Key takeaways

  • Though lawyers earn above-average salaries, law students typically graduate with over $100,000 worth of debt.
  • The amount of debt you take on will be based on the type of school you attend (public or private), whether you're a resident student and the location of the school.
  • On average it can take anywhere between five and 25 years to pay off law school debt.
  • There are a series of programs available from the Department of Education, state governments and employers that can make law school debt more manageable.

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. The average base salary for lawyers ranges between $60,000 and $170,000 a year depending on the legal sector, according to PayScale.

However, a significant portion of your paycheck might go toward paying off law school loans — at least in your first years of practice.

According to a study by the American Bar Association (ABA), 90 percent of the lawyers surveyed borrowed money to cover their studies, with average balance exceeding $100,000. Luckily, there are a few alternatives law school grads can explore to reduce their debt burden and make payments more manageable.

Law school debt statistics

  • Law school graduates owe an average of approximately $130,000 in educational debt upon graduating.
  • 90% of students take out loans to pay for law degree or prior education.
  • Over half of borrowers (51%) surveyed postponed buying a house due to their debt loads. Over a third (39%) have also postponed or decided not to have children.
  • Nearly 62% of those surveyed reported that they could not save for the retirement they wanted because of their debt burden.
  • 67% of survey respondents reported high or overwhelming stress when it came to finances.

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 ABA-approved private schools paid up to 83 percent more in tuition and fees than public school students in 2023.

The school’s location also plays a key role in how much you’ll spend on your education. For instance, during the 2023-24 academic year, the estimated cost of living for students at Oklahoma City University was $12,600, while those attending the University of California, Berkley were advised to plan on paying $43,198 for living expenses during the same 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. To save on the cost of school you can read about the best value law schools, which balance cost with how successful the law programs are.

Law school cost facts and statistics

  • In 2023 resident students at public law schools paid an average of $30,554 in tuition and fees, while nonresident students paid an average of $43,590.
  • Students at private law schools paid even more: $55,963 in tuition and fees.
  • The cost of private law school has more than doubled since the 1980s, while attending public law school is almost six times as expensive.
  • Over a third (36.7%) of law schools offered conditional scholarship during the 2022-23 academic year.
  • For the 2022-23 academic year, only 20.6% of students paid full tuition, the rest got a discount of some kind.

Law school cost by ranking

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 Annual full-time tuition and fees (2023-24) Average graduate loan disbursement (Class of 2022)
Stanford University $73,713 $150,486
Yale University $73,865 $143,437
University of Chicago $77,952 $184,119
University of Pennsylvania $76,934 $163,262
Duke University $75,738 $138,376
Harvard University $75,008 $169,187
New York University $80,014 $172,122
Columbia University $81,292 $168,493
Northwestern University $74,552 $158,071
University of Michigan $69,584 (in state), $72,584 (out of state) $131,683

Source: Law School Transparency’s Tuition by Law School and Debt by Law School reports

Average law school debt by private institution

These universities are among the top private law schools. Though all of them offer high-value degrees, borrowing amounts vary greatly among them.

Institution Average graduate loan disbursement (class of 2022) Percentage of students who took on debt
Boston University $112,443 67%
Columbia University $168,493 62%
Cornell University $162,830 62%
Duke University $138,376 63%
Fordham University $143,976 62%
Georgetown University $172,012 63%
Harvard University $169,187 71%
Northwestern University $158,071 66%
Stanford University $150,486 66%
Yale University $143,437 70%

Source: Law School Transparency’s Debt by Law School report

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 graduate loan disbursement (class of 2022) Percentage of students who took on debt
Florida State University $69,049 69%
The Ohio State University $83,831 67%
Rutgers University $55,531 70%
University of Alabama $62,337 64%
University of California, Berkeley $143,021 62%
University of Cincinnati $64,300 75%
University of Iowa $85,552 63%
University of Michigan $131,683 69%
University of New Hampshire $90,936 79%
University of Virginia $160,306 66%

Source: Law School Transparency’s Debt by Law School report

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 $69,760 annually. 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 $235,940, while a lawyer in Santa Fe can expect a mean salary of $117,070. In general, metropolitan areas pay more than nonmetropolitan areas.

The type of legal practice also influences earnings. According to PayScale, a public defender makes an average salary of $60,742. A corporate attorney, on the other hand, makes $125,871 a year, on average.

Average time to repay law school loans

How long it takes you to eliminate law school debt depends on several factors. These include your earnings, repayment plan and the type of loan you had.

Some lawyers may only be able to make small monthly payments based on their salary and other financial circumstances. Others may have a higher starting salary and choose to make larger payments, resulting in a speedier repayment process.

The type of organization you work for may also play a key role. For instance, those working for government agencies or nonprofits may qualify for loan repayment assistance.

These are some common repayment timelines for both federal and private loans.

Type of loan Years of payment
Federal student loans 10 to 25 years, depending on repayment plan
Direct Consolidation Loans Up to 30 years
Private student loans 5 to 15 years

How to pay off law school debt

Though the prospect of taking on six-figures worth of student loans to pay for law school can be intimidating, there are some ways to significantly reduce this figure. Whether you’re about to start your legal studies or if you’re close to graduating, these are some options you can explore to tackle law school debt.

  • Research loan forgiveness options: If you have federal student loans, you could get a portion of your balance forgiven through an income-driven repayment plan 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. However, this option is best suited for high-interest bad credit private loans. Refinancing a federal loan would automatically turn it into a private one, which means you’ll lose access to forgiveness, among other benefits.
  • 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 if you’re studying full time, the resulting debt can take much longer to pay off.

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. Likewise, attending a public school in your state can result in a cheaper tuition.

If you need to borrow money to fill any gaps, use a calculator to avoid taking on more than you can afford. Lastly, research your intended area of practice to get a realistic idea of earnings, plus repayment assistance eligibility.