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Is going to law school worth it?

Ask these questions before you decide a JD is your next step forward.

Becoming a lawyer is a noble goal. It generally pays well and at the end of the day, you know you’re likely to have a profound impact on someone’s life. But, you need perseverance and nerves of steel. You also likely need deep pockets.

Is law school worth it?

It depends on who you ask. Law students who graduate with good job prospects and relatively low debt will likely say their JD is well worth it. But not all graduates get high-paying jobs.

Still, the median salary for a lawyer was about $122,960 in 2019, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Not bad when you consider the BLS reports the median yearly pay for a full-time employee in 2019 for all jobs in the US was about $53,490.

How much does law school cost?

Law school isn’t cheap. Tuition and fees average about $40,000 a year, according to a 2019 report by U.S. News. That’s not counting housing, books and other expenses. And costs vary greatly based on whether the university is private or public, and if you're paying in- or out-of-state tuition. 

For instance, at the University of Michigan Law School, in-state tuition for the 2019-2020 academic year was $61,526 per year, excluding books and room and board. At Yale Law school, it was $63,878 per year — again excluding books and housing. And at Columbia University, tuition hit $69,896 per year.

While there are much less expensive options, graduating from a top-ranked school will increase your prospects of getting a top-paying job in law. Even so, according to a 2018 report by the BLS, job prospects remain good well into 2028 for anyone entering the field of law.

6 questions to ask yourself if you're considering law school

Ask yourself these six questions for a good starting point when deciding if law school makes sense for you. It gives you the chance to consider the cost, salary expectations, job prospects and more.

1. Do I really want to be a lawyer?

That’s the first question you should ask yourself before pursuing a degree in law. Part of knowing if you want to be a lawyer is having a realistic idea of what the job is like, and what it takes to land it.

Consider that becoming a lawyer means:

  • Preparing for and scoring well on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT)
  • Attending another two to three years of school
  • Preparing for and passing the bar
  • Working in an extremely high-stress environment

2. Why do I want to go to law school?

People go to law school for any number of reasons, and sometimes for all the wrong ones. Prestige and enjoying a career that commands respect may top your list. Earning potential, helping people and the intellectual challenge that comes with working in diverse practice areas are also common motivations for entering the field of law. 

But with the perks, come a few drawbacks as well. Practicing law can be stressful, and it’s a good bet you’ll often be putting in long hours at the office. Law school usually takes another three years on top of your four-year degree — that’s seven years of schooling before you even take the bar.

3. How much debt will I rack up?

Full-time law school requires a three-year commitment at an average tuition of $40,000 per year. That doesn’t include room and board, food, transportation, books and other living expenses.

The law school course load doesn’t always allow students to hold down a job, either. That’s one reason why law students rack up such high debt. Students who completed their law degree in 2016 carried an average debt load of $145,500, according to a 2018 report by the National Center for Education Statistics. And that balance is on top of any student loan debt from undergraduate school. While many lenders let law students defer debt while attending law school, the unsubsidized portion of your debt will continue to accrue interest.

4. How much do I have to pay?

When it comes to law school, you’ll pay anywhere from full tuition to no tuition. That’s because law schools compete for the best and brightest students. Much like attending college on an athletic scholarship, a law student might actually attend a high-ranking law school for next to nothing. 

The best chance to earn a full scholarship to law school is to have a strong LSAT score. You might also consider early decision scholarships that require your commitment to attend a certain college or go into a specific field of study.

5. Should I take time off first?

The best time to attend law school is different for everyone. Finances, family obligations and undergrad experiences all play a role in whether someone waits for a few years or jumps right in. 

By waiting to attend law school, you’ll have more time to prepare for the LSAT. Since your LSAT score is vital to your financial aid prospects, scholarship opportunities and law school applications, preparation can be worth the wait.

6. Can I handle the course load?

Law school often leaves little time for outside work or play. The course load of law school ensures that when you aren’t in class, you're studying. 

The first year of law school is particularly demanding, so anyone contemplating attending should understand it will likely be more stressful and time consuming than undergraduate courses. If you have significant obligations outside of school, it may be beneficial to wait before jumping in.

How can I use a law degree?

Law school can lead to jobs in many different fields, including positions as a: 

  • Corporate lawyer. Makes sure a company's transactions are legal.
  • Cybersecurity lawyer. Understands and applies privacy and cybersecurity law as an adviser or litigator. 
  • Immigration lawyer. Helps immigrants navigate the path to gaining citizenship.
  • Intellectual property lawyer. Protects people’s creative ideas, inventions, trade secrets and more from theft.
  • Military attorney. Resolves military justice issues.
  • Political lawyer. Works for political parties, in election campaigns or with political action committees.
  • Trial lawyer. Can be a criminal defense lawyer, criminal prosecutor or a civil litigator.

You can choose from dozens of other areas and specialties to pursue, but some pay more than others. It’s worth taking a look at all your options beyond what first catches your interest.

How much can I earn as a lawyer?

It depends. Where you work, who you work for and what field or specialty of law you enter into are three of the biggest factors that affect how much you earn.

Lawyers in all fields made a median salary of $122,960 in 2019, according to a BLS report. The highest-paid 10% earned more than $208,000, and the lowest-paid 10% made less than $59,670. Both salaries and jobs are expected to grow at a rate of about 6% over the next decade, according to the agency.

Bottom line

Law school requires a significant amount of money, time and effort. And it’s not for everyone.

If you’re still not really sure about law school, circle back to the beginning and ask yourself why you want to be a lawyer. From there, you can read up on how to pay for law school and your best law school loan options.

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