Embarking on the journey of law school is no small feat. For three intensive years, aspiring attorneys sacrifice potential earnings and immerse themselves deeply in a challenging and high-pressure academic setting. Before making such a profound commitment, it’s crucial to weigh the pros and cons.
In this piece, I will delve into the critical considerations that you should think about before attending law school. I will also break these considerations down into a simple cost-benefits analysis structure!
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Law School is Incredibly Expensive
Law school is incredibly expensive and the majority of today’s law students are saddled with at least tens of thousands of dollars of student debt. On top of the fact that you will have to begin paying down your law school loans once you find a job, you also have whatever student debt you took on from college to consider.
If you thought your four-year degree was expensive, wait until you see how expensive law school is. Although the cost of law school varies tremendously based on the particular school and whether or not you obtain scholarships, it’s generally a very expensive undertaking.
Understanding the Debt Landscape
According to the Education Data Initiative, the average law school graduate owes $160,000 in student loan debt. This is just the average, if you are considering attending a law school in a high cost of living area such as Washington D.C. or New York City you can add tens of thousands of dollars to that student loan bill.
Ways to Alleviate the Financial Burden
The good news is that there are a multitude of things that you can do to substantially decrease the cost of law school. The LSAT score is incredibly determinative of what school you can attend and what kind of scholarship schools will offer you. A great situation to be in is to knock your LSAT out of the park and apply to a law school that has a median LSAT score below yours. You are more likely to receive merit based scholarships from law schools with lower median LSAT scores than your own. There are also a variety of diversity scholarships available to incoming 1L law students that you may be able to take advantage of. LSAC has a database of scholarships for incoming 1Ls here.
If you know you want to stay within your state after law school, most public schools offer a considerable discount to in-state students. In many cases, public law schools will save you more than $50,000 versus similarly ranked private law schools.
Housing is Another Major Expense
Another thing to consider is that after tuition, housing will be your greatest expense during your three years in law school. The cost of housing differs significantly depending on where you attend law school. Major cities such as Washington D.C, Chicago, and NYC command extremely high rents for very little space. Paying $1,500 a month for a studio apartment may seem doable as a Junior Associate earning a six-figure salary but as a law student, housing will typically require you to rely on student loans.
Incoming first year law students will typically find it advisable to save on housing by living with a roommate or opting for a smaller apartment in a less desirable neighborhood. Whatever you choose to do, just be aware that housing is a major additional cost especially for someone without any income coming in.
You will Lose Three Years of Income
Your total law school expenses shouldn’t be tallied up to just tuition and cost of living. What about those three years of lost income? The vast majority of full time law programs are three years, although you can work your second and third year, most schools do not allow students to work their 1L year.
Some goods news is that the ABA has dropped its twenty hour maximum work week. Previously, law students could not work more than twenty hours a week during the semester due to an ABA rule. Of course, just because you can work more than twenty hours a week in law school does not mean that you want to. Law students are faced with an incredibly heavy workload even before the prospect of having to work a part-time job. One risk of working too many hours is that it will eventually negatively impact your grades. Reducing your future student loan debt by working in law school is a noble goal but law school grades are extremely important and high grades will pay dividends for years to come after law school.
Entry-Level Lawyer Salaries Vary Significantly
You are probably already aware that the average junior attorney does not start off making $205,000 a year for Kirkland & Ellis or Skadden. The payscale for junior attorneys is highly stratified, with a small minority working at BigLaw firms that pay six-figure salaries. Public interest, state and federal government, and small to medium sized law firms takes the lions share of the rest of law school graduates. These types of careers make up the vast majority of the legal profession and they also pay significantly less than their BigLaw peers. Many entry-level attorneys earn well below $100,000 their first year in the legal field. Local district attorney and public defender offices often pay first-year attorneys approximately $50,000!
Law School is Becoming Increasingly Competitive
The number of students enrolling into law school has consistently increased for the past several years. The number of 1Ls in 2021 increased nearly 12% compared to 2020. More law students across the country means that you have more graduates coming out of law school with a relatively unchanged number of entry-level jobs available. This is a recipe for a more competitive hiring process in a field that has traditionally been relatively competitive. More law students means that as a student is has become more and more important to focus on high grades and extracurricular activities in order to make yourself stand out from the crowd.
Highly Touted Biglaw Jobs Are Competitive and Few
Many law students enter law school with dreams of becoming a BigLaw attorney and earning a coveted $200,000+ salary their first year on the job. Unfortunately, BigLaw jobs are extremely competitive and BigLaw firms tend to be very picky (and rightfully so) in the associates they choose to hire.
Your chances of becoming a BigLaw attorney after law school roughly depend on two factors: (i) what law school do you attend, and (ii) what are your grades? BigLaw firms get their pick of law schools to recruit candidates from because of their prestige and payscale but they recruit most heavily from T14 law schools. The “T14 law schools” are a list of schools ranked by US News and they are considered the most prestigious law schools in the country. You will probably recognize most of them – Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Columbia to name a few. These schools are incredibly difficult to attend, as they have extremely high LSAT and GPA requirements. An extremely high GPA is not a requirement to obtain a BigLaw job if you attend one of these schools but it becomes more and more important as you go outside of the T14 list.
