Is Law School Worth It? How to Analyze the Return on Your Investment
The idea of becoming an attorney often includes visions of a high, six-figure salary and a comfortable lifestyle, but you may have wondered, “Is law school worth it?”
The answer will of course depend on you — and whether you’re willing to contend with many challenges (including financial ones) along the way. So if you’re considering law school, you’ll want to ask yourself some questions to weigh the pros and cons.
With that in mind, let’s look at:
To help you decide if law school is the right path for your future, you’ll want to ask yourself a few questions. Specifically…
According to the Law School Transparency Data Dashboard (LST), the national average law school tuition for American Bar Association (ABA)-approved schools at the time of publishing is $28,186 for resident students at a public institution. Private law school tuition averages $49,312 with the most expensive law school, Columbia University, charging full-time students as much as $69,916 in tuition fees.
Seventy-five percent of law students turned to student loans to pay for the surging cost of a law school degree in 2018, based on LST data. And graduating students have an average law school debt of $115,481. In terms of the range of law school debt between public versus private law school graduates, debt amounts varied but were equally stifling:
- Public law graduates borrowed between $50,902 to $165,131
- Private law graduates borrowed between $56,903 to $212,576
These debt figures don’t include undergraduate debt, accrued loan interest, privately borrowed loans or living expenses.
Whether the cost of law school is worth it for you depends on your legal specialization and where you practice. LST revealed that 28% of reported 2018 graduate salaries were between $50,000 to $60,000 while the top 14% of the graduating class earned $190,000, annually, working in the nation’s biggest law firms. Of the graduates surveyed, 34% worked part-time or short-term jobs, and 65% were unemployed.
It’s important to remember that the cost of a law education isn’t the only challenge you’ll face along the journey. Here’s what to expect in law school.
Generally, pursuing a Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree takes an additional three years after completing your undergraduate degree program. To apply for most ABA-approved law schools, prospective law students need to have a high undergraduate GPA and score competitively on the required Law School Admission Test (LSAT). You’ll also need to provide letters of recommendation, transcripts and a personal statement along with your formal application.
There are more than 200 ABA-approved law schools in the U.S., all of which have varying acceptance rates. For example, Syracuse University’s law program has a 52.1% acceptance rate while Yale University has the lowest acceptance rate at 6.9%. Once you’re accepted into a law school, the curriculum that’s required may vary, based on your program.
Examples of first-year courses include torts, contracts, legal research and writing, civil procedures, criminal and constitutional law, and electives.
“The common phrase when I was in law school was that ‘law is a jealous lover,'” said Leslie H. Tayne, a financial debt resolution attorney at Tayne Law Group, P.C. who’s been practicing for 20 years. “As a full-time law student, there was a lot of reading and work to be done after class in preparation for class the next day. There was no time for anything else.”
Law schools often use the Socratic Method in which students are assigned a case to study and must be fully prepared to be randomly selected the next day to discuss it with the professor, one-on-one, during class.
Although you may not have time for conventional socializing, there are opportunities in law school to participate in clubs, student-run law journals, professional groups and moot court, which gives students a chance to practice and compete against their peers.
Completing law school generally takes three years, if you attend school full-time. After earning your J.D. degree, however, you won’t be able to practice law quite yet.
The next step to becoming a licensed attorney in the U.S. is passing the bar exam for the state you’d like to practice in. The bar exam is generally a two-day test that includes the Multistate Bar Exam (MBE), a 200-question, multiple-choice test, and a second day devoted to written essays.
According to the ABA, the bar exam pass rate in 2019 was 79.64%. Students often prepare for the exam with the help of test prep courses, but these can be costly. For example, Kaplan’s California bar exam courses range from $1,899 to $3,999.
Devoting time toward studying for the bar is crucial since taking the exam isn’t cheap either. Bar exam fees vary by state — for example, the Michigan bar exam fee for first-timers is $775 while it costs $490 in Nebraska and $1,000 in Florida.
