inviting your audience to buy into your fantasy when everyone sees it for what it is: Politics.

A recent experience ended on a sour note for just this reason. I found myself in an ethical dilemma where people I trusted engaged in some heavy-duty acrobatics trying to convince me of their sound reasoning. It would have been easier to just stay silent, but I couldn’t. My frustration and utter anger at the situation compelled me to speak up. And then I left—just walked out.

Later, I thought about what happened and wondered whether it mattered that I spoke up. In the end, nobody changed their mind, the plan that I vehemently opposed went forward anyway.  I worried that because of this it would appear that I went along, when that was far from the case. But you know what, I know the truth and so do they.  More importantly, they know that I will not be silent on issues that potentially compromise who I am as a person and as a lawyer.  This is because as lawyers we really are held to a higher standard in everything we do, whether it’s in the course of our legal work or in our day to day endeavors as private citizens .  I now know that when push comes to shove, I can live up to my ethical duty as a lawyer in all aspects of my life. And that, my friends, is priceless to me.

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Loan Repayment II—Wait…What??

And just as I suspected the left had did not, in fact, have any idea what the right hand was doing.  I am still sorting out student loan repayment issues and I’ve yet to make a payment, but I think I’m just a few steps closer to getting all this mess straightened out.

Friday I found out that I was very right to be suspicious of SallieMae showing up so late (and uninvited!) to the party.  Although I did my due diligence by calling them and asking specific questions to understand what was going on, they LIED to me, didn’t understand what I was asking, or both.  Turns out that SallieMae has “some” of my loans–several others still remain with the original servicer. Also, SallieMae does NOT, confusedcontrary to what they told me when I asked about it, track for Public Service credits.  In short, nothing of the process I began since October has yet to be completed and I had to ask for ANOTHER forbearance to give all the parties time to square things up.

I now know that fedloan Servicing is THE only servicer (at press time) that tracks Public Service credits.  Don’t let any other servicer tell you that they can do this for you because if you make payments to them, those won’t count toward your Public Service credits (I was supposed to start paying SallieMae on Feb 1, so that is why I had to get a forebearance from them.)  Someone along the line told me this about fedloan, which is what raised a red flag for me when I started getting the SallieMae letters.

If you’re working for a public entity it’s really important to get this straight from the beginning so that all payments you make count for Public Service credits.  Last month I was making calls, not sure to which place, but at some point I asked whether I needed to turn in any paperwork for this and  whomever I was speaking to that day said I didn’t need to worry about filling in any paperwork until I was ready to claim loan forgiveness.  Wrong.  As loan forgiveness has certain very specific criteria, there is paperwork that I needed to submit in order to start having my payments tracked.  Luckily, the person I talked with at fedloan servicing on Friday cleared up the confusion.  I got my form signed by my boss and mailed it that afternoon.

The other thing that I found out was that even though I filled out the paperwork to consolidate ALL my loans to one servicer, they got consolidated, but were sent to SallieMae and not fedloan.  Could this be because I didn’t yet have my Loan Forgiveness paperwork in?  Maybe.  But that’s how SallieMae got in the mix.

I think what added to the confusion was that I had to consolidate my  loans.  That meant I had two processes going at the same time: the consolidation and then the paperwork for them to set my repayment amount.   The consolidation was important because (when it’s all done) I will have only ONE company to deal with instead of two or three; that means ONE monthly payment.  Also, you can only get Public Service credit for what are called “direct” loans.  I can’t even begin to explain what that means, but suffice it to say my newly consolidated SallieMae loan has been converted to a “direct” loan and so now when fedloan gets my Loan Forgiveness paperwork they will automatically assume my SallieMae loans, assess the total and set my monthly payment amount.  Finally.  They will also keep track of my payments to give me Public Service credit and will evaluate my finances annually to adjust my payment amount based on my income.  It will be this way for at least 10 years.

You can see how the more servicers you have handling loans, the more confusing it gets.  That’s why I said, document, document, document your calls with these people.  Keep all your paperwork together and create a folder in your email so you can put all student loan communications in one place.  It is so easy to get confused.  Hopefully, this is soon to be sorted out.

