Is Law School Worth It?
- May 22, 2023
- Law School Debt, Legal Life
- Reviewed by: Matt Riley
Is Law School Worth It?
Law school tuition has been rising for years, and enrollment has declined. This downward shift started during the Great Recession, which might seem peculiar. Often, economic recessions entice young professionals to return to school, so why the downturn in law students?
While enrollment has started to bounce back in recent years, experts debate the value of a legal education and a legal career. For over a decade, the powers that be (the press, law school administrators, and admissions consultants) have tried to ascertain if law school is worth the rising cost. Moreover, in the last 15 years, students themselves report increased doubt in a law degree’s value.
In 2011, the New York Times dove into this subject in its Sunday read, “Is Law School a Losing Game?” More recently, Forbes revisited this question with its 2022 article “Is Law School Worth It?” While the former is a tad outdated, it still provides present-day law school hopefuls with helpful considerations. The latter is a far more recent account of the law school landscape, complete with current data and relevant insights based on updated tuition costs and J.D. job market outcomes.
When the recession hit in 2008, it forced big law firms to downsize and rethink their business models in response to the declining demand for legal services. This, of course, had long-term implications for the legal market, leading the author of the Times article, David Segal, to start with a simple question: is law school worth the investment?
When Segal wrote the Times article, law school cost around $120,000. Today, the investment can exceed $210,000 before living costs and other necessary expenses, making law school scholarships more important than ever.
To merge the articles’ most salient points, let’s start with what Forbes has to say.
What Does Law School Cost?
The Forbes article lays out the tiered system of law school rankings and notes that the top law schools are likely to be the most expensive. The average law school graduate has roughly $108,000 in J.D. debt alone (in addition to undergraduate debt). However, if you’re paying attention, and I’m sure you’re hanging on my every word, you’ll notice that this figure constitutes the average amount of law school debt.
A year at Columbia Law can cost more than $70,000, while a local law school will cost an in-state resident $28,186, on average. If you were to take out loans for three years at Columbia, you’re looking at debt north of $210,000.
Okay, so in general, the more prestigious the law school, the more debt you can expect to take on. But you can probably expect a higher payout, right? That brings us to Forbes’ second consideration:
How Much Can You Make as a Lawyer?
The median annual salary for all lawyers is $126,930, but it is highly influenced by whether you work in the private or public sector. For instance, after practicing for 11 to 15 years as a local prosecutor, you can expect to make around $85,000 on average. Alternatively, the 2021 average salary for entry-level law associates in the private sector was $165,000. That’s a major difference. So, the more debt you take on, the more you should consider potential salary when choosing a career path.
Now, let’s return to what our friend at the New York Times had to say about job outcomes. For one, the statistics can look pretty murky.
Law schools get very creative with the data they present to prospective students.
One rosy statistic law schools release is the “percentage of graduates known to be employed nine months after graduation.” In 2011, stats showed that 93% of law school graduates were working, which paints a beautiful picture of young grads proudly accepting their law school diploma, putting on sharp new suits, and walking straight into a law firm (where they will be named partner in 15 years).
The picture looks a little bit dimmer, Segal points out, when you realize that this statistic includes any type of employment. The Law Review editor working at Latham & Watkins is in the same 93% group as the guy who squeaked by at the bottom of his class and now bartends at that hotel by the airport.
This may seem deceptive at first, but how else should law schools define employment? If you only include legal jobs, you can exclude the airport bartender, but you also exclude the law school grad who takes a quality business affairs job. One thing is certain, the skewed statistics certainly make it harder to assess your job outcomes at a prospective school.
And what about those fancy private sector salaries Forbes talks about? Well, according to the Times, that’s also not a guarantee:
“This is all complicated by the reality that a small fraction of graduates are still winning the Big Law sweepstakes. They tend to hail from the finest law schools and have the highest G.P.A.s.”
This shouldn’t come as a big surprise to anyone. Of course, law firms want students with the highest law school GPAs, and, of course, they would prefer to hire a lawyer from a top law school over a 4th-tier law school, all other things being equal. This fact further emphasizes that the law school you attend significantly impacts your career outcomes, especially your ability to repay your law school student loans—which is an even greater incentive to secure a high LSAT score.
Speaking of loans, the Times article uses a 2009 law school graduate, Michael Wallerstein, as a case study:
“Mr. Wallerstein is a quarter of a million dollars in [debt]. One of his techniques for remaining cool in a serious financial pickle: believe that the pickle might somehow disappear. ‘Bank bailouts, company bailouts — I don’t know, we’re the generation of bailouts,’ he says in a hallway during a break from his job. ‘And like, this debt of mine is just sort of, it’s a little illusory. I feel like at some point, I’ll negotiate it away, or they won’t collect it.”
This is a quote from Mr. Wallerstein in 2011, years before student debt cancellation was a topic in politics and long before President Joe Biden canceled many Americans’ student debt. So, Wallerstein’s hope that his debt would disappear was actually quite prescient and still a common hope among many today.
Even amid recent debt cancellation discussions, nothing is guaranteed, and over $200,000 in debt is not small potatoes. That debt will need to be repaid eventually. Banks will absolutely, 100%continue to hound grads for the money they borrowed, doing so with a relentless, methodical persistence that will follow borrowers into their golden years if need be.
So, Is Law School Worth It?
To recap, is law school worth the cost? And, more importantly, you might be asking yourself, “Should I go to law school?” Unfortunately, all we can say is it depends.
Some noteworthy factors to consider include your legal career ambitions, whether you want to work in the private or public sector, and your ability to pay for law school. You can’t simply label law school a “winning” or “losing” game, and students should be personally responsible for weighing these considerations.
If this leaves you feeling nervous or even powerless, one thing you can do right now is focus on setting yourself up for success in law school admissions. With a competitive LSAT score, GPA, and overall law school application, you can put yourself in the running for a host of scholarships and admission to great law schools. This could open you up to (a) reduced student debt, (b) enhanced law career outcomes and earning potential, or even (c) both! Sounds pretty good to me.
For more information, visit our previous blog to determine what your LSAT score means for your law school admissions and scholarship chances. If you’re still studying for the LSAT, give yourself the best chance at a top score with help from LSAT experts and Blueprint LSAT Prep.
An earlier version of this article was written on January 18, 2011 by M. Hope Echales.
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