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.