Career Story: Judicial Staff Attorney

Mark is an attorney at the California Supreme Court. He describes managing student loans and the cost of living after school.

Transcript
Close Disclaimer
The material provided on this website is for informational use only and is not intended for financial or investment advice. Bank of America and/or its affiliates, and Khan Academy, assume no liability for any loss or damage resulting from one’s reliance on the material provided. Please also note that such material is not updated regularly and that some of the information may not therefore be current. Consult with your own financial professional when making decisions regarding your financial or investment options.
Close Transcript

My name is Mark Wilson. I'm 33.
MARK WILSON, 33
JUDICIAL STAFF ATTORNEY,
CALIFORNIA SUPREME COURT

I'm a Judicial Staff Attorney

at the California Supreme Court.

And I make about $80,000 a year.

So the California Supreme Court
is the highest court

in the state of California.

And I work on what's called
a criminal central staff.

So, we have a staff
of about a dozen people

that reviews criminal
petitions for review.

So, the way that works is

you are a criminal

you've been convicted at trial.

Then you appeal
to the intermediate court

which is called
the Court of Appeal, appropriately.

And you win or lose there.

Often you lose.

So then you come to us.

And you say, my case is one
of state wide importance.

You should hear it.

And, my job and the job
of the people on our staff

is to sift through all those petitions

and decide, is this really
worthy of seven justices time.

'Cause there's only seven of them,

there's only so many hours in the day.

And unfortunately,

the vast majority of them
get denied because,

it's very specific to a particular
defendant what the issue is.

So the people you see on TV

who are making the big bucks

and wear those sharp suits

they're corporate lawyers.

And they get paid quite a bit of money,
like hundreds of thousands of dollars.

First year associates
straight out of law school

can make $150,000 a year.

But I decided that's not really for me

I'd much rather work for
a government or a non-profit,

or something like that.

So, if you want to make a lot of money

you can make a lot of money.

But you can also make
a moderate amount of money.

So I make $80,000 a year.

This was not my starting salary,
my starting salary was about

$70,000 a year.

So, the way it works, it's a state job

so state jobs
sometimes prioritize seniority.

So as you move up in the ranks

you get pay raises,
you get title changes.

You work in one position for one year

and then you become attorney level B
and you make more money.

And then you work
for three more years.

And you become attorney C
and you make even more money.

Even within those ranges
there's a cost of living adjustments.

We just got a cost of living adjustment
for the first time in years

two years ago. So that was nice.

That our governor did that.

So a cost of living adjustment
is designed to

make your salary
keep up with inflation.

So it's not a big raise like 10%,
it's a small raise

like two or three percent.

So that your salary has the same
buying power over the years.

To be any kind of lawyer,

first of all you need to be good
at reading and writing.

On TV, again,
there's a lot of talking in court

but the talking part
represents a process

that is probably 75% writing.

Like when you see people arguing

motions in front of like objections.

I didn't know anything
about this witness.

Well, really that's been taken care of

long before trial started.

And it was taken care of
probably on paper.

So you need to be
very good at writing.

You need to be good
at writing concisely.

I mean, you can't have
long flowery sentences

it has to be straight to the point.

Judges and other attorneys,
their time is valuable.

And they're reading a lot of things.

So, it's got to be like, here's
the issue, here's the solution.

And you also have
to be good at reading,

you have to be good
at reading quickly.

You have to get the point
and understand what you're doing

because, like I said,
you have a lot of reading to do.

And then for my job in particular,

it's often described
as a monastic lifestyle.

Because we're sort of,
again, we're not in trial

in front of a jury.
We're in our offices

reading, writing, researching.

It can be kind of lonely,
if you're the kind of person

who craves a lot
of personal interaction.

I mean, we interact
with our office mates

but largely, it's just us
by ourselves in an office.

So, you have to be able
to tolerate that

for long stretches at a time.

Part of the job is you have to
quickly understand new concepts.

Law school only teaches you so much.
For example, law school teaches you

the basics of say, negligence
which is when someone is

accidentally
does something to someone else.

But of course,
every state is different.

California's negligence might be
a little bit different from say,

Wisconsin's negligence.

So you have to quickly
be able to understand

the state's specific concepts.

Things like that.

So, law school gives you a general

overview of the law, of what it is,
how it works, how to think.

