Is Law School Worth the Price of Admission?

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Guess what a first year lawyer right out of law school makes at a major law firm. For major firms outside of New York City, the starting salary is $145,000 plus a bonus that can add $20,000 to the total package. For major firms in NYC, starting salary can hit $160,000 or more, with bonuses as high as $40,000. Welcome to the world of big law (Salary Source: FindLaw).

But here’s the kicker–the high salaries may not be worth the cost of law school.

I was one of those crazy kids who actually knew what he wanted to do by the 8th grade. Having sat through a criminal trial with a friend of mine whose dad was a cop, I knew then I wanted to be a trial lawyer. And sure enough, nine years later I entered law school. Three years after that I started in the litigation department at a major law firm making an eye-popping $70,000 a year (this was 20 years ago). After eight years of sometimes 80 hour weeks, I made partner. (Some say making partner is like winning an 8-year pie eating contest, only to learn that first prize is more pie.) Two years later I quit to go in-house at a public company.

Today, I’m no longer in private practice, and I find running Dough Roller far more rewarding than practicing law. In fact, I probably would have wanted to be a blogger in the 8th grade, but the Internet didn’t exist back then (at least not in any form that it exists today).

And all of that history brings me to today’s question–is law school worth the price of admission? For most, the answer is clearly no.

Let’s first take a look at the cost of law school. The folks at U.S. News & World Report publish an annual ranking of the top law schools. The ranking includes the per year cost of each law school. For 2010, the top laws school is Yale, which sports a per year cost of–drum role please–$48,430. Even the lowest ranked schools cost $30,000 per year or more. Multiplied by three years, and the top schools will set you back about $150,000. And this cost doesn’t count the cost of an undergraduate degree, which is required to get into law school.

Now, from a pure numbers perspective, a $150,000 price tag is probably money well spent IF you get a job at a major firm, stay there for 8+ years, and make partner. But that’s a big IF. First, just to get one of these jobs requires that you attend a top 25 law school and finish in the top 25% of your class. (And if you want to work at an elite firm, you’d better attend a top 10 law school, write for the schools law journal, finish in the top 10%, and clerk for a federal judge.) Anything below the top 25 or the top 25% in your class and, with few exceptions, you can forget about the big salaries at a big firm.

And even if you land a job at a big firm, don’t go in with eyes wide shut. My experience at a big firm was actually very good. I got great trial experience, which believe it or not, is unusual for associates at most large law firms. And the other attorneys I worked with were terrific, many of whom are still good friends today. But that said, work at a big firm isn’t easy. Expect 50 to 60 hour weeks to be the norm, and 70 to 80 hour weeks a regular reality. Travel can be daunting. And the odds of making partner are bad and getting worse.

Now, a big law firm is not the only way to make a good income with a law degree. I have good friends who make an excellent living as sole practitioners. I know others who make a great living working in-house at large companies. And there are still others who make a good living in industry or government. In fact, one of the most valuable aspects of a law degree, in my opinion, is its versatility outside of the practice of law.

Still, $150,000 is a lot of money to pay for versatility, not to mention delaying your entry into the work force by three years. And here’s the reality–most lawyers don’t make enough money to justify the cost of law school. According to PayScale, the average income of lawyers nationwide (not right out of law school) ranges from $58,000 to about $110,000.

Imagine how long it would take to pay back $150,000 in school loans (plus undergrad loans) on a salary of even $100,000.

Just for the record, I’m not complaining here. I have no complaints with my work as a lawyer, or even the law school loans that I continue to pay. But if you or somebody you know is considering law school, make sure you think through the financial ramifications thoroughly before making your decision.

And for those lawyers out there, do you think the cost of law school was worth it?

Published or Updated: January 27, 2011
About Rob Berger

Rob founded the Dough Roller in 2007. A litigation attorney in the securities industry, he lives in Northern Virginia with his wife, their two teenagers, and the family mascot, a shih tzu named Sophie.

Comments

  1. Bert says:

    Very interesting article. Writing from Saskatchewan, Canada. Here in our health district, the highest paid in scope nurse earned 245k CDN last year working a 71 hour week on average. Not bad for a 4 year degree with a yearly tuition of under 4500. This in a province where 500K will buy a huge house rather than a 300 sq foot studio. Even a new grad (not cream of the crop or top 25 percent) makes 70k for a 37 hour week. People who think lawyers are overpaid do not have all the facts.

  2. Evan says:

    Lawyer/Blogger/Director of Financial Planner here,

    Great post. No one tells you that unless you are in Top X% of your class those big law jobs are shut out by the middle of your second year. Everyone just assumes all lawyers bring home bank and it just isn’t the case. No one is crying for me but I am certaintly not rocking out $160K lol

  3. Business India says:

    there was a great need of good tuition of briilient teachers on which equip the students with the necessary knowledge and technique to master the art of writing , reading etc……
    oh man! by the first step all good school have their own law in all things………..

