Attending law school is a significant undertaking. Law students forego three years of income and dedicate a significant amount of time to succeed in an often difficult and stressful environment. There are a lot of things that you should consider when determining whether law school is the right choice for you. In this article, we breakdown some of the important benefits and costs that come with attending law school.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Try and intern in a practice area that you have a serious interest in. Interested in Criminal Law? A public defender or district attorney would be happy to have you, even if it is just for a month it is a great opportunity to get a better understanding of an attorney’s day-to-day work life.
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.
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.
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!