July 25, 2024


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Is Law School Worth It? What to Know in 2023

7 min read
Is Law School Worth It? What to Know in 2023

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  • Many law school students borrow heavily to cover high tuition and other education costs.
  • For some, the cost may be worth it, though it depends on the school and the career pursued after.
  • Potential post-law school earnings vary widely by specialty, firm size, location, and other factors.

It’s no secret that law school can be pricey. But is that price tag worth it for the earning potential you could enjoy later on? That’s a question many potential law school students have to ask themselves.

According to the Access Lex Institute and a US Department of Education study of 2008 graduates, only 48% say their degree was worth the cost. Are you considering a legal career? Here’s how to determine if law school is worth it for you.

How much does law school cost? 

Average full-time tuition for law school depends on your residency status (whether you’re attending an in-state school or out-of-state one), as well as the type of school you attend. 

According to data and analysis from the American Bar Association and Access Lex, the average full-time tuition is:

  • $28,400 for residents at public law schools
  • $40,860 for non-residents at public law schools 
  • $50,770 for private law schools

That’s just tuition, though. There are other costs to consider, too, including housing and living expenses. These vary widely by location. From fall 2022 to spring 2023, they ranged from $12,600 to $46,233, depending on the school attended.

Opportunity cost is another consideration. Since law students must spend an additional three years in school, their earning potential during that period is much lower than their peers. The average starting salary in 2022 for a graduate with a bachelor’s degree was $60,028, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. That amounts to a three-year loss exceeding $180,000 for a law school student.

There are also costs to prepare and take the bar exam after graduating from law school. These vary by location and application category. In Texas, for example, you’ll pay between $225 to $1,190. 

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How much student loan debt do law school graduates have? 

With such high prices to deal with, law school students often graduate with large amounts of debt. According to an Access Lex analysis, law school graduates leave school with an average of $126,600 in debt. 

That’s not including any debt left over from their undergraduate studies. About 44% of law school students have remaining undergraduate debt, with an average balance of about $28,000.

Fortunately, if you qualify for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, there may be a chance you can get all or some of those debts forgiven. 

“Sometimes after law school, you can get a job with the government and they will forgive your student loans as long as you commit to a certain amount of years working for them,” says Leah Wise, an attorney and founder of Leah Wise Law Firm

Other ways to pay for law school

Student loans aren’t your only option for paying for law school and its associated costs. You can also apply for grants and on scholarship websites. These are often offered through your school or through community groups. They may be merit-based — meaning based on your achievements — or based on financial need. 

“Certain schools offer scholarships if you have a really good LSAT score and a really good GPA,” Wise says. “Additionally, if you have a really compelling story, sometimes schools will grant need-based scholarships to students just depending on what your background is.”

To apply for these, you’ll need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and check with your school’s financial aid office. If you’re a minority, you can also look to programs like the American Indian College Fund, The Gates Scholarship, The Pipeline to Practice Foundation, and the United Negro College Fund for help.

Working while in law school is another option to help cover the expenses.

“During law school’s terms, I worked at a hotel three to four nights a week, had two internships, and got an MBA at the same time,” says Randall Hallett, who graduated from the University of Missouri-Kansas City law school and is now CEO of Hallett Philanthropy. “In the summer, I worked six to seven days a week in the same jobs, maximizing income. I also lived in very cheap apartments, structured my financial life very frugally, and kept every cost down that I could.”

How much money do lawyers make? 

The earning potential for a lawyer depends widely on what you do with your degree. For recent Juris Doctorate graduates, those going into private legal practice made the most, with a median salary of $131,500. Lawyers who went into academics made the least money. The median academic salary for someone with a Juris Doctorate is $38,000.

Salaries also vary by type of legal practice. See below for a list of common attorney specialties and their average salary ranges, according to job platform Indeed:

The amount of time you’ve been working and the size of your firm matter, too. Salaries tend to increase both with tenure and with firm size. For example, a first-year associate at a firm of 100 or fewer has a median salary of $155,000. For eight-year associates at firms of 1,000 or more, it’s $395,000. 

“Big corporate law firms pay the most — well in the six digits, with excellent benefits,” says Marina Shepelsky, founder of Shepelsky Law Group. “Working for a municipal legal aide organization or the district attorney’s office may pay only in the five digits.”

Look at the salary-to-debt ratio 

If you’ll need student loans, calculating your potential salary-to-debt ratio can help you determine whether law school in general or, more specifically, a particular law school, is worth the cost of attendance. 

Salary-to-debt ratios indicate what percentage of your expected monthly earnings you’ll owe each month in student loan payments. So, lower ratios are typically better, indicating you’ll need to devote a smaller amount of your pay to student loans. Higher ratios mean the opposite.

According to an analysis by Law School Transparency, salary-to-debt ratios range from 0.76% to just over 4.95% for US law schools. The school with the highest salary-to-debt ratio is the Florida Coastal School of Law, while Brigham Young University claims the lowest.

Other key considerations about law school

The decision to attend law school shouldn’t just be financially driven. You’ll also want to consider the high dropout rates of law school, particularly among minorities. Overall, dropout rates are over 6% for first-year students. For American Indian, Hawaiian native, and black students, the dropout rate is 11% to 13%. 

Burnout is also a potential problem when going into the legal industry. Some legal jobs come with long hours and stressful working conditions, which could lead to health issues. As Shepelsky notes about “big corporate” firms, “They provide no work-life balance, and you are expected to work 14 hours a day or more, work through holidays and evenings, and are under tremendous stress and huge competition to make partner.”

According to the International Bar Association, lawyers have an average score of 51 on the World Health Organization’s Wellbeing Index. Anyone with a score of 52 or under is encouraged to seek mental health help. 

Is Law School Worth It FAQs

The dropout rate for first-year law school students is 6.46%. For some minorities, though, the dropout rate is as high as 13%.

Though there are no stats on how many students flunk out of law school, data from the American Bar Association shows that 6.46% of first-year law school students drop out early.

The downsides of law school are its fairly high dropout rate, its high costs of attendance, and the high likelihood you’ll need student loans to pay for it. The average law graduate borrows over $126,000 by the time they’re done with law school.

About 77% of first-time bar exam takers pass, while just 22% of repeat takers pass. Bar exam pass rates have been declining over the last decade.

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