That's one big thing law school
teaches you how to think like a lawyer.

But a lot of the learning
comes on the job.

What I love about going
into the office is every day,

I learn something new.

I pick up a petition for review

that has something in it that
I've never seen before, you know.

This particular jury instruction.

Or, this particular law
that I've never seen before.

Medical marijuana, that's interesting.

I don't know anything about that.
So let's pick up this petition

and learn all about
medical marijuana today.

I've done that before.

Probably my worst days are days
when I don't do my job well enough.

Which, it happens I write a memo

and the memos get circulated
around to the justices.

And then one of their staff attorneys
calls me up and says,

"Hey, you overlooked this thing."

I'm like,
"Oh, I did overlook that thing."

And I feel bad about it

and then I have to sometimes
write another memo saying,

"Oops, I forgot this thing."

It kind of makes me look bad,
I don't like to look bad.

I don't like to be wrong, and I
don't like to make myself look bad.

My interest in the law
started in college
MARK WILSON, 33
JUDICIAL STAFF ATTORNEY,
CALIFORNIA SUPREME COURT

when I took a class
on The First Amendment.

The First Amendment
is the right to speech,

petition, free press, religion,

and one more that I'm forgetting.

And it intrigued me because
there was this whole world

of case law,

which is just opinions
written by judges.

And analysis,

and these really fine distinctions

like, what is obscene?

What is obscenity?
What are fighting words?

You know, can you be protected
if you say something to someone

that would want to make them
want to punch you in the face?

And there's these really
fine distinctions.

And that's one thing
I love about the law

is that the initiative
is where things live

that you have to sort them out.

So that gave me
an interest in the law.

I finished college and I moved here
to the San Francisco Bay Area.

And I worked as an IT guy,

for several years

before I went to law school, finally,

to do the law that
interested me so much.

So it wasn't the straight shot.

For some people it is,
but for me it wasn't.

So to become a lawyer you have
to go to a four year college.

And then you go to law school,
which lasts three years.

So the whole process
is about seven years long.
THESE COMPLETION
TIMES ARE BASED ON
FULL-TIME ENROLMENT

In college, you can major
in really whatever you want.

It's generally recommended that
you major in one of the humanities

like history, political science,

you can major in English.

Creative writing.

You can even major in science

and become a lawyer.

You can become a patent attorney,
in fact, those are really

sought after jobs,
if you can get them.

I don't recommend,
if you want to be a lawyer,

going to college
and majoring in pre-law.

Because that's sort of pigeonholes you
into being a lawyer.

You don't get a lot of the more
well-rounded education that you would.

And what if
you never go to law school?

What if you go to law school
and decide you hate it?

What if you become a lawyer,
and decide you hate it?

Then all you have is
law law law in your background

and nothing to fall back on.

So one of the things you need to do
to become to get into law school

is take the LSAT, and the LSAT
is sort of like the SAT

as the SAT is to college
the LSAT is to law school.

There are two big components
to what law school you get into.

And that's your undergraduate grades

and your LSAT score.

So, undergraduate grades
work hard in college,
SOME SCHOOLS WILL
ACCEPT THE GRE IN
PLACE OF THE LSAT.

get good grades.

LSAT, take an LSAT
study course, for example.

Study for it.

You can take it really,
as many times as you need.

But, one or two times
and your score is pretty set.

So, you have to study for that

if you want to get
into a good law school.

And getting into a good law
school is important because

you really, going to a good law school

can open doors for you
that would be closed otherwise.

Employers come to your school.

They want people from your school.

They'll call you up and say,
"Hey, would you like this job?"

People in high up positions will say,

"I want people from this,
this and this school.

"And you can toss
all the other applications out."

So, law school is three years.

There's a joke about law school,
the first year they scare you to death.

The second year
they work you to death.

And the third year
they bore you to death.

The first year is basically

you're what they call your core
courses, you learn about evidence

and torts.

Torts is harm that you do to anyone,
like hitting someone or.

You learn a criminal law,
just the doctrinal stuff.

And then the second year and
third year you take a lot of electives.

You do a lot of internships
and externships.

A lot of law school
training is on the job

so you go intern at law firm X,

or the district attorney's office,

or the public defender's office.

And then you graduate.

And, you think it's over,
but it's not.

