Jonathan Charnitski has a law degree. He is licensed in Texas and the District of Columbia. Someday, he might be a practicing attorney.
Charnitski went to law school hoping to become an advocate for intellectual property rights. He earned his degree from Villanova Law School -- today's cost: $110,000 -- in 2008, just in time to see the job market shrivel up. He ended up doing a lot of contract work, reviewing documents for piecemeal wages.
"There's this big misconception that you see these big salaries when you're a lawyer," said Charnitski, who lives in the Glover Park community in Washington, D.C. "That's true for a handful, but for the other 90 percent of us, that's just not the case."
Many of his former colleagues and classmates are still doing that work, which Charnitski calls "quasi-practicing."
"They're not being lawyers, they're doing lawyerly functions," Charnitski said. And their career outlook, he said, is not optimistic. "There are not the opportunities we thought there were."
Law school debt and employment statistics are facing scrutiny as the market leaves fewer options that pay enough to whittle down student debt.
Some of that scrutiny is coming from Capitol Hill. Lawmakers are putting pressure on the American Bar Association, the accrediting body for law schools, to reevaluate the requirements for accreditation, especially when it comes to student loan default rates and employment.
In a recent letter to American Bar Association President Stephen Zack, Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, cited a host of statistical reasons to be concerned about the prospects for newly minted lawyers and their ability to repay federally backed student loans. While there are more law school graduates than ever, there are also fewer secure, high-paying jobs than there were a decade ago.
That makes the average $70,000 in student loans racked up by those who attended a public law school, and an average $90,000 for those who went the private school route, much more daunting to pay back. More and more law students are finding other ways to make a living, either out of necessity or because they find themselves wanting out of the long hours a private practice demands.
Charnitski, 32, was able to find a job that married his former career as a political reporter in Washington state and his knowledge of copyright law. He has been an editor at the online news site BroadbandBreakfast.
'They look at me like I'm crazy.'
Desiree Lomer-Clarke's mother doesn't tell people what her daughter does for a living. She tells them her daughter is a lawyer in the Washington, D.C., area, which is only a little bit true.
Lomer-Clarke is a dog nanny. Specifically, she owns Arlington Dog Nanny, a boutique dog-walking and training business.
But Lomer-Clarke, 32, does have a law degree from George Washington University, and worked as a government contract lawyer for more than a year.
When business clients find out about her law degree, she said, "They look at me like I'm crazy."
Though Lomer-Clarke knew from the moment she walked through the door at George Washington that law school was not for her, she stuck it out, hoping that she would be able to use her career to help people.
With an expertise in government contracts, she went to work to help small businesses. She found helping women- and minority-owned businesses win contracts wasn't a simple task, because those establishments often don't have the resources to get help. She became frustrated with the system, and took a break.
After a few bad experiences with dog-walking companies that couldn't handle her miniature Australian shepherd and had high turnover among their walkers, Lomer-Clarke had an idea.
Driven by the monthly payments demanded by student loan debt she and her husband had accumulated -- he's a lawyer at the Small Business Administration -- Lomer-Clarke took her idea and $50, created a website, and started walking dogs the way she would have wanted her own dog walked.
Now, she has a team of walkers that take care of up to 110 dogs every day. She and her husband had to take a big pay cut to make the business happen, but she finds the work much more rewarding.
"Dogs are always happy to see you," said Lomer-Clarke, of Pentagon City. "It's the opposite of working with some cranky partner at a law firm."
The ambition that allowed her to succeed in law school is still there.
On top of running her business, Lomer-Clarke is an apprentice dog trainer at Woofs! Dog Training Center, takes classes to improve business management, is a budding photographer, and mother to a 1-year-old son.
"As much as I regret the overwhelming amount of money I spent on law school, it really has helped my business," Lomer-Clarke said. "It's not a shame, because I'm better at this than I was at anything else."
'I've never worked as hard as I'm working now'
Richard Villegas left practice voluntarily and in better financial shape than many former lawyers.
He earned his law degree in his native Colombia before moving to Arlington in 2000 to get his master's in international law at American University while working for the Greenberg Taurig firm in the district.
After a couple of years making good money at the firm, Villegas came to a fork in the road.
"I got to the point where I was thinking, 'Do I want to keep going, keep doing this for five or 10 years?' " said Villegas, who lives in the Courthouse village in Arlington County.
Recently married, Villegas thought his schedule and stress level could be a burden to his family.
So, he turned his attention to real estate he had accumulated during his time at the law firm. And he decided to try out an idea that had been forming.
Villegas put an ad on Craigslist offering help with daily tasks. The first respondent was a woman who lived on a boat with her husband, who had terminal cancer. Villegas spent three weeks helping take care of him, getting groceries and cleaning up after the couple's pet parrot.
"When I was a lawyer, I didn't have time to do laundry or go grocery shopping or fix things in the house," Villegas said. "Then I went from working in a law firm to cleaning bird poop. It was great."
Thus Villegas' first business venture, Urban Helpers, was born. Now the company handles renovations and construction rather than day-to-day tasks. Villegas, 36, also runs Vibo Consulting, where he uses his international law and real estate expertise to help other businesses.
"I've always had an entrepreneurial spirit," Villegas said. "When I'm sleeping, I'm still thinking about business."
Villegas recently opened Capital Empanadas, a food cart serving Colombia-style empanadas around Arlington.
"I've never worked as hard as I'm working now, and I make about as much as I made as a lawyer," Villegas said. "But the businesses are all mine. Being my own boss, it's priceless."
Editor's note: This story was edited for clarification after a follow-up interview with Jonathan Charnitski.