In a past life, Ilana Kramer was a lawyer working in commercial securities litigation in New York City.
“After the banking industry tanked, everything tanked — and all of the big law firms, the industry, contracted,” Kramer remembers. “At the same time, my husband became very sick.”
So they moved back to her hometown of Silver Spring, Maryland, where she continued practicing corporate law.
When her husband passed away in 2011, leaving Kramer the sole parent of her then 4-year-old son, she knew it was time for a change.
“After he died, I took a few years off, and when I re-entered the workforce I wanted to do something that was more meaningful to me, and more internally rewarding,” Kramer says.
That something was immigration law, which she came across while volunteering during her sabbatical.
“I did volunteer work representing victims of domestic violence, which I just loved,” she recalls. “That was kind of my entree to immigration work, because such a large number of our clients had immigration issues.”
Going from a corporate law job in New York to a two-person practice in Silver Spring is just as tricky as it sounds. For one thing: It’s expensive.
“Right now I’m kind of hemorrhaging money,” she explains, “but I’m getting an unbelievable amount of freedom and autonomy. Obviously it’s kind of scary to hemorrhage money every month, but I was in a situation where I was poised to take over a lot of clients from an attorney who is in the process of closing up her shop. It’s only my third month out, and I think I’ll be covering my costs soon,” Kramer explains.
“The economic model is kind of a hybrid of different models I’ve looked at,” she says. “I think for my business it’s going to be volume-based, because the cases are smaller. For someone in business immigration, their profit margins are a lot bigger per case, but that’s the price that I pay for doing work that’s meaningful to me.”
To get her practice off the ground, she used about $US35,000 from her husband’s life insurance (which she explains wasn’t a huge settlement, as he had been sick for a long time) as initial capital. She had long ago paid off about $US40,000 of student loans from NYU law school, and held no debt to make other demands on her money. Still, she says, her current situation is a far cry from having the salary of a corporate lawyer.
“It took me a while to realise even that I’m in a different economic situation now, and I can’t live as freely as I did — or spend as freely, anyway,” she says. “When I was working in corporate law, I didn’t really look at prices in the drugstore. I kind of did whatever I wanted. Now I don’t do the same kinds of things, don’t just get a babysitter whenever. Life is simpler.”
Now, mid-transition, Kramer serves as an ambassador for the AARP’s Life Reimagined program, which helps people analyse and consider major life changes like the one she made herself.
Today Kramer is focused on building her business, then will turn her attention to other major financial tasks, like building up retirement and college savings. After years of paying medical bills, and with her husband ill and unable to work regularly, her only retirement savings are in a 401(k) from her previous career — and while she has a 529 to save money for her son’s college, she hasn’t increased contributions to it beyond the automatic $US100 a month she set up when he was born.
“I’m going to build the business,” she says. “Once I finally get to that ground of stability, where I’m not moving anywhere, nobody’s horribly sick, then I can start really gaining ground.”