In other news:  I’m still getting settled in my new job.  These last two weeks are the first since I started where we’ve not had any special projects in the office.   We are “just” handling the open record requests that keep coming in while simultaneously finding time for all the work that comesLucy with receiving responses back from the Attorney General on some of our matters. Sometimes I feel like Lucy in the Candy Factory.

I seem to have inherited a few challenging cases and sorting out their issues takes time and research and organization.  I spent a few days last week working on a legal memo on a question brought to me by my boss.  He told me that my written response would likely be sent up the chain pretty high, so I really wanted to be sure I did my best work.  I was pretty pleased with the final result and got a very nice email from the boss telling me that I’d done an “Excellent” job.   Then my little memo got hand-delivered up to the top floor of the building.

We’ll just have to wait and see where things go from here….

The “R Word”–Repayment

I cannot believe it’s been so long since I posted to this blog.  I feel so neglectful.  I did think about blogging a few times and then decided against it.  Mostly, I’ve just been way too busy and way too tired.  Work has been very stressful with lots of unwarranted and unwanted projects that just add to my daily craziness.

ExhaustedPoseGenerally speaking, the month of December flew by.  However, the closer it got to the Christmas break the more it seemed to screech to a grind; that last week was brutal.  I was in a foul mood most of that week and then it finally hit me that my upcoming (paid) vacation would be my first since 2007.  Seriously, other than a day here or there (not paid), I have been in school, working, or in school AND working since the summer of 2007.  That’s every spring break, every summer, every break between semesters.  Most times I was finishing up my finals one day and starting work the next, or leaving my job on a Friday and starting a new semester on Monday.  Insane.

Well, I had a good run…5 solid years of working/studying/studying/working and it finally caught up to me.  So, I wasn’t too hard on myself this last week when I was done and I mean DONE with work for 2012.  I practically ran out of the office on Dec. 21—I hope my plants held on to the water I gave them because I still have another five glorious days off.

Another thing that’s been stressful is what every former law student will come to know as “transitioning into repayment status.”  I cannot tell you how my stomach knots up every time I go to the mailbox lately and there’s ANOTHER letter from fedloan, DirectLoans and the latest, SallieMae.  It seems like a I get a letter every other day.  One letter says one thing and then next say something totally different.  I have called fedloan and DirectLoans multiple times since October; I should have them on speed dial.  This latest, SallieMae just joined the party this week and now I’m all confused.

As I sort through all these letters from all these companies I keep reminding myself that I am a lawyer, an educated person, I should be able to make heads and/or tails of these notices, but yet, the thought of dealing with this mess makes me cringe.  All I want to know is how much, HOW MUCH do I pay and to whom, that’s all.  But, it’s not that easy.

Some loans are with this servicer, other loans are with that servicer.  I also qualify for Loan Forgiveness credits because I work for  a public entity and turns out only ONE servicer handles that, so I needed to move (consolidate) the loans to the one servicer that will track my public service credits.  Standard loan repayment would be equal to approximately 25% of my monthly Forgive-Student-Loan-debtGROSS income, so that was definitely not happening. I applied for a modified payment plan and then I had both that application and the consolidation going at the same time…with two different servicers.  Meanwhile, I kept getting notices that my payments were coming due (for the standard repayment) and I kept calling them to say, “Hey, I can’t pay this…where in the process is my paperwork?”  I keep getting assurances that it’s proceeding and issuing a “forbearance” is quick and easy, so they keep telling me that I’m ok.  And still I’m getting notices in the mail and via email that my payment is past due.  I check my online account which confirms “forbearance” and get the distinct impression that the left hand has no flippin’ idea what the right hand is doing.  This does not inspire great confidence on my part. If this sounds confusing, it is.  If it sounds stressful, it is.

Then SallieMae came on the scene and supposedly is handling all of the above for me and my (reasonable) payments won’t start  until March—at least according to my phone call to them yesterday.  TODAY, I get notice in the mail that says something completely different.  Sigh…my stomach hurts.