Because then you've got
to study for the bar exam.

And the bar exam is a two-day long
two full days

of about 100 multiple choice questions

and about six essays

that basically test
your memory of the law

and your ability to analyze the law.

It's just you in a room with
1,000 other people.

And your computer. So you can type.

And it's all, what can you
remember about negligence?

And they test these
very fine distinctions.

So, then if you pass the bar exam

and you pass some other things too

like in California, you have
to do a background check.

You have to take an ethics test to
prove that you know how ethics work.

And then you can become a lawyer.

My advice for taking the bar is,

treat it like a job.

Eight hours a day,

five days a week, six days a week

for probably two months.

Take a bar prep course.

They will teach you the tricks

that the bar examiners use

and just practice practice practice.

Practice writing essays
so you get into the groove

of knowing how long it's gonna take

and what you need
to put down on the paper.

But don't treat it as, you know,
a 60 hour a week job.

It's just a 40 hour a week job.

So don't burn yourself out.

Take some time for yourself.

I worked as an appellate,
a criminal appellate defender

for about a year and
a half before I got this job.

So I just represent

people on appeal, kind of like
the public defender for appeals.

Then I found
this job online, actually.

And I applied to it.

And I got an interview.

So we interview
with some people on the staff first.

Then we interview with
some of the justices themselves.

Which can be a little interesting.

It's sort of like an oral argument

where they just
pepper you with questions

and you have to kind of
come up with answers.

And then they hired me.
And it was amazing.

But yes, it is a sought after job so

you need very good grades.

You need very good writing skills.

You have to submit a writing sample.

You have to be personable.

Yeah, so the law maybe
more than other fields

is very network heavy.

So, generally people don't get jobs
just by applying for them, into space.

They hire people at law firms

hire people they know.

We've got an opening,
can you call up your contacts

and find someone?

Or, law firms go to schools
and recruit people.

So, or you meet people at mixers,

cocktail parties, happy hours.

And you just get to know them.

Actually, I got my first job
out of law school

the appellate job

by meeting a person who knew someone
that I went to school with.

And it wasn't straight out of the –

it wasn't straight off
the bat that I got a job.

It was building a relationship so

one thing about networking is
that you're not gonna get a job

right out of the cage.

You build up
a relationship with someone

they get to know you.
It's sort of like dating.

And then eventually,
at some point in the future

they'll pop the question and say, "Hey

"I've got a job opening,
would you be interested?"

So in my staff,
the growth opportunities

are kind of limited by how
many people are on the staff.

My position is a term position so

it expires in the next year.

So I have to look for other jobs.

Now I'll probably be looking
at small law firms.

Or the government, again, like I said

working for a city's attorney office.

Or the state attorney general,
or something like that.

Generally, in a criminal capacity,

but my skills also transfer
over to civil side too.

My career goals

could include being a judge,
if they would make me one.

I don't want to be presumptuous but

the kind of job,
the lifestyle that I have now

I think is great,
and I'd like to continue

doing that sort of thing, which is
very like reading and writing heavy,

which is the job
of an appellate judge.

It's just reading
and writing all day long.

Well, if you want to be a lawyer

and you're in high school

I guess I would say,
don't worry about the law so much,

don't worry about law school so much.

Worry about your grades.

Worry about applying for college,

applying to a good college.

Private colleges are good.

The private non-profit
colleges are good.

State, good state schools,
I went to a great state school.

Just think about what kind of
classes you need to take and

really focus on

getting good grades
and being a good student.

Because being
a good student will really

open doors for you.

To be a lawyer, you have to be willing

to have, I guess,
delayed gratification.

In the sense that you –

your rewards come further down
the field when you've gone to college,

when you've gone to law school.

So it requires that you have
those long-term goals.

And be able to say, you know what,

I need to study right now.

I can't go out and party, or whatever.

I'm Mark Wilson. I'm 33 years old.
MARK WILSON, 33
JUDICIAL STAFF ATTORNEY,
CALIFORNIA SUPREME COURT

My job title is Staff Attorney
at the California Supreme Court,

and my annual salary is $80,000.

I think I have a good
relationship with money.

In law school, it was a little tough

living on, so I paid for law school
with a combination of scholarships

and loans,

and living off
of scholarships and loans

can be a little daunting because

the budget's kind of tight,

and you have to make it
last for an entire,

whatever it is, semester,
until you get

new loan money
or new scholarship money in.

