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 $59,000 and $166,000 a year, depending on the legal sector.

However, a big portion of your paycheck might go toward covering the cost of your education. According to the Education Data Initiative, students pay an average of $220,335 to earn a law degree. For the 2024-25 school year, the initiative projects that tuition alone will reach over $51,000 annually.

Before pursuing your degree, you’ll want to consider the average debt loads students encumber from law school and think about ways to reduce costs.

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Law school debt statistics

According to the latest data from the American Bar Association:

  • The average law school graduate owes approximately $130,000 in educational debt upon graduating.
  • 90 percent of students take out loans to attend law school or their prior education.
  • More than 51 percent of borrowers surveyed postponed buying a house, and 39 percent postponed or decided not to have children because of their debt.
  • 67 percent of survey respondents reported high or overwhelming stress when it came to finances.
  • Nearly 62 percent reported that they could not save for the retirement they wanted because of their debt burden.
  • Only 47 percent of survey respondents agreed that their law school education was worth the cost.

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. On average, law students at private schools paid 86 percent more in tuition and fees than public school students.

The school’s location also plays a key role in how much you’ll spend on your education. For instance, during the 2022-2023 academic year, the estimated cost of living for students at Oklahoma City University was $12,600, while those attending the University of San Diego were advised to plan on $31,218 of living expenses that year.

Likewise, attending a prestigious school with a big name like Yale will likely increase 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 want to aim for a GPA of 3.6 or higher and an LSAT score of at least 159 for admission. For context, LSAT scores range between 120 and 180, with an average of about 152.

School Average tuition and fees as of 2020 Average student loan debt as of 2020
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) $133,158

Source: PublicLegal

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
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%

Source: PublicLegal

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
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%

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 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 $66,470 each year. The highest-paid legal professionals earn more than $239,200 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 $239,330, while a lawyer in Santa Fe can expect a mean salary of $112,140. 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 just over $123,000 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 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.
  • 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, 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 earn your degree can be a decision that impacts your financial well-being for years to come. While a juris doctorate typically takes three years to complete (longer if you’re pursuing school part-time), the resulting debt can take much longer to pay off.

Starting in 2024, new transparency rules will require law schools to disclose the cost of attendance and realistic earning expectations for graduates. The U.S. Department of Education plans to collect data and make this information readily available online to the public. With clearer numbers to consider, aspiring law students will be able to make more easily informed decisions.

As you consider which schools to apply to, you will want to weigh the financial implications of your enrollment. Financial aid, including grants and scholarships, can ease the burden. In addition, planning an approach for landing internships and an eventual job can help you to stay focused. Keeping an eye on your finances while attending school can help ensure your financial health long after graduation.