The path to practicing law can lead to a fruitful career helping people and companies navigate the challenges of legal disputes. Lawyers are also paid well. According to PayScale, the average base salary for lawyers ranges between $54,000 and $156,000 a year, depending on the legal sector.

However, a big portion of your paycheck might go toward covering your education’s cost. An analysis by AccessLex Institute found that law students at public schools pay an average of $26,600 a year in tuition and fees, while private school students pay an average of $49,576. Multiply that times three, which is the average time it takes to get a Juris Doctor, and you’ll end up paying between $79,800 and $148,728 in classes alone.

Before pursuing your law degree, you’ll want to consider the average debt loads from law programs and ways to reduce costs.

Law school debt statistics


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.
  • Over 75 percent of law students surveyed had at least $100,000 in student loans at graduation, while more than half had over $150,000 in student loans.
  • More than one in every four law students reported having over $200,000 in student loans at the time of graduation.
  • About 40 percent of respondents reported that their student debt has grown since they left law school.
  • Student debt plays a key role in the legal paths chosen by recent graduates. Over 37 percent of respondents said their debts forced them to take on jobs based on potential salaries rather than their interests.
  • Over 63 percent of law school graduates working for the government or military and over half of those working at nonprofits and for the public sector took these jobs due to their loan forgiveness eligibility.
  • About 17 percent of respondents chose a job that offered forgiveness instead of a job they wanted.
  • Student debt impacts students of color more than any other group. On average, students of color have between $25,000 and $40,000 more in law school debt than white students.
  • Law school debt impacts women and men nearly equally. The ABA found 94.8 percent of women borrowed money to pay for their education compared to 95 percent of men. Women borrowed about $3,000 more on average.

How much is law school?

The cost of law school varies. Public schools tend to be less expensive than private schools — especially if you’re a resident student. According to data by AccessLex Institute, law students at private schools paid 46 percent more in tuition and school fees than those attending public schools.

The school’s location also plays a key role in how much you’ll spend on your education. For instance, during the spring of 2020, students at the University of North Dakota spent an average of $9,444 in living expenses, while those attending the University of New Hampshire spent an average of $20,915.

Likewise, attending a prestigious school with a big name, such as Yale, will likely run up your tuition bill by thousands more than a less-recognized school.

Law school by the numbers


Law school rankings

The top law schools in the country are highly selective, but they also yield great results, producing some of the highest-paying lawyers in the country. You’ll likely need a GPA of 3.49 or higher and an LSAT score of at least 164 for admission. For context, LSAT scores range between 120 and 180, with the average being about 151.

School Average tuition and fees as of 2020 Average student loan debt as of 2020
Source: PublicLegal
Harvard University $64,978 $164,331
Yale University $64,267 $121,476
Columbia University $69,916 $163,736
Stanford University $62,373 $131,997
University of Chicago $64,089 $160,099
New York University $66,422 $167,441
University of Pennsylvania $65,804 $159,059
Duke University $64,722 $134,948
Northwestern University $64,402 $127,458
University of Michigan-Ann Arbor $59,762 (in-state)
$62,762 (out-of-state)

Average law school debt by private institution

The universities below are among the top 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
Source: PublicLegal
Boston University $111,946 67.8%
Columbia University $163,736 66.7%
Cornell University $128,757 66.2%
Duke University $134,948 67.3%
Fordham University $146,217 59.3%
Georgetown University $166,323 69.9%
Harvard University $164,331 76.4%
Northwestern University $127,458 67.2%
Stanford University $131,997 64.2%
Yale University $121,476 83.3%

Average law school debt by public institution

Average student debt varies even more among public law schools. While public schools generally 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
Source: PublicLegal
Florida State University $72,534 79.8%
Ohio State University $92,993 72.1%
Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey $55,023 85.9%
University of Alabama $81,738 71.7%
University of California, Berkeley $137,771 69.9%
University of Cincinnati $63,728 75.6%
University of Iowa $72,465 69.5%
University of Michigan $133,158 70.6%
University of New Hampshire $78,586 89%
University of Virginia $156,437 62.5%

Average earnings after law school

Law school is an investment. If you put a lot of money into your education, you will want the reward of a salary that justifies the expense. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the lowest-paid lawyers in the country earn an average of around $61,400 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 a mean annual salary of $191,460, while a lawyer in Santa Fe can expect a mean salary of $115,650. 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 $60,000, while a corporate attorney makes almost $119,000 on average.

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 take much longer to pay off their debt. Others may have a larger starting salary, 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 10 years on an income-driven repayment plan
Private student loans 5 to 25 years

How to pay off law school debt

Don’t let looming student loan debt for law school scare you away from your dreams of a courtroom career. 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, two repayment plans could forgive a portion of your debt: income-driven repayment plans and Public Service Loan Forgiveness. Besides that, if you earn less than $125,000 a year (or less than $250,000 if married filing jointly), you could be eligible for Biden’s one-time student loan forgiveness and get up to $20,000 shaved off from your balance.
  • 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 to qualify.
  • Refinance your debt: Depending on your credit, you might benefit from refinancing your student 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 into the job hunt 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 this recurring cost 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 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.