You start off the semester
flush with cash,

and then over the course
of the semester, it dwindles, then

by the end of the semester,
you're like, "Uh-oh,

I'm gonna have to really
"pare it down here."

You just have to,

and one thing that
I wasn't that great at

was managing it all along the way,

so I wish I had been better
at managing the money,

this finite supply of money,

over the course of, say, four months.

I was able to pay for
my undergraduate education

with a combination of savings bonds

that my parents
had the foresight to buy

when I was a kid,
when I was born, actually,

and scholarships.

The scholarship process is varied,

it can be need-based,
or it can be merit-based,

or it can be a little of both.

I got a little of both.

You can just apply for a

need-based scholarship
by showing that you need it.

You have to fill out the FAFSA,

which you need to do every year.
You should always fill out the FAFSA,
TO LEARN MORE ABOUT
THE FAFSA AND FEDERAL
STUDENT AID, VISIT
WWW.STUDENTAID.ED.GOV

'cause even for
merit-based scholarships,

some colleges won't give you
any money at all

unless you fill out the FAFSA first.

Fill out the FAFSA
by your school's FAFSA deadline.

There's a federal deadline,

and then there's
a school specific deadline.

Fill it out by your school's deadline.

Figure it out what it is, so you can
get the money that you deserve.

Merit-based scholarships involve,

generally

you apply for them,
you write an essay,

or something, you might have to
come in and interview with people.

It's based on your grades,

or it's based on the essay you write

for whatever reason.

When I went to Miami, in-state tuition

was about I think $25,000 a year,

and about half got paid
by the savings bonds,

and about half got paid
by a combination of

at any one time maybe five
or six different scholarships.

Yeah, so a scholarship
isn't really enough.

If you wanna really
pay for your education,

you need a combination of several,

and they can come from your school,

they can come from
community organizations,

they can come from your high school.

My high school had
an alumni scholarship,

that if you graduated last year,

apply for it, and
we'll give you some money.

Always be looking in a variety
of different places for scholarships.

They're not all gonna
come from one source,

like just your college.

Law school cost probably

35 to 40,000 dollars a year.

I have about $100,000

in student loan debt.

You can pay off student loans
in 20 or 30 years.

I'm on what's called an income-based
repayment plan, so

you can, normally you'd pay, you can,

you'd pay a lot more,

but if you make under a certain
amount of money, you can

minimize your monthly contributions
to your student loan.

You end up paying
longer into the future,

but for the right now, your payments
are a little more manageable monthly.

There's also a public interest,

or a public interest loan
forgiveness option.
THE SPEAKER INTENDED TO
SAY PUBLIC SERVICE LOAN
FORGIVENESS PROGRAM.
TO LEARN MORE VISIT
WWW.STUDENTAID.ED.GOV

The way that works is

you pay 120 on-time monthly payments,

which ends up being 10 years,

doesn't have to be consecutive,
it can be spaced out for 20 years,

but you make those 120 payments,

and then the government forgives

the rest of your debt.

The qualifier is you have
to work in a government

nonprofit or charitable field.

It's designed to, I guess,
reward people who have decided to

work for the government
or work for nonprofits

or charities or things like that.

Maybe you really want to be
a high-paying corporate attorney,

and if you make that money, you can pay
off your student loans in a few years,

but if you want to work
in the public sector,

and you have a lot of loan debt,

this is a great way
to serve the public

while also getting
your loans paid off faster.

The public interest
loan forgiveness option

can kind of be created or destroyed
by Congress at will,

it remains to be seen
whether it will continue,

but for now,
it's available as an option.

The public interest loan forgiveness
option is only available for

certain kinds of
federal government loans.

If you refinance, that option
might not be available anymore,

so you can refinance at a lower rate,
but you might lose other benefits.

If you have a combination of different

private and public loans, it could be
advantageous to refinance, but

the lower interest rate
itself is not a reason to

refinance your loans.

I love living in the Bay Area.

I grew up in the suburbs,
so living in a biggish city,

the whole area itself could be
one enormous city,

so I love being
in the center of things.

There's always things
to do and things to see.

You can go to the baseball game,
you can go to the art museum,

you can got to a concert,
you can go everywhere.

