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Is the Cost of Becoming a Lawyer Worth It?

Is the Cost of Becoming a Lawyer Worth It?
Brian O'Connell
Brian O'ConnellUpdated December 2, 2022
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While it may only take you a few years to graduate from law school, you can earn a lifetime of benefits, especially in terms of knowledge learned and money earned. However, like any academic experience, there are some caveats attached to attending law school. In most cases, the academic regimen can be daunting. So, too, can the cost of attending law school, which can exceed $100,000 in some cases.To answer the question of whether law school is worth it, it’s important to consider the benefits and challenges of attending law school, as well as earning potential after graduation.

How Much Does Law School Cost?

In 2021, the average total cost for three years of law school — meaning tuition and living expenses — was $193,170, according to a report by Best Colleges. That being said, just how expensive law school ultimately is depends on what school you attend and where you live while you’re in school.

Private Law School Cost

Attending a private law school can certainly increase the overall cost of going to law school. The average tuition plus fees for one year at a private law school is $50,770. Ivy League schools are even more expensive, running an average of $69,070 per year.For all three years of private law school, which is the typical length of a program, tuition and fees plus living expenses totaled an average of $223,110 as of 2021.

Public Law School Cost

Public law school, especially for in-state residents, tends to be more cost-effective. The average cost of tuition and fees per year for an in-state public school was $28,480 in 2021, and $40,860 for non-residents. When totaling tuition, fees, and living expenses for three years, the average total bill for in-state residents was $156,240 and $193,380 for out-of-state students.

How Much Do Lawyers Make?

Once a law student graduates, their annual income will largely depend on what area of law they practice. That being said, industry data does provide some rough estimates of what a practicing lawyer can expect to earn on an annual basis.

Mean Law School Graduate Income

Nationally, the mean — or average — annual income for a lawyer is $120,910. However, that figure can vary a lot when broken down by state. In Montana, for example, the mean annual income for a lawyer is $88,600, whereas in Washington, D.C., it’s $192,530.

Median Law School Graduate Income

The national median annual income for a lawyer — meaning the middle figure in a list of lawyers’ salaries arranged from highest to lowest — is $144,230.

Range of Law School Graduate Incomes

There’s a lot of room for variation in annual income for lawyers. Nationally, lawyers in the 10th percentile earned a more modest $58,220, while those in the 85th percentile earned a much more sizable $182,490. How much a law school graduate will ultimately earn depends a lot on whether they opt for the private vs. public sector, what size of law firm they go to, where they live, and what field they specialize in (more on that below).

How Much Lawyers Make by Specialization/Industry

Lawyers can serve in different professional capacities, and that impacts their average annual salaries. Here’s a look at how much what lawyers in general professional categories can expect to make on an annual basis:
Average Annual Salary by Type of Law Practice
Public Service$48,000
Prosecuting Attorney$58,300
Local Prosecutor$56,200
Large Law Firm$190,000
Midsize Law Firm$115,000
Small Law Firm$90,000

Pros and Cons of Attending Law School

As with any academic experience, law school has its upsides and downsides. Here’s a closer look at the pros and cons of studying to become a lawyer:
Pros of Attending Law SchoolCons of Attending Law School
A wide range of job optionsLaw school is challenging
Potential for great payIt’s expensive
An opportunity to learn and growLong hours after law school

Reasons to Go to Law School

Here’s a look at the upsides of moving forward with attending law school:
  • A wide range of job options: Once a law student graduates and becomes a practicing attorney, that student has myriad professional legal options in a wide range of industries. This can include manufacturing, finance, sports, health care, politics, and criminal law, among others.
  • Potential for great pay: You have to work hard to earn it, but an experienced professional attorney can expect to make six figures annually, particularly in the private sector.
  • An opportunity to learn and grow: Lawyers study hard and are expected to be fast learners. Those that make the cut can expect to turn those characteristics into becoming smarter, more disciplined, more analytical, and more capable of becoming master public speakers and negotiators.
Recommended: Bar Exam & Study Loans: Refinancing Options

Reasons Not to Go to Law School

Here are the downsides you’ll need to consider as you decide whether law school worth it:
  • Law school is challenging: The attrition rate for the first year of law school is well over 3% — and there’s a reason for that. The study regimen, long hours of work, and tough academic standards make law school a daunting prospect for many law students. Some students may find it helpful to study pre-law to make sure this is an area in which they want to study further.
  • It’s expensive: As noted above, three years in a solid law school may result in a student taking on about $193,170 in overall student loan debt. That’s a tough financial hurdle to clear, even for a high-earning attorney. You’ll likely have repayment of a student loan hanging above your head for at least a little while post-law school.
  • Long hours after law school: Even once you’ve cleared the hurdle of law school, it’s not necessarily smooth sailing ahead. Many lawyers work long hours. Most work more than 40 hours a week, and lawyers working for big firms work an average of 66 hours per week.

The Takeaway

If you really want to become a professional attorney, the quickest path to an industry position is through law school — all three years of it. The academic work is hard, and the costs can be prohibitive. But if you put the time in and graduate from a good law school, there’s no reason you can’t become a practicing lawyer and enjoy the financial and educational benefits that often go with becoming a professional attorney.

3 Student Loan Refi Tips

  1. Refinancing your student loan can lower your monthly payments and help you adjust your loan term. Compare student loan refinancing rates to find a loan that works for you.
  2. Paying extra each month on your student loan can reduce the interest you pay and so lower your total loan cost over time. (The law prohibits prepayment penalties on federal or private student loans.)
  3. Depending on their income, qualified borrowers can deduct the interest they pay for student loans, both federal or private, up to $2,500 per year. The deduction phases out for modified adjusted gross incomes of $70,000 to $85,000 for single individuals and $145,000 to $175,000 for people married and filing jointly.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is law school worth the cost?
Is law school worth it if you don't want to be a lawyer?
Does a law degree pay for itself long term?
Photo credit: iStock/svetikd

About the Author

Brian O'Connell

Brian O'Connell

Brian O’Connell is a freelance writer based in Bucks County, Penn. A former Wall Street trader, he is the author of the books CNBC's Creating Wealth and The Career Survival Guide. His work has appeared in multiple media platforms, including, Bloomberg, CBS News, Yahoo Finance, and U.S. News & World Report.
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