My only advice to those who eventually arrive at this point:  Get a notepad and document, document, document every time you call one of these places, the date, time, who you spoke with and what they said.  It’s the only lifeline I have in this crazy nightmare.

If I could get all this straightened out my life would be so much better.  I hate this not knowing what my finances are from month to month.  I just want to have all this settle down and get to paying off these loans.  I know I will probably be paying on these loans for a long time…at least 10 years, but I’m fine with that.  I don’t care about being in student loan debt, to me it was worth it.  I have no regrets.

SallieMae and I are going to be good friends for a long, long time.

I still have to let off a little more steam before the new year officially arrives though, so I’m planning a board game night with some of my friends for New Year’s eve.  Nothing elaborate, just good friends, good food and then…GOOD NIGHT!  Needless to say, SallieMae is NOT invited.

Happy 2012–Here’s to returning the favor to the federal government and beginning my loan repayment.  Cheers!

Mission Accomplished!

Things have just moved by in a blur since I got my bar results on Nov.1.  I received my actual bar notice from the Texas Board of Law Examiners (“BLE”) the very next day.  It was a nice fat envelope…sweet!

Inside was an official letter of congratulations from the State Bar of Texas that simultaneously informed me not to forget to pay my:

  • Membership dues ($78 at least for the first 3 yrs. of practice, then it goes up!!!)
  • Occupations tax ($200, but pro-rated to $116.69 for November licensure), and
  • Legal Services fee ($65 and no explanation what this covers.)

Luckily, as a government lawyer, I fall into a statutory exemption category and only have to pay the membership dues.  Whew!  That was a nice surprise.

I also got my bar score from the BLE and a nice letter from the clerk of the Supreme Court of Texas regarding my attorney’s oath and when I should receive my official license (suitable for framing!!).  Since there are currently vacancies on the Court, our licenses are going to be somewhat delayed until later in December.  BUT, assuming we pay all our fees and get sworn in, we are considered licensed and eligible to practice law in Texas right away, even without the paper license.  Awesomeness!!!

My head was swimming and it took me several reads of every letter in the packet to digest it all.  I also found out that within my first year of licensure I have to take my first “official” Minimum Continuing Legal Education (“MCLE”) class on Ethics which is required of all baby lawyers…that’s another $125.  Money, money, money…it’s no wonder lawyers charge so much for their services.

With regard to MCLE I say “official” because as soon as I paid my dues I was able to access my MCLE account where I had already banked 12 hours during the time leading up to the bar exam.  Since new lawyers have 2 years to meet their first 15 hours of MCLE (after two years we need 15 hours per year), I am just a few hours short of being MCLE’d up until 2015.

I don’t know that reality has really and truly set in with me yet.  I am still hoping that I’m not dreaming and that I am in fact DONE.  It is the strangest feeling to be looking forward to Thanksgiving for nothing more than THANKSGIVING.  For the last 4 years my Thanksgiving was spent trying to squeeze studying into every spare moment without totally blowing off my family.  I had a final exam each and every Monday after Thanksgiving all 4 years of law school.  This year I will not only get to fully enjoy the holidays, but I will get to join the black Friday craziness that I’ve had to skip for so long.  Basically, I have my life back.  Oh and I’m now a lawyer, an attorney…ESQUIRE.  What a weird feeling. I smile every time I think about it, but am still in awe of what I accomplished.

Case in point:

I met with a professor the other day that came by the office to review his promotion and tenure file.  When we were done, he got up to leave and, noticing the glass name plate/card holder on my desk said, “Thank you, uh….  What do you call attorneys?  ‘Ms.’ sounds so disrespectful.”  I paused for a moment and confessed, “You know, Professor…since I just got my bar results less than a week ago, I’m still getting used to being an attorney myself, so ‘Ms.’ is just fine.”  He smiled and I smiled and once again I felt that little thrill run up my spine of knowing that yes…I DID IT!!!  I am a TEXAS LAWYER!!!

Me in front of the Texas State Capitol–Austin, TX
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