Is Law School Worth It?: Analyzing the Costs and Benefits

FT Contributor
A woman in a cap and gown, holding her law degree next to some legal books.
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Alarm bells sounded when CNBC announced, “Only 23% of law school grads say their education was worth the cost.” Students everywhere gave a collective gasp as suddenly, one question flashed before their eyes: “Is law school worth it?”

The decision to attend law school can be difficult to make because tuition is so expensive, especially when applied to several years. The average law school debt is enough to make anyone shudder, and it leaves students in search of ways to make their law school dreams a reality.  

Should You Go to Law School?

Higher Earning Potential

Income is a key motivator for many when deciding whether to go to law school, because a law degree can bring in hundreds of thousands of dollars each year. The average attorney’s salary of $120,000 is enough to make law school a worthwhile investment.

According to a study on the Economic Value of a Law Degree, “For most law school graduates, the net present value of a law degree typically exceeds its cost by hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

More Career Opportunities

Law is a versatile career, stretching across all industries and fields, so a law degree can offer you enormous opportunity in the workplace. While you are in law school, you can make valuable connections that may last your entire career. Your law degree is a benchmark of your education and success, so later it will be a helpful tool you can use to negotiate better promotions and higher pay. Some companies will even help with your law school debt.

Do You Need a Law Degree to Practice Law?

With the cost of tuition so high, many students are desperate for a loophole that eliminates the expense of law school. The ability to practice law without a law degree is legal in just seven states.

In most cases, a degree is required, and that alone justifies law school costs. All but seven states require you to have a law degree to practice law. States like Virginia and California allow for legal apprenticeships instead of law school. Other states like New York and Maine require legal apprenticeships combined with law school.

How Much Does Law School Cost?

Law school costs depend on the school you choose. Where you live and the school’s prestige will determine what you pay in tuition. Top law schools average over $61,000 annually, but public law schools are more affordable at around $26,000 each year.

The cost of law school depends on the number of years it takes for you to earn your law degree, and on school requirements. The average law school debt can serve as an indicator of average law school costs.

Average Law School Debt

About 69% of law school students use student loans, and these loans do not come cheap. According to Law School Transparency, “A student who borrows the overall 2016 average of $120,000 during school will owe $135,700 by the time the first payment is due six months after graduation, at which time any accumulated interest capitalizes.”

With private law school costs averaging $43,020, the average law school debt is $145,500 by the time most graduate. First-year lawyers make an average starting salary of $155,000 per year. With a six-figure income right out of law school, you can begin to eliminate your student debt immediately.

Number of Years to Complete a Law Degree

You can expect a traditional Juris Doctor (J.D.) program to last three years if you go full-time. An accelerated program lasts two years, or you can choose a part-time schedule that will last four years or more.

The National Jurist recommends 400 hours of preparation for the bar exam, a rigorous 12-hour exam spread across two days. With so much material to cover, many students treat studying as a full-time job.

Preparing for Law School

With a little planning, your law degree can offer an excellent return on investment. Networking groups with other students and lawyers can prove invaluable to your studies.

Students must successfully pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) before entering law school. The test measures advanced skills in areas like reading, reasoning, and writing. The annual LSAC Law School Forum is a key event for many law students, offering over 150 schools together under one roof.

Before you register for your first term of law school, familiarize yourself with the curriculum and design a learning plan to fit your needs. Your professors can be a fantastic source for mentoring and guidance.

Don’t Go for the Wrong Reasons

Law school is not right for everyone. Sometimes students feel pressured by family and friends, or they are seduced by the promise of money, power, and prestige. Others may glamorize the idea of law until it comes time to prepare for the bar exam.

Many careers offer success, but few are as demanding or expensive as a law degree. If you are not sure whether a law degree is right for you, reconsider before investing in a degree. Law school is not cheap, so it is a decision you need to be sure about before you proceed.

Saving Money for Education Expenses

Even with student loans, you will need to budget your finances as a student. Trimming expenses and tracking finances will help your budget remain stable. Many students find part-time work and create a savings fund so they never miss a student loan payment, even during hard times.

Budgeting is an important tool for any student, and we have plenty of resources to help you save money to pay for law school. Our Student Finance Learning Center shares everything you need to know about finances, so you do not fall victim to average law school debt. Responsible financial planning allows you to worry less about paying for school so you can focus on success.

There is a lot to consider when approaching the prospect of law school.

The curriculum is long and demanding, with exams that are frequent and unforgiving. You could spend up to four years in school with over 400 study hours for the bar exam alone. Law school could mean student loans, high interest, and several years in the workplace before you emerge in the clear.

Is a law degree worth the time, effort, and expense? It is a question only you can answer.

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