The downside though
is that the Bay Area

is very expensive.

I live in Oakland, which is across,

actually San Francisco Bay
from San Francisco.

San Francisco has gotten
probably unaffordable

for most people,

and even in Oakland now,

it's getting a little more
unaffordable as people,

refugees from San Francisco
come over to Oakland

to try and buy a house or something,

but people are getting pushed out
even into the suburbs,

if they wanna buy
a house for what it costs.

I make $80,000 a year,
MARK’S BUDGET:

which is about $6,700 a month
MONTHLY SALARY $6,700

gross,

and then after they take
things out, like taxes,

federal taxes, state taxes,

retirement plan,

I'm part of the state
employee retirement system,

so they take money out for pension,

taxes and all that is about $2,430,
TAXES AND OTHER DEDUCTIONS -$2,430

so I'm left with $4,270 a month.
NET TAKE HOME INCOME $4,270

Of that, my rent

takes $1,800 a month,
which again, Bay Area.
RENT $1,800

Gas and electricity is about
$50 a month. That varies seasonally.
GAS AND ELECTRIC $50

It can be as low as $15 in the summer

and as high as $60 in the winter.

Internet and TV is 70.
INTERNET $70

I actually don't have TV.
I have an antenna,

and then I just watch
everything else online.

My phone bill is $100 a month.
PHONE $100

My car, my car is paid for,

but I pay insurance,
which amounts to about $100 a month,
CAR INSURANCE $100

and I take public transport generally
to get to work because it's,

parking's expensive,
and the traffic is just terrible,

so I just take public transportation.

My student loan takes up
about $600 a month.
STUDENT LOANS $600

Food is about $300 a month.
GROCERIES $300

Other stuff,
which is like subscriptions

and magazines and newspapers,
things like that, is $100 a month.
SUBSCRIPTIONS $100

Entertainment and restaurants
is about $300 a month.
ENTERTAINMENT & RESTAURANTS $300

I'm left with $850,
REMAINING $850

most of which goes into
a separate savings account.

Budgeting is really important,
especially

in a place like here,
where things can be expensive,

so you have to know
how much money's going in,

how much money's going out,

what you can afford
to splurge on, what you can't,

where you can save, or not save,

so yeah, budgeting, and that's one
thing that I wish I had done more of

learning growing up, is budgeting

and the importance of having a budget.

To be aware of your budget,

obviously, maybe not obviously,
check your bank statements.

Know what you're putting
on your credit card.

Check your
credit card bill every month.

Check your utility bill every month.

My mom, to this day,

once a month,
she sits down on the couch

in front of the TV, she gets
her little lap desk out,

and she writes out her monthly checks,

and she reviews her bank statements.

They had to drag her,
kicking and screaming,

into the world of direct deposit

because she always
wanted that paper check

'cause she wanted to know
how much she was getting paid.

That would be my advice to anyone

for making a budget is know what's
coming in and what's going out.

It's boring,
but review your bank statements.

Check your credit card bill for any
purchases maybe you didn't make.

One thing I wish I had known about
is the importance of a credit score.

It's important to build
good credit early on

'cause that's one thing that they
analyze is how long you've had credit,

so you can start out
when you're in college,

with a credit card,
just to build your credit,

and pay your bills on time,

and your credit score influences
a couple things.

It influences the interest rate
you might get on a loan,

or a mortgage, or something like that.

The better your credit score,
the lower the interest you'll pay

because the less risk you are
in the eyes of the lender.

It also influences
other weird things, like

renting an apartment.

100% of the time, the landlord's
gonna ask for your credit score,

to make sure
that you pay your bills on time.

Often, as part of
a background check for jobs,

they'll look at your credit score.

Generally, the credit score stands in,

it's sad that they do this,

but it stands in for
your general responsibility.

Do you pay your bills?
Are you a responsible person?

Can we trust you with having
this apartment, having this job?

My name is Mark Wilson. I'm 33.
MARK WILSON, 33
JUDICIAL STAFF ATTORNEY,
CALIFORNIA SUPREME COURT

I'm a Judicial Staff Attorney

at the California Supreme Court.

And I make about $80,000 a year.

So the California Supreme Court
is the highest court

in the state of California.

And I work on what's called
a criminal central staff.

So, we have a staff
of about a dozen people

that reviews criminal
petitions for review.