  4. Lisa says:

    NO! So NOT worth it. Of course, I never did graduate. I just look like I did my the mere debt I hold. Just ask Sallie Mae. She makes my life miserable. And even if I did have a job as an attorney where I live, I still couldn’t afford the cost of the loans. I basically have a mortgage on a house without a roof. And a rent because I still have to be sheltered. If I had to do it all over again — just say NO to law school (unless you really LOVE it and know it is what you really, really want). Sallie Mae calls me every day for payment. Up to 12 times a day (their record so far). Not worth it. You can read my experiences with law school debt at my website — http://www.debtbecomesher.com.

  5. Justin says:

    It all depends! There are a plenty of really good law schools (25-50 range) that are 16,000 or less, or 48k for three years. And, graduates from these schools, while maybe not getting top firm jobs in NYC, DC, or LA, still get 100k jobs. I went in state, and while I don’t make big firm money, I have very little debt.

    • Law Guy says:

      In early 2013..there are NO jobs available in the US. The work force has, literally, been cut by 1/2

  6. B says:

    I started law school a mere ten years ago, in 2000, at UC Berkeley. At the time, tuition (pardon, “fees” in UC-speak) was only around $11,000, in-state. (It’s a few bucks shy of $36k now, according to the US News link.) Back then, of course, the school didn’t give out much aid, so if you had any income at all, you were paying full price. But the price was so reasonable, there was no cause to complain. I also worked while in school, and lived as frugally as I reasonably could in the rather pricey Bay Area.

    As a result, my debt load upon graduation was reasonable (my total debt won’t pay for a year of undergrad at the most expensive private schools, these days.) That was a godsend, because although I wasn’t a horrible student, I certainly was not in the top quarter of the class, and was simply not going to be picked up by most big firms, given the state of the economy back in ’03.

    When things picked up a little, I managed to get a job in government, which has been a very positive experience. Although we do have our Dilbert-esque moments, the pay is decent, and the working hours are aren’t bad. (I usually work more than 40 hours, but rarely 60. I do not have a clock that counts time in 6-minute increments. And I can feel positive about my work, that it contributes to society as a whole.) Currently, my pay is toward the higher end of “average” lawyer salary, but even when I reach the maximum possible salary, it’ll still be less than the starting pay at a big firm (even an outside of NY big firm.)

    For me, law school was worthwhile. I have an interesting job, and am paid decently, but not richly. But the hard truth is that I’m in a good financial position because my tuition was only $11k a year. At today’s prices, I’d be in quite a pickle. (A number of friends and colleagues who went to expensive schools certainly have felt the squeeze of debt. The stories of Sallie Mae are positively Dickensian. Certainly, I know a number of practicing attorneys who have regretted ever going to law school, but now feel trapped in the profession by their debts.)

    To be frank, I don’t fully understand how tuition could have more than tripled in just seven years. I know that state funding for the UC system has declined. But that alone doesn’t explain it, I don’t think. It’s long been suspected that law schools are considered moneymakers by the parent universities, and are used to subsidize the school as a whole. I have to seriously wonder how much of that is going on, especially at the state schools.

  7. Mike says:

    Law School is NEVER worth it. Only a miniscule amount of lawyers and law school grads make the big bucks. As the blogger points out, only if you graduate out of the top 25% out of the top 5% of law schools make 6 figure starting salaries. That though is not the problem. It’s that the rest of everyone else makes 30k a year to start. This is because the practice of law is not really a profession, a vocation, or anything else for that matter. It is a totally phonied up industry. You don’t need math, science, medical, engineering, or even social skills to be a lawyer. Nope, you just need to know how to read, write and speak, which is EVERYONE. There are too many lawyers because everyone who wanted to feel self-important in a profession but was not good at math becomes a lawyer. Next thing you know, you’re scrimping for a client to do a $750.00 closing for, a client who was hit in the rear and has a neck injury, or someone who was given a speeding ticket. The profession is a joke and the laugh is on the suckers who go into the business.

    • Matt says:

      stop blogging like ________ and start working. work will always pay the bills, blogging only brings out the complainer in everyone. median income across the country is not near what you say “the low end of average” attorney makes, and they have just as much debt as the rest of society.

    • BH says:

      Wow, that’s the most generalized and ill-informed post I think I’ve ever read. I don’t think law school is worth it either, but fyi, I have an IQ of 128, my dad majored in Economics, my uncle in Chemistry and Math, and my grandfather in Engineering and we’re all lawyers, so the math comment doesn’t hold water. Also, to be a top firm lawyer, you do have to be really naturally intelligent in order to adapt to situations in an extremely fast-paced, high-pressure environment. A lot of people don’t have what it takes.

      P.S. “Closings” are for real estate transactions, not personal injury tort claims.

  8. Scott Bishop says:

    The cost of law school is not worth. The cost of law school serves two purposes. Law school is a cash cow for any university that maintains one. Add up the tuition dollars in any first year class and then multiply it by the number of class sections and…well…you’ll see what I mean. The other purpose it serves is to make banks rich and (I would swear under oath) to keep the U.S. government afloat with the interest we all pay for on our loans which I dub as nothing short of lodestones around our necks which will follow us far into our octogenarian years.

