The Real Cost Of Getting A Law Degree — How To Tell If It’s Actually A Good Decision
Law school can seem like an easy choice for recent graduates. For those of us with less practical majors and students still uncertain about what to do next, it can present a clear path to a prestigious career. As a student fresh out of college, I was honored to be offered admission by a number of prestigious law schools. I ultimately attended Yale Law, and the decision to attend turned out to be the right one for me.
But while it worked out for me, I am not sure that I fully grasped at the time that the choice to attend law school is a huge financial decision that should not be taken lightly. On a 10-year repayment schedule at a 5% interest rate, this can amount to loan payments of around $1,600 per month. In addition, most students must forego three years they could have spent in the workforce. This opportunity cost can amount to quite a lot of money.
For many, like me, those seem like reasonable costs compared to a lifetime of a lucrative and fulfilling career. However, some people finish law school and go on to do things that do not necessarily require a legal education, such as starting a business or working as a consultant. Some of them wonder if getting the degree was ultimately worth it for them. Others have their options limited because they have not taken or not passed the bar, an exam that new law students are rarely concerned about.
Despite the costs, a legal education can be a great investment. Here are three things you should consider before sending in your deposit for law school.
1. What Do You Want to Do After Law School, & Is The Potential Debt It Worth It?
Many lucrative jobs can follow law school. First-year associates at some of the largest law firms in the U.S. are typically making $190,000 a year, while the median salary for entry-level public interest attorneys, local prosecutors, and public defenders is around $50,000 to $60,000 annually, depending on location. Of course, a high salary is not the only value one can derive from a career in the law. Attorneys at large law firms might work longer hours than attorneys in some other fields. Fewer hours can afford an attorney more time connecting with friends and family and pursuing their hobbies and other interests.
Moreover, facing $150,000 of debt at a $50,000 salary may not seem like a big deal if you are able to do work that you find meaningful and help people in need with your skills and knowledge. And with student loan forgiveness and adjustments to monthly payments based on income, those with qualifying government loans working for qualified employers might not be too concerned. But law school hopefuls that might assume all attorneys make extremely high salaries should be sure to do their research to get a realistic picture of what the kind of job they are interested in might pay. Moreover, students should understand that the legal field can be elitist. Like some other fields, the specific school a law student attends can affect their post-graduation job opportunities.
2, What Law Schools Have Offered You Admission?
With so many talented law students graduating each year, legal employers must find ways to determine who their best candidates are. Often, they default to focusing on the law school a candidate attended and that candidate’s GPA or class rank. Students from the most elite institutions (some of which have alternative grading systems and no rankings) can, on the whole, expect to have more job opportunities upon graduation. The kind of large, global law firms that pay six-figure salaries often hire students graduating from only the highest-ranked law schools in the country (as ranked by U.S. News and World Report) and the students with top grades from strong regional schools. This means that students who fell in the middle of their class at schools outside of those highest ranked may find it difficult to obtain such lucrative positions.
3. Is Now The Right Time For You To Attend?
Law school might prove a great choice for some to begin right after completing an undergraduate degree, but many students might benefit from pursuing other options before diving into law school. It is common to take time off between an undergraduate degree and starting law school (most commonly 2-3 years). Some take this as an opportunity to explore a field of interest to determine whether they would enjoy working in that field long-term. Others take opportunities as legal secretaries, receptionists and interns to get a better sense of what everyday legal work is like or take time to study more build up their resumes with the hopes of increasing improving their chances of admission. Each person should adhere to their own personal timeline and make sure that they start law school if and when it is right for them.
A career in the law can be financially and emotionally rewarding. I think most attorneys would agree that it feels great to tell people what you do for a living. However, students should not let the joy of being offered admission make them forget the very real costs of obtaining a legal education. Each individual must perform their personal cost-benefit analysis to decide if law school is the right choice for them.
Tashiana is a Yale Law grad. All opinions, statements, and sentiments herein are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of her employer.
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