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Average student loan debt for law school

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The pathway to practicing law can lead to a fruitful career of helping people and companies navigate the challenges of legal disputes. Lawyers are also paid well; according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, lawyers earn an average of almost $150,000.

However, a big portion of your paycheck might go toward covering the costs of your education, which can also stretch to hundreds of thousands of dollars. Before deciding to get your degree, you’ll want to consider the average debt loads from different law programs and the ways you can pay that money back.

Key statistics: Law school student loan debt

According to the American Bar Association:

  • The average law school graduate owes approximately $165,000 in educational debt upon graduating.
  • More than 95 percent of students take out loans to attend law school.
  • More than 55 percent of students surveyed postponed buying a house, and nearly 30 percent postponed or decided not to get married.

Average law school debt by private institution

The cost of attending law school varies widely by institution — while reputation and location can affect total debt loads, so can the amount of available scholarship or grant aid. The universities below are in the upper echelon of private law schools, but the bill varies widely, as does the percentage of graduates who finish with debt.

Institution Average amount of debt Percentage of graduates who took on debt
Columbia University $163,736 66.7%
Duke University $134,948 67.3%
Harvard University $164,331 76.4%
Stanford University $131,997 64.2%
Yale University $121,476 83.3%

Source: PublicLegal

Average law school debt by public institution

When it comes to public law schools, the average amount of debt has an even larger variance between institutions. While public schools, in general, charge less than private institutions, it may be harder to find significant scholarships or grants.

Institution Average amount of debt Percentage of graduates who took on debt
Ohio State University $92,993 72.1%
University of Alabama $81,738 71.7%
University of California at Berkeley $137,771 69.9%
University of Michigan $133,158 70.6%
University of Virginia $156,437 62.5%

Source: PublicLegal

Average earnings after law school

Law school is an investment: If you put a lot of money into your education, you will want to reap the reward of a salary that can justify that big expense. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the lowest-paid lawyers in the country earn an average of around $61,490 each year, but the highest-paid legal professionals earn more than $208,000 each year.

What accounts for the big difference? As with any job, the location matters. For example, a lawyer in San Francisco earns an average annual salary of $201,920, while a lawyer in Santa Fe can expect an average salary of $94,740. In general, metropolitan areas pay more than nonmetropolitan areas.

The job itself is also important. According to PayScale, a public defender makes an average salary of around $61,000, while a corporate attorney makes an average of almost $118,000.

Average time to repay law school loans

How long will it take you to eliminate your law school debt? The answer depends on how much you’re earning, how you’re planning to pay it back and what type of loans you have. Some lawyers might opt for smaller monthly payments and wind up taking much longer to pay off their debt. Others may have a larger starting salary and choose to make larger payments and pay down loans faster.

Additionally, it’s important to note that some schools offer repayment assistance programs for lawyers working in public service jobs, so be sure to consider those options, too.

Below are some of the most common repayment timelines for graduates with law school loans.

Payment plan Years of payment
Federal student loans: Standard repayment plan 10 years
Federal student loans: Income-driven repayment plan 20 to 25 years
Federal student loans: Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) 10 years on an income-driven repayment plan
Private student loans 5 to 25 years

Law school vs. other schools

Law school isn’t your only option for continuing your education. If you’re thinking about other professions that might be your calling, it’s important to get a sense of what those programs will cost. Here’s a rundown of some common debt loads you could incur while pursuing another degree.

Type of debt Average amount
Law school $165,000
Medical school $207,003
Dental school $304,824
Pharmacy school $173,561
Veterinary school $157,146

Source: American Bar Association, Association of American Medical Colleges, American Dental Education Association, American Association of Colleges of Pharmacy, American Veterinary Medical Association

How to pay off law school debt

Don’t let the size of student loan debt for law school scare you away from pursuing your dreams of a career in the courtroom. Paying off debt requires smart budgeting and taking advantage of every available option to save money. Consider some of these strategies:

  • Research loan forgiveness options: If you have federal student loans, there are two repayment plans that could forgive a portion of your debt: income-driven repayment plans and Public Service Loan Forgiveness.
  • Find loan repayment assistance programs: Some states offer assistance for repaying loans, and the American Bar Association highlights more than 100 institutions that offer loan repayment assistance for working in public service. These programs typically have income thresholds you cannot exceed in order to qualify.
  • Refinance your debt: Depending on your credit, you might benefit from refinancing your loans. Doing so could net you a lower interest rate or monthly payment, though it’s usually not the best choice if you have federal loans.
  • Make debt part of your interview discussions: Once you are far enough along in the job hunt that you’re starting to receive offers from firms, ask about employer contributions to your monthly debt payments. As law school continues to get more expensive, some firms are opting to help offset some of the recurring costs to reduce the financial stress on young employees.

The bottom line

Law school can be well worth your time and money, but deciding where to go requires careful attention to what it will mean for your long-term future. Earning your law degree might take three years (or more if you’re going part-time), but your debt can linger for much longer than the date on your diploma. As you think about where to apply, consider all the financial implications for your life past your graduation date. In addition to making a plan for studying, landing an internship and finding a job, you will need to make a plan for your personal finances.

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Written by
David McMillin
Contributing writer
David McMillin is a contributing writer for Bankrate and covers topics like credit cards, mortgages, banking, taxes and travel. David's goal is to help readers figure out how to save more and stress less.
Edited by
Student loans editor