- Law school enrollments have declined over the past decade despite a pandemic-related spike.
- High tuition typically leaves law graduates with significant loan debt.
- While starting salaries are sizable at top law firms, the average pay is far more modest.
- Law school and legal careers can be stressful, yet most lawyers report career satisfaction.
You just graduated from college and landed your first job. It’s not your dream job, but it’s something to do while you figure out your true calling. Your liberal arts degree didn’t exactly set you up for a specific career path after all.
How about law school?
For some, attending law school constitutes the default option after college. For others, it’s the culmination of a lifelong dream, the first step toward a legal career.
Either way, it’s usually not a cheap route, nor is it the path of least resistance. And the return on that investment varies widely.
Law School Enrollment Declines Despite COVID Bump
Law school remains a popular choice because it opens doors to many professions. You must graduate from law school to become a lawyer, but you don’t have to be a lawyer once you graduate.
Plenty of law school graduates find themselves in the corporate world, nonprofits, banking, higher education, consulting, journalism, and nongovernmental organizations, among other pursuits.
State governments and the halls of Congress are filled with lawyers, and 26 American presidents were lawyers before landing in the White House. For generations, law school has been a pathway to power and privilege.
Yet, fewer students these days seem to appreciate the appeal, so to speak. Law school enrollment has dropped almost 21% since 2010. It rebounded slightly during the pandemic, increasing by 12% in 2021 thanks in part to a weak job market. But a year later, 150 of the 196 law schools accredited by the American Bar Association experienced an enrollment decrease among first-year students.
If you plan to apply, you’ll still have abundant company. In 2022, law schools in total received 427,000 applications, accepting only 128,500 — about 30%.
Be prepared to take the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) or the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Only about one-third of law schools allow students to submit the GRE instead of the LSAT, but the list of those that do includes Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Cornell, Penn, and many other top-ranked schools.
Scores on the LSAT range from 120-180, with the national average around 150. Cracking the top-tier law schools often requires scoring at least a 170, or the 98th percentile.
High Tuition Leads to Mounting Debt
So congratulations — you’re admitted to law school. Here’s your bill.
On average, the total cost of three years of law school, including tuition and living expenses, is about $193,000. Attending an in-state school will cost you an average of just over $28,000 per year for tuition and fees, while a private institution will run more than $50,000. Over the past decade, tuition has risen almost 27%.
As with college tuition, however, few pay sticker price. In fact, in 2019-2020, only about 22% did. Most received some form of merit- or need-based aid.
Nonetheless, you can expect to graduate with some debt. In a recent year, some 90% of law graduates reported taking student loans to finance their education, with the average debt following law school a whopping $160,000, including existing undergraduate loans.
Excluding college loans, the law school class of 2020 graduated with $108,000 in loan debt.
It’s not surprising the vast majority of recent law grads — about 90% in a recent survey — say their debt delays major life milestones such as marriage, children, and a home purchase, and that it causes anxiety.
Starting Salaries Can Be High, But So Is Stress
Loan debt represents the bad news. The good news is that you might earn enough to wipe out that debt in short order.
If — and it’s a big if — you graduate high in your class from one of the top law schools, the so-called “T14,” you could expect a starting salary of around $215,000, plus bonus, working for a large law firm in a major city. Within five years, your total income might reach $435,000.
Overall, however, for the class of 2020, the median salary was $80,000. For those choosing to work in the public sector, that figure was $60,000.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage for all lawyers in 2021 was just under $128,000. The job market for lawyers was projected to grow 10% between 2021 and 2031, so employment prospects should remain healthy.
Large salaries often come with considerable stress. New lawyers working at those big law firms should expect to work 60 hours or more per week trying to achieve billable hour quotas. About 20% of attorneys report billing over 80 hours, even as many as 100, in some weeks.
All that pressure can lead to burnout. Last year, more than three-quarters of Massachusetts lawyers claimed to experience burnout, and almost half of them have considered leaving the legal profession because of stress.
Yet despite elevated stress levels within the profession, 68% of lawyers claim they’re satisfied with their job.
Consider Your Options Carefully
For many law students, stress doesn’t begin once they graduate. It begins in law school.
According to a Bloomberg Law study, more than 75% of law school students reported increased anxiety, and over half said they experienced depression.
That’s because law school is difficult. The course load is intense, especially for first-year students (referred to as “One-Ls“), and the competition among students is fierce. Adjusting to the Socratic method of teaching can be challenging for some.
Then there’s the bar exam looming on the horizon for those who wish to practice law. Last year, about 78% of law grads passed the bar on their first attempt.
But the rewards of a legal career often prove worth the financial, intellectual, and emotional toll. Students are drawn to the profession because it offers a tangible way to make a difference, to perhaps even change the world.
Like any educational journey, choosing to attend law school is a personal decision. The cost and return on investment can vary widely, as can career opportunities upon graduation.
If you envision yourself as an attorney and can’t imagine another path, then attending law school is the obvious choice. But if you’re not entirely passionate about the law, consider your options carefully.