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As a summer associate at a law firm, you’re probably getting advice from all directions at once. We’re all like favorite uncles when confronted with young professionals on the verge of successful careers. If you can stand just one more well-intentioned effort to point you in the right direction, take a moment to listen to Uncle Barry, certified financial planner and sometimes columnist. You’ve chosen a career field that brings with it generous compensation packages and long workdays. It has probably cost you more than a few dollars to get to this point, which translates to some pent-up demand for “the good life.” Law school is demanding and expensive but now, here you are, a summer associate, with the promise of some nice paychecks and the possibility of even larger ones once you’ve donned your graduation cap. As dull as it may sound, your first step is to make a plan. WHY DO I NEED TO MAKE A PLAN? A financial plan is the road map that can help you reach the desired destination of financial security. While there are no guarantees in this life, a well-thought-out plan can help you avoid the pitfalls and potholes that lie in wait for the unsuspecting (and unprepared) traveler. Your plan doesn’t have to be highly detailed or complex at this point, but it should contain several basic elements: Consideration of your debt load, practical steps to achieve short-term goals, awareness of future goals, and the relationship between your career choices and your financial well-being. THE CHOICE IS YOURS This summer is either an amazing opportunity for you to get your financial life off to a good start, or a time for mindless financial self-indulgence that will set the starting line back a few hundred yards. Here’s the deal. Job No. 1 is to put a dent in that law school debt you’re trying not to think about yet. If you’ve used credit cards to finance living expenses for the past few years, use that first paycheck to take the bite out of that balance. Debt is a necessary evil at times, but it is the enemy in the fight for a secure future. Next, if you can use some of those newfound dollars to repair the car that got you this far instead of buying that shiny depreciating asset that’s been driving through your dreams, you will have one less debt to stress about. The other fact of the matter is that as an associate trying to prove his or her worth to the firm, you won’t have time to tool around town in your Beemer anyway. Remember, if you live like a lawyer while you’re in law school, you’re more likely to have to live like a law student when you’re a lawyer. IDENTIFYING AND SETTING GOALS About those short-term goals: the first step is to identify them. Goals vary from one person to the next, even among new lawyers. Some plan to marry and start a family as soon as they become associated with a good firm. Others want to secure a nice, in-town nest from which to launch the good life as a man or woman about town. Have a heart-to-heart conversation with yourself to determine what your new goals are now that you’ve achieved your initial educational and career goals. It’s easier to make financial sacrifices if you are working toward something specific, especially if it holds value for you personally. PUTTING IT ALL ON PAPER Next, examine your new resources with a practical eye rather than an indulgent one. Make a quick list of your debts and your obligations. Will you be paying rent this summer, buying groceries, entertaining out-of-town friends who just can’t wait to visit you in the Big Apple, buying that special someone an engagement ring? Once you’ve identified the potential outflow against the projected income, allocate your expenses and determine what your discretionary income will be. If there’s still a positive number at the end of that exercise, start a savings account or an investment plan. This is where it’s helpful to have long-term goals in mind. Having an idea about the form you want the future to take can make it easier to plunk your nickel down on an investment instead of a weekend at the shore or a fine ostrich briefcase. One attorney I know spent a few years at a downtown firm, paid off his student loans, put some money in the bank and then took a position with the Securities and Exchange Commission. He set up his goal in advance and then took the necessary steps to make it happen in a reasonable amount of time. He is one happy guy because he’s practicing law on his own terms and doing what he likes best. That’s where your long-term career and lifestyle goals have to be factored into your initial plan, even in the early stages. Twenty-five percent of all associates leave their first firm after two years. In many cases, your first years are a kind of professional apprenticeship that lets you discover what you do well, what you enjoy, and what lacks appeal for you. If you take on a burden of debt that can only be carried by a top-notch lawyer in a Top 25 firm, how will your lifestyle be impacted if you discover that public service is your real niche? The real point of these examples is to remind you that in many ways, you are still in the formative stages of your life and your professional career. Use the summer associate experience to learn about yourself, gain knowledge about different aspects of the legal profession, pay down debt to give yourself an even start when you affiliate with a firm later on, practice good financial discipline, and build an asset base for the future. While it may sound like a lot to think about, it’s a summer investment that can pay a lifetime of non-taxable dividends. Barry Glassman is a certified financial planner and first vice president of Cassaday & Company Inc. in McLean, Va.

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