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Is law school worth the money?

Maybe. What you should really be asking is "Do you want to be a lawyer?"
Tags: Value of Law School, Money, Choosing to Go to Law School
Apr 2, 2023

Table of Contents

  1. How much does law school cost
  2. Cost of attendance
  3. Average student debt
  4. Is law school worth it?
  5. How much money do lawyers make?
  6. Is it worth becoming a lawyer?
  7. Is it worth applying?
  8. Related Articles

Do you want to be a lawyer?

The real question is: "Do you want to be a lawyer?" If the answer is yes, then it is worth it. In most states, you must graduate from an accredited law school to become a lawyer (unless you're Kim Kardashian). 

But your circumstances are unique to you and we can’t actually answer the question for you. However, we can provide some guidance on how to think

To help, we need to talk about how much law school actually costs (spoiler, a lot). Then we need to talk about how much money you can expect to make after you’re finished (spoiler, it depends). There are a ton of reasons to go to law school that aren’t at all about money but this article will be focused on the bottom line of costs and income. 

So how much does law school cost?

It would be rational to think that this is an easy question to answer since, ya know, schools should probably tell you, and USNews reports some numbers, and Forbes reports some numbers, but the truth is, it’s not that simple. 

First, any report that only considers tuition and fees is humorlessly misleading. Unless you have figured out something we haven’t (or you can live with friends/family for free), things like rent, food, transportation, and health insurance are important costs to be considered.

Schools call this total cost the Cost of Attendance (CoA) and it is an estimate of how much you will have to spend each year to actually attend school while being able to eat with a roof over your head. It also dictates how much you can borrow for school each year. 

Let’s look at this CoA number for a few categories of schools (keep in mind that these numbers don’t consider scholarships or financial aid): 

Don’t forget that law school is 3 years long and these are just for a year (and they typically go up every year). 

Cost of attendance

The average median cost of attendance at a: 

T-14 school: $98,000

T-50 to T-15 school: $65,000

T-100 to T-51 school: $63,000

T-198 to T-101 school: $56,000

Alright, that is helpful, but it doesn’t really account for financial aid or scholarships. Unfortunately, it is really hard to give specifics but we can look at the amount the average student borrows and what percentage of students actually borrow. 

There are pretty much three kinds of people who may not borrow any money for law school. First, people who get full scholarships (very rare); Second, people who pay out of pocket (or whose family does); Third, people who get full financial aid support from the university (very rare). For the most part you should be able to tell if you’ll fall into one of these categories.

How much does law school cost? Let’s look at student debt for a few categories of schools:

Average median student debt by school rankings

T-14 school: 64% of students graduate with an average debt of $158,000

T-50 to T-15 school: 66% of students graduate with an average debt of $101,000

T-100 to T-51 school: 71% of students graduate with an average debt of $104,000

T-198 to T-101 school: 78% of students graduate with an average debt of $112,000

Those numbers are big, and even the T-14 numbers are scary (at least to me). Let’s consider what it really means and think about what happens after law school to think about if law school really worth it?

Is law school worth it?

We just talked about things you should consider when thinking about what law school really costs but that isn’t the end of the story. When you finish law school you have this thing (a JD) and hopefully you pass the Bar. Which means you are a lawyer.

So, let’s assume you are a lawyer. Then the question becomes “Is being a lawyer worth the cost of going to law school?” 

To simplify this question, let’s look at three different aspects of life that being a lawyer affects:

  1. How much impact can you have in the world with a JD?
  2. How many opportunities does a law degree give you that you wouldn’t have otherwise?
  3. How much money will you (or can you) make as a lawyer? (You can get more detail on this in our lawyer salary article here)

Since this article focuses on the cost of law school, the rest of the article will focus on how much you can make afterwards. There are certainly intangibles that might make law school worth it for you, even if you could make more money doing something else!

How much money do lawyers make?

Short answer: It varies wildly. 

The biggest distinction is between private sector lawyers and public interest lawyers. If you are reading this and planning to go into public interest law, then impact is probably more important than income to you. For public interest lawyers, on average the amount you make will be substantially lower than the amount that law school costs and it will be tough to pay off your loans. There are a lot of loan programs to help you pay your loans but they are not always as helpful as they seem. Keep in mind that you can always go from private to public after you pay off your loans.

In addition to the difference between public interest and private sector, there is also a big difference in pay between different schools. So let’s just look at some numbers. 

The average median starting salary if you graduate from a:

T-14 school: $190,000 ($190k to $190k)

T-50 to T-15 school: $126k ($69k to $190k)

T-100 to T-51 school: $94,000 ($60k to $173k)

T-198 to T-101 school: $72,000 ($48k to $190k - Way to go NY Law School)

Before we go any further, let’s take a second to explain what these numbers actually mean. 

If a school has a median private sector income of $100,000 then half the graduating class that goes into private sector law makes more than $100,000 and half makes less than $100,000. This might be obvious to you, but it is important because it doesn’t mean that you can’t go to a lower ranked school with a low median income and make more than the median (or even more than the median at the school with the highest median income, Yale). But it does mean that you would have to do better than (at least) half of your peers who are also looking to go into the private sector. Take a second to really think about that. If you are planning to make more than the median income when you graduate, then you are saying that you will make more than half of the people reading this article right now. So if 11 of you are reading this, then 6 of you are going to make the median income at your school, or less. If you are planning on making more, hopefully you have a plan. 