    In fairness, I agree that the law degree is a high powered, versatile degree that you can take with you anywhere and provide you with instant credibility. Still, the reality is that for 90% of us its cost outweighs its value.

    At one point, when reality hit me like a bag of wet sand, I went through a period of mourning and amidst the frustration and anger I sent my degree back to where it came from: my alma mater. Apparently, the degree wasn’t worth too much to my alma mater either because approximately one month later they returned it to me in the mail. Sigh. It still sits in the cylinder it was mailed to me in.

    As for me, the days for my practicing law are quickly waning. I’ve been “called” into a new profession. This profession is infinitely more rewarding than assisting clients with their legal problems. I get to help people but in a different way. In fact, the way in which I help people now is what I would consider a paradigm shift.

    You see, as a criminal defense attorney I help people minimize the risk of the troubles that their behaviors have gotten them in to. The problem with this model is that people all to often jump right back on the same treadmill that brings them right back to court sooner or later. As a shamanic practitioner, I help people re-write these old, worn out scripts and install new, healthy ones so they don’t revisit the same problems over and over.

    Ironically enough, it turns out that I didn’t have to go to law school at all.

  9. Rusty says:

    This is a great post, you certainly make it clear that in order to land a job at a top ranking firm you must attend the best law school, and doing so can put you into serious debt. I have been reading a lot about attending law schools that offer a better value, but still provide a quality education. This may prevent you from landing a job at a top firm right out of law school, but if you are a gifted attorney, there is no doubt you will get noticed eventually.

  10. Laura says:

    In this economy, I have several friends recently graduate from law school and can’t even find a job. Worth it?

    Maybe not! I’d be interested in seeing the same data for medical school…or maybe not! My husband’s in his final year right now and I’ve done some number crunching with mixed results (especially if you factor in lost wages from a different, average post-undergrad job for all the years of training). We’ve managed to keep loans low, and we pushed to go to a state school so tuition is lower, so I’m hoping the “breakeven” point isn’t too long.

  11. Carter says:

    thank you so much for this article. currently im only a sophomore in high school, easily top of my class(i.e. top 5%) and have been lately looking at a career to go into for college. after reading this, i don’t know what to think. yes, i think that law school would be worth it if your doing what you love, but if the price is going to be 150k+ before even entering the workforce, then i don’t know what to think. if anyone has advice for what i should do, please feel free to email me. mrmissouri25@yahoo.com

  12. Good. I agree.

  13. Tony says:

    I am getting ready to go to law school at46 years old. I have done every thing from sales and driving cab to law enforcement and bail bonds.
    If you are looking for money quit school and go into to sales. The top income earners in the US are commission based sales.
    I have a cab company now that can run while I go to school, my house is paid and bills are a minimum such as car taxes and utilities.
    You make your future. I know lawyers that are making 30k or unemployed and other ones making 2 million yearly.
    I plan to do small criminal cases like speeding DUI DWLS. Between the bail bondsman and a retiring local attorney I should be able to stay busy. While New York Lawyers might not think it is real money you can easily do 6 figures on it. I know Bondsman that are 100k plus on small bonds. The are easy, as networking plays a big part in it just like sales. To me 300 to 750 for 30 minutes work is not too shabby.
    So look me up in three years and see if I am correct.

  14. Joseph says:

    Very good points for both sides. However I lean more towards The Ivy League Schools writing their own propaganda concerning the benefits of graduating from their Elite Schools.

  15. Joseph says:

    Hello Tony I wanted this post seperate from the one i just posted above. I agree with you 100%. The best paying jobs are commissioned proffessional sales people. I live up in the great country to the morth, Canada. I graduated from Business Administration from our Gegep system in Canada and then went on to computer programmer at Mcgill University. I to at the young age of 21 did not really know 100% where I wanted to go with my career. Was it going to be Law, was it going to be towards medical, really did not know. With the help of a good aptitude test and a good career counselor I went for my Insurance Broker License. Just to clear up a few things. If I were to have gone to Law School here at Mcgill University It would of been about $3500 tuition per year. This is a tier one school and in Canada they are heavily subsidized by the Gov’t. 18 months later I passed the Gov’t test and recieved my permit. Never looked back since. Made well over $150,000 first year. 100% job satisfaction and on my hours. Fast forward 20 years later and have my own firm, making mid six figures, am my own boss and in refference to an earlier poster am totaly content. Insurance is so challenging and yes we have to deal with Lawyers who want to know on behalf of their clients why they are not covered for a risk their clients elected not to take. Remember when Lawyers sue a product manufacturer its the product Liability that we provide that ends up paying the big payouts!!!! One that comes to mind is a McDonalds patron getting burned by hot coffee while driving her car, did she expect the coffee to be cold? When an award is handed out and the Insurance company ends up paying, who do you really think ends up paying the tab , we all do in increased Insurance premiums that the Insurance Company hands down to us.On a closing note,on the Educational road to get our License , it took one year of Accounting, one year of Law and then the Business Administration Degree. I am so happy with my career choise. Mostly because I do not have 2500 hours to bill!!!! A good year to all.

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