Aside from the cost of preparing for and taking the exam, Tayne said that students sometimes forget the amount of study time needed to prepare for the bar.
“It’s as if you disappear for three months in preparation for the first day of the rest of your life,” she said. “It’s common to see students that fail to factor in the financial drain of the bar exam because studying for the exam is a full-time job in and of itself.”
In terms of what jobs can you get with a law degree, you can work in a variety of legal sectors and specializations, after you’ve passed the bar examination. Some career options include:
- Criminal law
- Corporate law
- Environmental law
- Family law
- Healthcare law
- In-house counsel
- International law
- Intellectual property law
- Securities law
- Tax law
These are just a few of the many job areas you might consider, and for some, positions may be available in government, nonprofit and private sectors. If you choose to leave the legal field, a law degree may transition well to other fields that require similar skills. One example is in real estate where interpreting complex contracts can be valuable as a real estate broker. Your law school background may also be valuable in sales positions that require strong rhetoric to close a deal or land a new client.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the demand for lawyers is expected to increase from 2018 to 2028 by 6%, which is on pace with the average growth across other occupations.
There’s no way around the reality that law school is a demanding pursuit. It will cost you thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars to complete and in the process be a focal point of your day-to-day life for at least three years.
Ask yourself if you’re truly committed to the journey ahead, if you’re passionate about the law, and if your ultimate dream job actually requires a law degree. If you find yourself still questioning if law school is right for you, consider working as a paralegal or legal assistant in a law office to see how you like the demands of the environment. Paralegals and legal assistants typically only need an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, and certification in an ABA-approved paralegal studies program, depending on the employer.
Paralegals and assistants prepare facts and information about cases for lawyers to review, and are often on multiple deadlines in fast-paced environments. If you thrive under the pressure of this legal work, law school may be a good fit for you.
The ultimate advice Tayne emphasized — “Be open minded.”
She suggests that students choose a school that allows you to take on the least amount of debt possible, particularly one that gives you the most money.
“Focus on where you want to practice and the opportunities you can create,” Tayne said, emphasizing the importance of networking, staying focused, and staying passionate. “Open doors and see where it takes you. I never imagined where my career is today, and I could never have in a million years.”
If you’ve decided that the cost of law school is worth it, you’ll need to decide how to pay for law school. Your starting point when it comes to paying for law school is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The FAFSA can unlock grants and scholarships that are funded by your law school, in addition to federal loans that can help you cover financial gaps toward law school costs.
The last resort when paying for law school is private law school loans since these don’t offer the same protections as federal loans, like loan forgiveness and deferment. You can also strategically lower your cost of law school by:
- Selecting a low-tuition school
- Attending a public law school instead of a private school
- Applying for law scholarships
- Keeping grades competitive to earn more merit-based grants
- Pursue income-driven repayment or Public Service Loan Forgiveness programs
Can you take the bar without going to law school?
Most states require students to complete law school to be eligible for the bar exam. However, some states, including California, Vermont, Virginia and Washington, offer alternate requirements for students who didn’t complete law school.
How does law school work?
Law school generally takes three years to complete. In law school, you’ll be enrolled in a curriculum that’s focused on the core areas of the bar examination. Classes require students to read legal cases and prepare arguments for in-class discussion.
How does law school compare to medical school?
There are many differences when it comes to law school vs. med school. Law school typically takes three years to complete, plus time spent studying for the bar exam. The curriculum requires copious amounts of reading, writing and in-class discussion. Medical school, on the other hand, is typically four years and involves time in the classroom and clinical rotations. Then, prospective doctors enter three to seven years of residency before pursuing their board certification.
Does it matter what law school you go to?
Not necessarily — although attending a prestigious law school may help you earn more money, it’s not always the case, said Tayne. “Coming out at the top of your class will almost always ensure opportunities,” she said. “Making connections and building a reputation as a skilled and trustworthy practitioner can also help elevate your career. It’s not always the school, although some schools will help you get a particular position.”