Is Law School Worth It?

According to a Gallup poll of over 4,000 adults who obtained a law degree between 2000 and 2015, only 23% said obtaining a law degree was worth the cost. With the average law school debt coming in around $145,500, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics.

With many law school graduates somewhat regretting their decision to attend, it makes sense to examine whether going to law school is still worth it. Keeping in mind the high tuition costs, interest rates, and potential salaries, another good metric to consider would be its return on investment (ROI), calculated as its salary-to-debt ratio in a study by online lender SoFi.

Key Takeaways

  • The majority of law school graduates (over three quarters) feel that their degree was not worth the cost. 
  • The average law school graduate debt is $145,500, while their starting salary comes in much less. 
  • According to a SoFi survey, the school with the best salary-to-debt ratio is Brigham Young University, which comes in at 1.7x. 

Average Law School Debt and Costs

Going to law school full-time requires a three-year commitment, and the average tuition and fees for just one of those years at an American Bar Association-accredited institution are already high. The average tuition at private law school was $49,312 in 2019, compared to an average of $28,186 at a public school. This cost does not include rent, food, transportation, and other living expenses.

As the law school workload does not permit most students to hold jobs, student loans represent the most common method of paying these costs. Consequently, the average law school graduate has over $145,500 in student debt.

For many students, student loan debt accumulates on top of debt they already carry from undergraduate school. While most lenders allow the deferment of undergraduate loan payments while attending law school, any unsubsidized portion of such debt continues to accrue interest. All told, it is not uncommon for a law school graduate to enter the working world with a sizable negative net worth. 

$28,186

The average cost of law school per year at a public institution.

Expected Salary After Law School

Taking on such debt might be a smart investment if a law degree provided reasonable assurance of a high-paying job. Ideally, recent graduates should earn yearly salaries equal to or greater than their total student debt. This level of pay usually allows for paying off student loans within 10 years without materially affecting a person's lifestyle.

Stories abound, however, of law school graduates struggling to find any sort of legal job, much less one that enables the repayment of student debt in a timely manner. 

The New York Times revealed in 2015 that more than 20% of graduates from the class of 2010 held jobs that did not require law degrees. Only 40% worked in law firms, compared to 60% from the class of 2000. The remainder operated solo practices, with varying degrees of success, or performed contract work.

The SoFi study, the latest which incorporates data from student-loan refinancing applications between 2014 and 2016, shows that some schools do better than others when it comes to both job placements and salaries. Looking at students three years out of law school, Cornell University, Columbia University, and New York University take the top three spots in the SoFi study with average salary paid in excess of $177,000. Consider that the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2019 had a median income of $122,960. 

For the class of 2019, Columbia University saw 98.8% of its graduates find full-time jobs, 10 months after graduation. At New York University, 96.9% of the class of 2019 is employed 10 months after graduation. In some cases, of course, students may choose to put off those high-money jobs for prestigious public service spots: In 2019, 62 of 203 Yale Law School graduates were employed in clerkships.

Graduates of second-tier programs often settle for work outside of top law firms, where the pay is much lower. The 2018 median pay for law school graduates across the board was only $70,000. Idealistic young attorneys who choose public service fare even worse financially. Entry-level prosecuting attorneys earn a median pay of $56,200; public defenders do slightly better at $58,300.

Schools with the Best Salary-to-Debt Ratio

Even new lawyers who land good jobs rarely receive paychecks commensurate with their debt levels. The SoFi analysis also ranks law schools based on which offer the best value defined by their salary-to-debt ratio. That figure is an indication of how much more your potential salary could exceed your potential debt and help make a more informed decision about whether law school is worth it.

Brigham Young University takes the number-one spot. With students expecting an average salary of $108,000 and holding an average debt just below $65,000, the school has an impressive 1.7x salary-to-debt ratio, making it a good value-for-money bet.

Tied for second are the University of Texas at Austin, Yale University, and the University of Houston. The University of Texas at Austin comes with the ratio at 1.4x on the back of lower debt burden thanks to its relatively cheaper tuition. Yale Law School also ranks second with graduates' higher salaries of $177,771 compared to BYU at $64,873 and $147,44 at UT, but also because of its generosity with financial aid.

Opting for schools that fare poorly on this metric could cost you. Take, for example, Florida Coastal School of Law, which ranked lowest on the SoFi ROI list, with a salary-to-debt ratio of 0.5x. Let's break down the numbers: The school's tuition, $43,000, is on par with some of the top schools in the country. Students graduate with $158,427 in debt—considerably higher than the $123,793 Yale grads have—but the average annual salary for graduates is only $84,664.

Other Considerations

The numbers do not consider the financial risk of being a law school dropout. The first-year law school attrition rate nationwide is nearly 7%. Enrolling in law school but failing to finish offers no greater marketability than a bachelor's degree. It does, however, substantially add to a person's debt load.

All told, the decision to attend law school is one that should be approached with great consideration. Indeed, most attorneys have successful, high-paying careers. Supply and demand dynamics, however, have changed considerably since the 1980s, with fewer high-paying, entry-level jobs, and many more law school graduates chasing those jobs. Pile on tuition costs—which, for decades, have risen at nearly three times the inflation rate—and going to law school is not the financial no-brainer that it once was.