law school, student loans

IS GOING TO LAW SCHOOL FINANCIALLY WORTH IT?

Is law school worth it financially?

Yesterday I was perusing the clearance rack at my local market (a strategy I use for saving money while trying to eat healthy on a budget). I turned the corner and beheld a sight that I always mourn seeing– the back to school aisle. Back to school already?? I feel like summer is just getting started. Millions of kids across the country will start school in just a few short weeks. And there’s one group of students my heart really goes out to at this time– first year law students.

After I was accepted into law school, I can’t tell you how many family members and friends approached me, offering their two cents about what a bad idea financially it was to go to law school. The economy was down, no one was hiring, law school is expensive, law schools were not being candid in reporting salary and jobs of their graduates, lawyer burn out is high (many lawyers stop practicing law within 5 years of graduation), the list goes on. And on. Where was all this advice BEFORE I took the LSAT?! Anyway, I’m here to tell you today– don’t listen to all those people. If you want to go to law school, GO! But, go to law school the smart way. Here are five financial things you should consider before you start law school.

5 things to consider whether law school is financially worth it:

  1. Will you actually like being a lawyer? 
    First in your evaluation of whether law school will be worth it financially –take time to consider whether you will actually like being a lawyer. Do you actually know what a lawyer does every day? It might be a little bit different than what you have seen portrayed on TV. Start by talking with anyone you know that is a lawyer. If you don’t know any lawyers, ask friends and family for lawyers they know. Talk to as many as you can in as many areas of the law you can. Take a few of them to a one on one lunch and pick their brains. Find out what they do everyday. You could also consider calling up a firm and see if they need an intern or if they would be willing to let you job shadow or do some filing for them. Get a feel for what lawyers do. Is it something that you can see yourself doing? I’d wager most of us didn’t know what we were getting into when we started law school. And that doesn’t make sense. You should know what you are getting into, especially if you are planning on spending six figures to do it. It makes a lot more sense (cents) to go to law school if you can actually tolerate being a lawyer aka actually end up practicing law afterwards.
  2. Current Student Loan Debt 
    Another item to consider is how much student loan debt you currently have. Did your undergraduate degree cost six figures? Are you planning on going to a law school that will cost an additional six figures? Do you plan to work at a big law firm and earn six figures, or go into public service? (although, do consider the fact that for now, there is public service student loan forgiveness, but that might be going away in the years to come. tbd.) Anyway, my point is, you need to consider how much student loan debt you currently have to see if taking on more student loan debt burden is worth it. And I call it a burden because it is. I know plenty of lawyers in their mid 40’s who are still paying off debt.
  3. Law School University ranking 
    Are you attending a law school that anyone cares about? Unless you have a law practice that you are going to inherit from a family member who will provide on the job training, don’t go to a third tier law school. Not if you actually want to be a lawyer. You need to go to a school that is actually going to prepare you (at least somewhat) to pass the bar and that will actually prepare you (at least somewhat) for the practice of law. Although many lawyers will attest that there is a big learning curve going from law school to the practice of law, no matter how great of a law school you attend. You still need to go to a good one. Can’t get into a good one? Go back and redo things so you have better grades, a better LSAT score, or otherwise sets yourself apart from other candidates. Or don’t go to law school. And I don’t mean that as harshly as it sounds. But there are TONS of other jobs out there that may be just as fulfilling as being a lawyer. So if your grades or whatever else doesn’t cut it, it’s really not the end of the world. If you feel called to the law, strengthen your application to get yourself into a good school. Simple as that.
  4. Cost of tuition 
    Did you know the average cost of law school is about $140,000“A good return on investment is the return of your investment.” I will admit that when I went to law school, I wasn’t worried about how much it cost. For one thing, I attended a school that is notorious for its low cost of tuition. But to  be perfectly honest, if Danny had been accepted to another dental school, I probably wouldn’t have hesitated to attend a school that cost more money. I do not recommend this mentality. Think about how much your education is going to cost you! If you are spending $140k on tuition, think of all the things that you could buy with $140k. Our home cost $140k. You could get a SWEET boat for $140k. You could practically travel the world for $140k. Not to mention the fact that if you simply invested $140k you would probably get more money back than you may with your law degree, depending on what type of law you end up practicing. So, keep reality in mind. Pretend like you are paying for law school with money that you have in savings. Think about all of the other things you could do with that money. Because really, you are paying for that from your savings even if you take out student loans. And your paying it at a higher interest rate.
  5. Desired Job Post Graduation (understanding your post graduation salary)
    In considering whether law school is worth it to you financially, you should consider what kind of lawyer you want to be post graduation and what salary that lawyer earns. For example, is it your dream to be a public defender? The national average salary of a public defender is $47,500- accordingly, you might not want to take on six figures of debt. On the other hand, if you are interested in big law and in the right market, you could start as a first year associate at about $180k per year. In that case, $140k of debt might be more worth it to you. There are of course other factors to consider in the type of job you are going to take– for example, if its public interest, you might be able to take advantage of public service loan forgiveness (assuming it still exists by the time you graduate).

