young women sitting at table with calculator looking at financial statement with concern

Managing Law School Debt: Make a Plan, Take Control, and Shake that Looming Dread

  • June 12, 2024
  • Emily OKeefe

As law students and young lawyers, the phrase “student debt” may loom large over your future and consistently be in the back of your mind, a steady thrum that you simply cannot silence. Perhaps the thought of dealing with your law school and, potentially, undergraduate debt, causes you anxiety or maybe you simply do not know where to begin. The first step? Talking about it.

Each year, the Ontario Bar Association hosts their “Call Forward Series,” a round-up of speakers and professionals, all invited to discuss different topics that are of pressing concern to law students, articling students, and young lawyers. This year, I was honoured to be invited as speaker, alongside Karen Sill of Lawyers Financial, for the fifth session of the year, “Managing Law School Debt and Financial Planning.”

Early on in her presentation, Karen Sill shared some thought-provoking and somewhat sobering statistics. It may not surprise you that the number one cause of stress for Canadians is money and that 48 per cent of Canadians lose sleep over financial worries. If you find yourself nodding along with these statistics, you are not alone.

While it may seem overwhelming to think about your student debt upon graduation (and beyond), it is critical to create a plan to tackle your debt early on and, most importantly, to stick with that plan. During the presentation, Karen and I reviewed with the attendees the different kinds of debt Canadian students graduate with, namely: government loans (OSAP), bank loans (Student Lines of Credit), and loans from family and friends. Depending on what kind of debt you have upon graduation, you can craft a debt repayment plan that works for your own unique lifestyle, budget, and income.

Take, for instance, the difference between OSAP and Student Lines of Credit. Since September 2023, the federal portion of your OSAP loan has been accruing 0 per cent interest, while most private lenders (such as banks), will charge prime rates plus an adjustment factor assigned by the lender. Typically, we want to pay off higher interest rate loans first, so we are not stuck in an endless cycle of only paying interest each month and not paying down the principal on the loan. This is where the importance of budgeting comes in each month. When I created my first budget post-law school, the following factors were determinative for me:

  1. What is my take-home income at the end of each month after taxes and deductions are applied?
  2. What are my fixed costs? What are some expenses that I can either reduce or terminate while I am repaying my loans?
  3. Which debts have the higher interest payments per month? Is it reasonable to consolidate some of my loans?
  4. What applications can I use to keep me on track? In particular, I liked Spending Tracker and Mint: Budget & Expense Manager.

While it is important to work towards a debt-free future, it is equally as important to start saving and investing once you start your legal career. In stressing the magic of compound interest, Karen Sill outlined the different kinds of investment options available (RRSPs and TFSAs) and how, over time, your money will keep making money if you invest early on. Deciding which investments to open and how much you can reasonably contribute per month (or per year), are conversations that are important to have early on and that can have a significant impact on your financial health in the future.

As with all uncomfortable subjects, it can be difficult to have open and frank conversations about money. While there is no magic wand to remove the anxiety and fear that surrounds the topic of student debt, you can gain control of your debt and not let it control your life. Remember the often trotted out adage, that a career in law is a marathon not a sprint. While the first few years of practice are stressful and full of unknowns, we all make it through to the other side and that includes managing our student debt.

View the entire Call Forward Series session: Managing Law School Debt and Financial Planning.

About the author

photo of author Emily OKeefeEmily OKeefe is a lawyer with McLeod Green Dewar LLP practicing in the areas of family law and child protection. A tenacious advocate, Emily has successfully represented clients at the Ontario Court of Justice, the Superior Court of Justice, and the specialized Estates List. A firm believer in the importance of pro bono work, Emily volunteers as legal counsel for Luke’s Place, wherein she provides legal information to women experiencing intimate partner violence and has tailored her Legal Aid work to representing incarcerated parents in federal and provincial institutions seeking parenting time with their children. Recently, Emily was nominated by her peers in The Best Lawyers in Canada: Ones to Watch for 2025.