So, the way that works is

you are a criminal

you've been convicted at trial.

Then you appeal
to the intermediate court

which is called
the Court of Appeal, appropriately.

And you win or lose there.

Often you lose.

So then you come to us.

And you say, my case is one
of state wide importance.

You should hear it.

And, my job and the job
of the people on our staff

is to sift through all those petitions

and decide, is this really
worthy of seven justices time.

'Cause there's only seven of them,

there's only so many hours in the day.

And unfortunately,

the vast majority of them
get denied because,

it's very specific to a particular
defendant what the issue is.

So the people you see on TV

who are making the big bucks

and wear those sharp suits

they're corporate lawyers.

And they get paid quite a bit of money,
like hundreds of thousands of dollars.

First year associates
straight out of law school

can make $150,000 a year.

But I decided that's not really for me

I'd much rather work for
a government or a non-profit,

or something like that.

So, if you want to make a lot of money

you can make a lot of money.

But you can also make
a moderate amount of money.

So I make $80,000 a year.

This was not my starting salary,
my starting salary was about

$70,000 a year.

So, the way it works, it's a state job

so state jobs
sometimes prioritize seniority.

So as you move up in the ranks

you get pay raises,
you get title changes.

You work in one position for one year

and then you become attorney level B
and you make more money.

And then you work
for three more years.

And you become attorney C
and you make even more money.

Even within those ranges
there's a cost of living adjustments.

We just got a cost of living adjustment
for the first time in years

two years ago. So that was nice.

That our governor did that.

So a cost of living adjustment
is designed to

make your salary
keep up with inflation.

So it's not a big raise like 10%,
it's a small raise

like two or three percent.

So that your salary has the same
buying power over the years.

To be any kind of lawyer,

first of all you need to be good
at reading and writing.

On TV, again,
there's a lot of talking in court

but the talking part
represents a process

that is probably 75% writing.

Like when you see people arguing

motions in front of like objections.

I didn't know anything
about this witness.

Well, really that's been taken care of

long before trial started.

And it was taken care of
probably on paper.

So you need to be
very good at writing.

You need to be good
at writing concisely.

I mean, you can't have
long flowery sentences

it has to be straight to the point.

Judges and other attorneys,
their time is valuable.

And they're reading a lot of things.

So, it's got to be like, here's
the issue, here's the solution.

And you also have
to be good at reading,

you have to be good
at reading quickly.

You have to get the point
and understand what you're doing

because, like I said,
you have a lot of reading to do.

And then for my job in particular,

it's often described
as a monastic lifestyle.

Because we're sort of,
again, we're not in trial

in front of a jury.
We're in our offices

reading, writing, researching.

It can be kind of lonely,
if you're the kind of person

who craves a lot
of personal interaction.

I mean, we interact
with our office mates

but largely, it's just us
by ourselves in an office.

So, you have to be able
to tolerate that

for long stretches at a time.

Part of the job is you have to
quickly understand new concepts.

Law school only teaches you so much.
For example, law school teaches you

the basics of say, negligence
which is when someone is

accidentally
does something to someone else.

But of course,
every state is different.

California's negligence might be
a little bit different from say,

Wisconsin's negligence.

So you have to quickly
be able to understand

the state's specific concepts.

Things like that.

So, law school gives you a general

overview of the law, of what it is,
how it works, how to think.

That's one big thing law school
teaches you how to think like a lawyer.

But a lot of the learning
comes on the job.

What I love about going
into the office is every day,

I learn something new.

I pick up a petition for review

that has something in it that
I've never seen before, you know.

This particular jury instruction.

Or, this particular law
that I've never seen before.

Medical marijuana, that's interesting.

I don't know anything about that.
So let's pick up this petition

and learn all about
medical marijuana today.

I've done that before.

Probably my worst days are days
when I don't do my job well enough.

Which, it happens I write a memo

and the memos get circulated
around to the justices.

And then one of their staff attorneys
calls me up and says,

"Hey, you overlooked this thing."

I'm like,
"Oh, I did overlook that thing."

And I feel bad about it

and then I have to sometimes
write another memo saying,

"Oops, I forgot this thing."

It kind of makes me look bad,
I don't like to look bad.

I don't like to be wrong, and I
don't like to make myself look bad.