A 2015 study by the Access Group Center for Research and Policy Analysis found that only one in five people who graduated from law school between 2010 and 2015 strongly agreed that obtaining a law degree was worth the cost. Perhaps more troubling, only 38% of law school graduates, down from 56% between 2000 and 2009, described themselves as having a good job after graduation.
With four out of five recent law school graduates at least somewhat regretting their decision to attend – and six out of 10 failing to find a good job after graduating – it makes sense to examine whether going to law school is still worth it in 2017. Keeping in mind the high tuition costs, interest rates and potential salaries, another good metric to consider would be its ROI (return on investment), calculated as its salary-to-debt ratio in a new study by online lender SoFi.
Law School 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 often exceeds $40,000. 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 in 2015 took on over $140,000 in student debt to obtain his or her degree.
For many students, student loan debt accumulates on top of debt they already carry from undergraduate school. Members of the class of 2016 graduated college with over $37,000 in student debt on average. 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 net worth of negative $250,000.
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, which incorporates data from student-loan refinancing applications between Jan. 2014 and Dec. 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 2015 had the top 10% of lawyers earning more than $187,200.
For the Class of 2015, Columbia University saw 401 out of its 413 graduates find full time jobs; at New York University the numbers were 474 of 485. In some cases, of course, students may choose to put off those high-money jobs for prestigious public service spots: In 2015, 99 of 199 Yale Law School graduates were employed in clerkships, which paid a median salary of $69,000 (Yale ranks 8th on the SoFi list for salaries).
Graduates of second-tier programs often settle for work outside of top law firms, where the pay is much lower. The 2015 median pay for law school graduates across the board was only $64,800. Idealistic young attorneys who choose public service fare even worse financially. Entry-level district attorneys earn a median pay of $37,000; public defenders do slightly better at $40,000.
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 a good value-for-money bet. University of Texas at Austin, comes in second with the ratio at 1.4x on the back of lower debt burden thanks to its relatively cheaper tuition. Yale Law School ranks third – not just because of higher salaries graduates get compared to the top two on this list ($177,771; BYU is $64,873 and UT, $147,44), 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, $44,000, is at 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.
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%. A handful of law schools lost over 30% of their first-year students in 2015. 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, 1% of 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 three times the inflation rate – and going to law school is not the financial no-brainer that it once was. For more on the choice, see Career Advice: Accounting vs. Law and Career Advice: Investment Banking vs. Law.