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Law school can be a hefty investment, but like many postgraduate programs, it may be the key to entering your career field of choice. When weighing whether a law school education is worth the time and financial investment, it’s important to consider the average debtload of graduates, your potential return on investment, your career goals, average entry-level salaries, and more.
What to consider before going to law school
Before you invest considerable time and financial resources into law school, it’s crucial to weigh the pros and cons and consider some alternatives. After all, there are many other careers that pay six-figure salaries without the lengthy higher education commitment and the additional costs involved in earning a law degree.
When deciding if law school is worth it, compare the costs of earning a law degree to the salary you can expect in the end. Since law school takes several more years to complete after you earn a bachelor’s degree, you should also consider the opportunity cost of spending more time in school and less time in the workforce.
Average cost of law school
Similar to other fields of study, public institutions tend to cost significantly less than private schools– to the tune of over a $20,000 difference annually. Though scholarships and grants can help students to offset some of the cost, the nonprofit Law School Transparency notes that for decades, the cost of law school has soared above the rate of inflation.
Average law school debt
The average law school debt is $160,000, and 71.2 percent of law school graduates in the U.S. had student loan debt in 2022. Some schools, including Howard University and the University of Idaho, reported more than 90 percent of their graduates having law school debt.
Student loan debt can be made up of federal student loans, private student loans or both. The standard repayment term for federal student loans is 10 years; an average interest rate of 6 percent on $160,000 of loan debt would cost you a staggering $1,776 per month to pay it off in that time.
Depending on your career path after graduation, it may take some time to get to the point where you can afford that. Fortunately, there are some programs available to make payments more affordable based on your income or even assist you with paying them off — we’ll get to those below.
Average earnings with a law degree
How much you earn with a law degree will depend on a few different factors, including where you attended school, whether you choose a private- or public-sector career and which field of law you choose.
For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the average lawyer salary as $163,770 and the median annual salary for all legal occupations as $82,430.
Your salary as a lawyer will vary widely depending on the year of practice you’re in, how much success you achieve in your field and which industry you’re in. The following chart compares average lawyer salaries in different career fields using national Bureau of Labor Statistics data:
|Industry||Annual mean wage|
|State government (excluding hospitals and schools)||$103,390|
|Local government (excluding hospitals and schools)||$124,010|
|Federal executive branch||$152,700|
|Lessors of nonfinancial intangible assets||$171,370|
|Management of companies and enterprises||$227,050|
|Computer and peripheral equipment manufacturing||$276,160|
Should I go to law school?
There are myriad important factors to keep in mind as you try to determine if law school is right for you. Here are the main considerations to weigh as you decide whether law school is worth it:
- Your school’s reputation: Where you attend school is incredibly important in the legal profession. The Internet Legal Research Group has found that the median salary for private attorneys can range from $40,000 to $180,000, depending on which law school you attend.
- Your rank: Your standing among your peers is a huge factor in whether you’ll land that lucrative career in law. Some might argue that it’s even more important than the reputation of your law school.
- Your specialty: Having an idea of which fields to pursue — and the relevant courses affiliated with them — can help improve your marketability upon graduation. Do your research on which areas of law have higher demand and relatively high earnings, then try to find a match based on your interests. If you’re willing to practice law in the field of management of companies and enterprises instead of the state government, for example, you could earn twice as much.
- Your expectations: If your only reason for going into law is to make a lot of money, you may end up burning out quickly. Law is a profession that often requires a great amount of time and sacrifice. If your heart isn’t in it, you will find yourself in a miserable position. A great way to determine where your expectations fall (and if law school is worth it) is to pursue a part-time career in a law firm. This can give you valuable experience and a chance to shadow lawyers to determine if it’s the right career path for you.
- Your connections: Getting into a good school and acing your classes is only half the battle. The law grads who are getting jobs are the ones who have spent time hobnobbing with future employers. Putting yourself out there by joining student organizations and attending networking events can increase your marketability considerably.
- Your financial prospects: Part of the reason so many people ask if law school is worth it is because of just how expensive it is. If your financial prospects were not stellar to begin with — and if there aren’t any great financial aid options — that could be a sign to steer clear of law school. The good news is that many law schools offer loan assistance and forgiveness incentives, and public interest workers may be eligible for accelerated federal loan forgiveness or repayment assistance.
- Your goals: When it comes to reasons to go to law school, your decision should involve a healthy balance between ethics and ambition. However, it cannot be stressed enough just how important experience is in reaching this conclusion. You should spend as much time as possible familiarizing yourself with the day-in and day-out of an attorney’s career. If you find that your life goals do not fall in line with the job, then law school might not be right for you.
What are the best law schools in the U.S.?
Depending on your budget and the type of experience you want, it’s important to take your time to determine which law school is the right fit for you. Here are the top law schools based on career prospects, according to the Princeton Review:
|New York University School of Law||$70,400|
|University of Virginia School of Law||$65,110 (resident)|
|University of Michigan School of Law||$63,680 (resident)|
|Stanford University School of Law||$71,609|
|Duke University School of Law||$68,400|
|University of Southern California Law School||$72,798|
|Berkley Law School||$63,011|
|Northwestern University – Pritzker School of Law||$66,506|
|Harvard Law School||$65,875|
|Columbia University School of Law||$75,572|
Ways to pay off law school debt
Once you’ve graduated from law school, there are several options for paying down your law school loans. Some of the ways to deal with law school debt can even lead to forgiveness of remaining loan balances. Here are some of the best options to consider:
- Income-driven repayment plans: If you’re struggling to keep up with your federal student loan payments, you may be able to get on an income-driven repayment plan. These plans reduce your monthly payment to between 10 percent and 20 percent of your discretionary income and also extend your repayment term to 20 or 25 years. If you have a balance at the end of the term, it’ll be forgiven.
- Law school loan forgiveness: If you have federal student loans and choose to work for a government agency or eligible nonprofit organization, you may be able to get forgiveness under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, or PSLF. This program requires you to meet certain employment requirements and also make 120 qualifying monthly payments.
- Law school loan repayment assistance programs: Attorneys with federal student loans may be able to get tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of repayment assistance through various programs. Some examples of law school loan forgiveness plans include the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps Student Loan Repayment Program, the John R. Justice Program and the Department of Justice Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program.
- Student loan refinancing: If you don’t anticipate needing access to an income-driven repayment program and you don’t qualify for loan forgiveness or repayment assistance, consider refinancing your student loans with a private lender. Depending on your credit and finances, you may be able to score a lower interest rate than you’re paying right now. You’ll also have the option to shorten or extend your repayment term, which can help you find the right monthly payment for your budget.
Regardless of how you approach paying off your law school debt, the important thing is that you research all of your options and take proactive steps to find the best strategy for you.
The bottom line
The decision to attend law school is a significant one, and whether the endeavor is worthwhile will depend ultimately on your student loan debt and career opportunities. Before enrolling, be sure to explore potential areas of practice, the projected job growth in your area of interest, and options for which institution to attend. You may ultimately be able to offset some costs through grants, scholarships, or loan forgiveness.