Many future lawyers grow up idolizing Atticus Finch from”To Kill a Mockingbird,” or dream of making life-changing speeches to sway a grand jury.
But with the average cost of law school hovering just under $140,000 these days, would Atticus Finch be able to afford to become a lawyer?
What’s more, a flood of law school graduates entering the job market is creating intense competition for jobs. So not only is there a high cost of attendance, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be able to find a job – or one that lets you earn enough to pay off your student debt.
It’s all enough to make even the most passionate would-be lawyer wonder, “Is law school worth it?”
Let’s find out.
A few preliminary law school statistics
The benefits of law school could be listed for days. It’s a chance to grow your skills as a critical thinker, learn how to make tough decisions under pressure, and research like a pro. No matter what, what you learn can help you for life.
But when it comes to investing money in those learnings, the question of whether or not going to law school is worth it arises.
Private student lender Earnest recently released data on these costs:
- Average law school debt is around $139,900.
- The average income of a law school graduate is $140,400.
- People with a Juris Doctor degree (JD) in their mid-careers (11 years post-graduation) usually have a higher debt-to-income ratio than those with an MBA, MS, or MD.
- Those who attended a Top 100 law school have a lower debt-to-income ratio.
Law school carries some of the highest debt of all types of graduate degrees. Just take a look at this chart from Earnest.
Additionally, which law school you go to matters. This is tough to swallow given the fact that Top 100 schools are much more difficult to get into and will likely cost more than your local state law school.
Below is a chart illustrating just how much the school matters when it comes to speed of student loan debt payoff. Out of professional and graduate degrees such as law, medicine, business, engineering, and more, the greatest divide in the speed of debt payoff based on schools can be seen in law.
With an average debt load that is just barely under the average salary – and the fact that where you go to school matters so much – is law school worth it? Let’s walk through some things to consider so you can decide for yourself.
Is law school worth it? 4 things to consider
As you think about whether or not going to law school is worth it, consider the following:
1. Employment landscape
A common selling point of law school is that the education goes far beyond teaching the law.
The way classes are structured, and the type of work students have to do revolves around teaching them how to think critically, communicate effectively, and persuade audiences. Those are skills that can be used in all careers.
But what about career paths? Well, there are plenty of those as well. Here are a few obvious choices:
- Join a law firm.
- Start a practice.
- Become a general counsel for a company.
- Work in legal research and/or writing.
- Become a professor of law.
Former lawyer and now attorney-editor with Enjuris, Jennifer Kain Kilgore, discovered just how far a law degree could take her.
Kilgore suffered an accident that made it impossible for her to work the long hours that came with firm life. She’s managed to find a way to work more flexibly and fulfill her other dream of writing.
“The working world has truly become a ‘gig economy.’ I have two part-time jobs and a few other side projects,” Kilgore said. “I found that my JD made me formidable when applying to jobs.”
When asked if she regrets getting her law degree now that she doesn’t practice, Kilgore’s answer was swift and confident.
“I wanted the knowledge, even if I didn’t end up practicing,” Kilgore explained. “Plus, I knew it would make me a better writer.”
2. Earning potential
Given the vast range of employment opportunities, it’s tough to nail down the earning potential for lawyers. For example, starting a practice of your own can cost you more than you earn for years while working for a large law firm can pay quite a lot right out of the gate.
What’s more, the type of law you practice matters.
“There are many types of law practice, and within each practice, locality matters a great deal concerning pay rates,” said personal injury lawyer Chris Gilreath. “Certain segments of the legal market are dependent on the broader economy, while others are not.”
Practice areas aren’t the only variation that can occur. You might find yourself working in the public sector or a nonprofit. While working in either area could decrease your earnings, it could also increase your chances for student loan forgiveness. Then there are jobs like general counsel and other business opportunities.
Since this data can range so much, consider the type of job you’ll want after law school and where you’ll live. Then use sites like Glassdoor to discover the salary range you can expect.
Don’t forget to compare that salary amount to the projected costs you’ll be paying based on where you go to school and any additional expenses you plan to take on.
3. Weigh the risks before you decide
Besides balancing the cost of law school, employment opportunities, and earning potential, there are a few risks to consider before you take the plunge.
You need to pass the bar to practice.
Law school is a major academic challenge, but your JD alone won’t be enough. As any prospective law student already knows, you can’t practice law without passing the bar.
Make sure you understand this risk. If you don’t pass, there is still plenty of work you can do in the legal field, and much of it can be done without investing in a law degree.
Burnout is real and could derail your career.
This reminder comes from family lawyer Stephen Page. Having spent his career at a firm, albeit one that provides a flexible work-life balance, he knows well the risks of burnout.
“There are a lot of people who burn out after only a few years as an associate,” said Page. “Typically those large firms have very high billing targets, and associates are forced to work very long hours. Ultimately, it is a lifestyle that is not for everyone.”
This burnout is a huge risk. You could end up abandoning your legal career before paying off the total investment. Remember, lawyers have some of the highest graduate school debt, as demonstrated in this chart below.
4. Will being a lawyer make you happy?
If you don’t know if you’ll be happy as a lawyer, then investing in law school is dangerous.
One thing many successful practicing lawyers have in common is an unbridled passion for their work. Do you foresee feeling that way, like personal injury lawyer Riah Greathouse?
“I get to see firsthand the difference that an advocate can make in someone’s lives,” said Greathouse. “The legal system is complex, and so many people forgo their rights because they don’t understand the system. There is no greater joy than knowing you’ve made the difference in whether or not someone gets justice.”
Immigration lawyer Renata Castro, who is still paying off her student loans, echoes the sentiment.
“Being a lawyer far outweighs the high cost of my legal education, especially because I do what I love,” Castro explained.
In the end, being passionate about your work is something you can’t put a price tag on. The question is how to tell if you’ll be passionate about the law. Here’s some advice from practicing lawyers to help.
Try out the law before enrolling in school.
“If you’re on the fence, spend a year as a paralegal or law clerk in a law office first, then decide,” suggested attorney J. Bryan Wood.
Ask yourself if you’re a people person.
“Are you willing to shake hands, kiss babies, cut ribbons, give speeches to groups, develop empathy for those who seek your counsel, show employers and clients and people you interact with that you care about them or are willing to work hard to achieve their goals?” asked lawyer Bob Tankel. “If so, the future is bright.”
Don’t go to law school unless you want to practice law.
“The law is a very difficult, cut-throat business. [Yet] the law can be rewarding in many different ways – personal, financial, etc.” explained attorney R. Mack Babcock. “But it is very hard and stressful work. If you’re not up for the work and stress, you’re not fit for law.”
Make sure law school is the right decision for you
When it comes to law school, it won’t matter how much you could earn if you realize after the fact that you hate it – or if you burn out and make a career switch.
There’s no question that it’s important to consider how much you could earn compared to how much your degree will cost. Not to mention the employment statistics in your area and the types of law jobs you want.
But more than anything, law school is an investment that will pay off the most if you passionately love the law and will do whatever it takes to make a legal career work.
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