At this point we have talked about the costs of law school and the (financial) benefits of being a lawyer… 

Private sector salaries also follow a bimodal distribution (meaning a lot of people make a little, and some make a lot, but not many people end up in the middle), which you can read more here.

So, is it worth becoming a lawyer?

Even after this whole article, we still can’t answer that question. What we can recommend is: When you get accepted into a law school, take a moment to estimate how much money you will make over the next 20 or 30 years without a law school degree assume you start with what you make today and get a 4% raise per year, then estimate how much money you will make over the next 20 or 30 years with a JD assume you start at the school’s median income and then make 4% more a year. (We’re ignoring the time value of money for now)  If the difference in these numbers is not as much as the law school’s average debt, then you should really think about if the intangibles of being a lawyer are enough to make up for the huge amount of debt that law school will (probably) leave you with.  

Keep in mind that answering if it is worth going to law school is different than:

Is it worth APPLYING to law school?

We can say with quite a bit of confidence that if you are interested in being a lawyer, then it is worth applying. And more, it is worth applying to schools that you think are a little out of reach (if you have a 150 LSAT you probably don’t need to waste time and money by applying to Yale). There are so many great applicants that miss out on acceptance, financial aid, and scholarships at great schools simply because they don’t apply. Unless you apply to schools, you can’t even start to compare salary and cost data because you don’t have any way to know what the program will actually cost you. 

Since you are on this site, you are probably considering applying to law school, and you should. Just please, do not mindlessly accept admission at a law school and pay them a ton of money if none of the school’s stats make sense for YOU.

Related Articles

  1. How should I Choose a Student Loan?
  2. Oddly specific questions you might be asking when borrowing for law school.
  3. What Law School should I go to?
Windsor MIT '22, Harvard College Advisor

I am the half of LSD that didn't take the LSAT, or go to law school (Sorry about that). But I did go to MIT business school while surrounded by law students and lawyers, so I am somewhat qualified to talk about the intricacies of law school apps and finances.

Windsor (the dog) didn't write this but he WAS a Resident Tutor and career advisor at Harvard College with me, so deserves some credit.

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A at McKinney, waiting on Maurer. Do I R&R with games gone or go to McKinney and hope to transfer. 156, 3.4, nURM
21:40
If you're up for retaking that's probably the advice you'll mostly get
I'd really rather not take another year
[] ararara
21:44
@KnowledgeableRitzyWasp: GO!
GreasyWorkablePotato
21:47
sup with columbia gotdamn
21:47
Yeah don't go somewhere you want to transfer away from. Grades may or may not work out, transfers may or may not materialize, and aid may or may not be sufficient.
I still havent put down my nd one ah
im like rly scared to deposit at ND because it feels binding
pug
22:13
come to UT with me caterpillar forget nd
tablenapkin
22:33
does anyone have experience with applying as an indigenous international applicant
Ijustwannagetinman
22:40
Guys I just realized in my last LOCi to UCLA
Ijustwannagetinman
22:41
I listed a professor who posted on one of his blogs that he is leaving at the end of June in 2024
Ijustwannagetinman
22:41
but I didn't know that he posted that it was in ONE blog it wasn't on the UCLA website
Ijustwannagetinman
22:41
I didn't list him in my second LOCi he's just literally one of my favorite authors so I wrote about him is this devastating that I listed him??
22:49
i think ur okay i dont think they would expect u to know let alone know themselves
22:51
This is a risk of talking about specific professors (and my school's careers in law folks advised me against doing so in Why ___ essays for that reason) but I doubt they're going to gauge your entire interest in the school based on this
22:52
Ironically, you'll probably benefit if your reader is a bit cynical and assumes the "one of my favorite authors" bit is laying it on thick, but this person leaving is not actually a dealbreaker
22:52
(Which it does not sound like it is)
22:57
during my cycle (2020-21) I mentioned professors in many of my apps
22:58
I outperformed my numbers so I don't think its that bad of a tactic
22:58
I think you just need to sound credible
Ijustwannagetinman
23:15
I didn’t say he was one of my favorite authors I just cited UCLA’s first amendment center and said “led by professor volohk”
Ijustwannagetinman
23:15
But he’s leaving soon
Ijustwannagetinman
23:15
He happens to be one of my favorite authors, but I didn’t say that in the essay
Ijustwannagetinman
23:16
I just wanna go to UCLA so bad it makes my heart ache
QuixoticPowerfulAlligator
23:18
how do transfers adjust socially typically
0:43
i know undergrad typically doesnt matter, but is there an exception for if your undergrad is also the law school?
0:43
i ask as a current community college student hoping to transfer to ucla undergrad, then ucla law
3:04
anyone else get an error email from TAMU
kineticsand
5:59
Go to the school that will pay for you to go. To do otherwise is a life altering error in judgment.
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