Understand the Cost, Payoff of Law School Before Getting a J.D.

Aspiring lawyers who dream of six-figure salaries in their first legal jobs should know that attending a prestigious law school increases the odds of achieving that career goal.

Some law schools have a long history of getting graduates hired by large corporate law firms that offer hefty starting salaries. Among the 183 ranked law schools that reported the private sector starting salaries of graduates in the class of 2020 to U.S. News in an annual survey, 55 schools reported a median salary at or above $100,000.

The 22 schools whose 2020 grads were paid the most in full-time private sector jobs each reported a median salary of $190,000.

Prospective law school students should keep in mind that these salary figures may have been negatively affected by the coronavirus pandemic and its related economic crisis.

An employment and salary report from the National Association for Law Placement, NALP, revealed that the J.D. class of 2020 had an overall employment rate of 88.4% — nearly two percentage points lower than the prior year’s class.

But that doesn’t necessarily mark the beginning of a downward trend. Instead, it “is likely to be a pandemic-related blip, with stronger numbers following for the Classes of 2021 and 2022 as the economy around us generally and the legal economy specifically have been booming as the pent-up demand from the pandemic-lockdown’s end has been unleashed,” James G. Leipold, NALP’s executive director, explained in a press release when the report’s initial findings were released in August 2021.

“Fueled by overall private practice growth, students from the Class of 2020 were able to secure jobs at a higher rate than many had predicted. That is good news for law schools, law school graduates, and the legal profession as a whole, and barring any unforeseen bumps in the road, there is reason to be cautiously optimistic for the employment outcomes for the Class of 2021,” he wrote.

Starting Salaries for Law School Graduates

At the majority of law schools, a typical graduate cannot expect to get a $190,000 salary offer from a private sector employer. Among the 183 ranked law schools that reported the median private sector salary for their 2020 classes, the overall median was $80,000 and the range was $48,000 to $190,000. Only 16% of law schools that provided this data point reported median salaries at or over $160,000.

[See: Top 40 Law Schools.]

The median starting salaries of J.D. graduates who entered the public sector in 2020 were considerably lower than those of their peers in the private sector. Among the 181 ranked law schools that reported this data, the overall median public sector salary was $60,000, with median salaries ranging from $45,000 to $87,000.

The starting salaries of 2020 law school graduates correlated strongly with the rank of the school they attended. At each of the top 15 schools in the 2023 Best Law Schools rankings, the median private sector starting salary was $190,000. Though seven lower-ranked schools also reported a median private sector salary of $190,000, no school reported a figure above $190,000.

Meanwhile, all of the 10 ranked schools with the lowest private sector starting salaries are ranked in the bottom one-fourth of the law schools and listed with a ranking range. The data shows that overall, the lower ranked a law school is, the lower its graduates’ median private sector salaries tend to be. (Graduate starting salaries are not factored into the law school rankings.)

Experts note that this is a career path where prestige matters, meaning that alumni of top law schools often have a higher quantity and quality of job options than peers who attend lower-ranked J.D. programs. Certain high-profile positions such as U.S Supreme Court clerkships are more difficult to obtain without a J.D. from an elite law school, according to experts.

[Read: Why Big Law Firms Care About Which Law School You Attend.]

That means law school applicants who want to get a good return on investment for their legal education face a hard choice. On the one hand, they are more likely to receive significant scholarships and tuition discounts if they apply to safety law schools where their academic credentials are well above the norm. On the other hand, a law degree from these schools may result in weaker job prospects than one from more selective schools.

Further, the law schools where median private sector salaries are highest often charge hefty tuition, so applicants who do not have significant financial aid may be left with a large bill and incur significantly more law school debt.

How Much Does Law School Cost?

Among the 187 ranked law schools that reported tuition and fees data to U.S. News, 104 were private and 83 were public.

The average tuition and fees at private law schools in the 2021-2022 academic year — about $53,000 — was more than $10,000 higher than the average out-of-state tuition and fees at public law schools. The difference between average tuition and fees at private schools and average in-state tuition and fees at public schools was even larger: about $23,000.

However, some private law schools offer steep tuition discounts to applicants with impressive academic credentials to recruit those students.

Experts say one way for J.D. applicants to boost their chances of winning scholarship money and attending law school for free is to perform well on the LSAT, since full funding is typically reserved for students with stellar test scores. There are other ways to wow scholarship committees, such as submitting an impressive resume and personal statement or earning an extraordinary undergraduate GPA.

Prospective law students who didn’t qualify for need-based financial aid during college may be surprised to learn that they may qualify for such aid in law school, experts say. Law school hopefuls can also research external scholarships and fellowships offered by organizations besides law schools. For example, the Truman Scholarship for future public service leaders provides up to $30,000 of funding for graduate school, and the new Samvid Scholars program for aspiring “leaders and changemakers” offers up to $50,000 for graduate tuition and fees.

[SEE: 17 Ways to Get Financially Ready for Law School.]

Keep in mind that the cost of law school attendance includes more than tuition and fees. Full-time law students often forgo working in order to focus on their law school classes. And while in law school, they still have to pay living expenses.

Prospective J.D. students who want to work while in law school so they can earn an income should consider attending a part-time program, experts say.

When comparing law schools, future lawyers should consider the cost of each and, if admitted to multiple J.D. programs, compare their financial aid packages. Admitted J.D. students should consider negotiating with a law school whose aid package is subpar compared with what schools offered, experts say.

Is Law School Worth the Investment?

When comparing law schools, experts say it’s important to investigate each school’s bar passage rate, starting salaries and employment rates, and to consider those job statistics when determining if a particular school is a good bargain.

Experts add that it’s also important to consider the quirks of the legal sector — such as the emphasis on billable hours and the work-life balance challenges that these requirements cause — before pursuing a legal career. Prospective law students should do some introspection to figure out whether they would enjoy a job as an attorney, experts say.

Someone who wants to become a business attorney at a large corporate law firm should know that these jobs are extremely hard to get, experts warn.

On the flip side, aspiring government lawyers and those working for nonprofit organizations should be mindful that starting salaries for positions in the public sector, such as policy jobs at advocacy organizations, are typically much lower than what’s offered in the private sector. This could make it challenging for those without significant scholarships to pay off their student loans. However, some law schools offer loan assistance programs for borrowers who enter the public sector.

Searching for a law school? Get our complete rankings of Best Law Schools.

More from U.S. News

What Is a J.D. Degree?

What Law School Applicants Should Know About the Many Types of Lawyers

18 Questions to Ask to Decide If You Should Be a Lawyer

Understand the Cost, Payoff of Law School Before Getting a J.D. originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 03/30/22: This article has been updated to reflect ranks and data from the 2023 U.S. News Best Law Schools rankings.

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