So, is going to law school financially worth it? The short answer is yes, if you think it through and do it right.

9 Comments on “IS GOING TO LAW SCHOOL FINANCIALLY WORTH IT?

  1. I think number 1 is the one that most law students miss. People view law school as a fallback option if they don’t know what else to do when they graduate from college. I have often heard “You can do anything with a law degree!” Maybe, but at what cost? Having hundreds of thousands in debt can really limit your options.

    1. I totally agree Matt. Practicing law is definitely not for everyone and yes– why incur all the debt if you could have taken an alternative path anyway?

  2. I’m not sure if I agree! I am not a lawyer but have certainly read lots of testimonies from those who are. Many of them regret the debt they have incurred and the work itself, but especially the debt. Speaking as someone about to retire, I cannot stress enough how QUICKLY life passes by! So many young people today are spending a great deal of this precious time climbing out of horrendous debt. It impacts everything–when to marry, when to have children, how many to have, buying a home, saving etc.

    Entering your forties with a debt millstone like this is something to contemplate very seriously before taking out loans.

    1. Precisely the point of the blog post– if a person is going to go to law school, they should weigh out the 5 factors I discussed (number one being, will you even like being a lawyer, haha) And I completely agree with the last bit you said– student loans should absolutely be taken very seriously especially when it comes to something like a law degree, where so many people end up not practicing law in the end. Its a decision that requires careful consideration. Thanks for your thoughts!

  3. I guess it all comes down to choosing what will ultimately make you most happy.

    I went the finance route and became a CPA. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it is a better career choice, but the low student debt that I graduated with was 1) manageable and 2) enabled me to start wealth building earlier on in my career instead of focusing on the mountain of debt. Corporate progression-wise, I have not experienced at plateaus, to date.

    That’s not to say all law student graduation with a mountain of debt, so I’d be curious to hear their reactions.

    1. Very true. I was really lucky to not have a mountain of student loan debt from law school, and I’m sure I’d feel differently about everything if I had. Thanks for sharing!

  4. You definitely need to make sure you want to be a lawyer because that’s what you’ll be at the end of the day! Although some people with law degrees transition into other fields, they usually practice law for awhile. It’s not the jack-of-all trades degree some people seem to think it is.

    I agree with you that becoming a lawyer can definitely work out financially but you need to approach the decision with caution, exactly following these five points!

  5. We faced some of the same questions when my husband started law school six years ago. The economy was really bad then and all of these articles were coming out about what a bad idea it was to go to law school. Not only that, we had three kids and he was 42. We had gotten out of debt from his other graduate degree at the beginning of our marriage and I was dreading taking on more loans. The worst part was when I ran into a guy at Best Buy and he said that he had graduated at the top of his class from the law school my husband was attending! I was so stressed that first year – we had so much to lose.

    My husband’s LSAT scores were not terrible, but not enough to get into a top-tier law school either. We opted to go to a third-tier law school that had a good reputation in the region it was located in – our reasoning was that many people in our region (the Midwest) tended to hire locally because Harvard grads usually didn’t care to go there. They offered him a great scholarship that allowed him to attend for only $6-7K in tuition once he became a resident, and the area was very low cost of living. We graduated with about $73K in debt because he had a family to support too and it was hard for me to work with small kids, and he ended up getting hired by the state. The pay is not fantastic, but with frugal living we are hoping to be done paying off our loans in just two or three more years. Many of his classmates got hired pretty quickly out of law school as well into either private or public firm positions.

    I just wanted to share this because I think some third-tier schools are worth going to. If you do decide to go to one, though, be prepared to work hard so that you can be at the top of your class, and to network and do a good job on your clerkships. Be wise in researching the school’s reputation in the region you’d like to work in once you are done.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing this perspective Jenni! I agree with precisely what you said– you have to do it smart (just as you did). I suppose that’s true for attending law school generally. Thanks for your input!

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