You should be aware that if you do not attend one of these T14 schools it will be significantly more difficult to obtain a BigLaw job and you will need high grades.
Curious about what law school you can get admitted to? Check out our admissions predictor!
Real Life Lawyering is Different than T.V
There have been so many legal t.v shows over the years – Suits, Law and Order, and Better Call Saul to name a few. I’m a big fan of Better Call Saul but these legal fictions do tend to color the landscape of the legal profession and what lawyers actually do.
Harvey Specter is the main character’s mentor in Suits. His day to day seems to cover the gauntlet of lawsuits, mediations, and M&A. Real life lawyering is far more specialized than it is portrayed in this show. Corporate firms have entire practice groups dedicated solely to corporate M&A. Lawyers don’t flip flop between different practice groups, especially as they get more seniority in a firm. Litigation in a courtroom setting has also become increasingly rare, disputes are settled in a conference room or over zoom between lawyers or clients. Another point to make is that the job of a first year associate is far less glamorous than Mike Ross’ first year was in Suits. As a first year you will typically be conducting endless hours of document review at a desk answering to a mid-level associate. Sometimes you will be able to join in on big conference calls and eventually once you learn the basics you will be able to take on some more substantive work. But during your first year at a firm you can expect your work to be thoroughly redlined and your emails to the senior associates to be reviewed beforehand.
Work-Life Balance and Long-Term Commitment
While the prospect of a rewarding career and potentially high earnings can be enticing, one must also consider the lifestyle that accompanies a legal profession. Here are some things to think about:
- Demanding Hours: Many lawyers, especially those in high-paying corporate law positions, frequently work long, strenuous hours. Not only that, if you find yourself in a Corporate law job, you will be on call 24/7. Many lawyers, especially early on in their career, find it incredibly difficult to simply find times to unwind.
- Continued Learning: The legal field is constantly evolving. Even after completing law school, you’ll need to continually update your knowledge. This means attending seminars, reading updated materials, and possibly taking additional courses.
- Emotional Strain: This varies tremendously depending on the practice area you choose, but it’s generally accurate that lawyers on a whole work a fairly stressful job. The emotional toll can become extremely burdensome if you do not develop mechanisms to cope with it.
- Networking and Building a Practice: Success in law isn’t just about understanding legal principles. Especially for those wanting to start their own practice, building a network and attracting clients is a significant part of the job. This means attending events, joining legal associations, and often working to promote oneself.
- Reevaluation of Personal Values: Depending on the area of law you choose, you might sometimes represent clients or cases that challenge your personal values or beliefs. It’s essential to reflect on how flexible you can be and where you draw your ethical lines.
Thing’s You Can Do Before Applying to Law School
Intern Before You Apply to Law School
Law school is an enormous investment of time and money. If you are serious about attending, you should consider interning in the legal field before you apply to law school. Gaining hands-on experience in the legal field before committing to law school can offer invaluable insights. Consider taking up an internship or a part-time position in a legal setting. By doing so, you can:
- Explore Various Sectors: If you’re leaning towards Criminal Law, shadowing professionals in public defender or district attorney offices can be enlightening. Similarly, if corporate law intrigues you, spending time in a corporate legal department can give you a feel of the environment.
- Understand the Day-to-Day: As mentioned above, law as portrayed in media versus real-life practice can differ considerably. An internship can help demystify the day-to-day tasks, challenges, and rewards of a legal career.
- Build Connections: Networking early can not only guide your career decisions but also establish relationships that might be beneficial during job placements after graduation.
Reflect on Your Career Aspirations
I strongly suggest considering exactly what you hope to get out of law school. Do you want to make a huge salary working eighty hour work weeks for a big law firm? Do you want to work as an underpaid government attorney, performing frequently emotionally tolling work for an often thankless client? I am painting a decidedly negative picture here, but life as an attorney is not easy nor is it for everybody.
Do visions of high-profile courtroom battles excite you, or are you more drawn to behind-the-scenes contract negotiations? Recognize that each comes with its own set of demands.
Conduct a Thorough Cost-Benefit Analysis
I did a cost-benefit analysis of attending law school and sat on it for several weeks until I made up my mind. Even after this, my final decision really rested on how well I performed on the LSAT. I was not going to attend unless I could pull a high enough score to get me in the top 20 or so schools. For me, that and some scholarship money made it worth it to take the dive and jump in head first.
I would recommend that you also perform a cost-benefit analysis and evaluate the tangible and intangible costs against the potential benefits. Important factors to consider include tuition fees, living expenses, lost wages from potential work, and the emotional and mental toll of rigorous academic demands. Balance these against the potential benefits: career opportunities, earnings potential, job satisfaction, and personal fulfillment. Your LSAT score, coupled with potential scholarship opportunities, might significantly influence this analysis.
Law school can be a great option for those students who are truly interested in a career in the law. Practicing as an attorney can be a truly rewarding career but it does also come with its downsides. Hopefully, this article has given you a few things to consider in determining whether or not law school is the right option for you!