Attending law school isn’t cheap, but like any other postgraduate program, it may be the key to getting into the career field that you want. When determining if law school is worth it, it’s important to consider the financial side, including the cost, the return on your investment, your career goals and more.
Average law school debt in 2020
The cost of your law degree can vary based on a number of factors. But according to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics, the average law school debt is $145,500 — that’s 77 percent higher than it was in 2000.
What’s more, according to Law School Transparency, a nonprofit organization, almost 73 percent of law school graduates from 174 of the top law schools in the U.S. had student loan debt. So if you’re wondering how to afford law school, student loans are likely part of the equation.
Student loan debt can be made up of federal student loans, private student loans or both. The standard repayment term for federal student loans is 10 years, and if we assume an average interest rate of 6 percent on $145,500 of loan debt, that’ll cost you a staggering $1,615 per month to pay it off in that time.
Depending on your career path after graduation, it may take some time to get to the point where you can afford that. Fortunately, there are some programs available to make payments more affordable based on your income or even assist you with paying them off — we’ll get to those below.
Average earnings with a law degree
How much you earn with a law degree will depend on a few different factors, including where you attended school, whether you choose a private- or public-sector career and which field of law you choose.
For example, the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the average lawyer salary as $145,300 and the average annual salary for all legal occupations as $109,630.
Here are some more average figures for different fields of law based on data from PayScale:
Field Average Salary
Academia (law professors) $131,378
Intellectual property $129,381
Medical malpractice $95,000
Real estate $78,656
Personal injury $50,000
As you can see, the field you choose can have a significant impact on your ability to repay your law school debt. Keep in mind that these are average figures, and it’s possible to earn more or less.
Understanding your salary-to-debt ratio
To get an idea of how affordable your law school debt will be after you graduate, take a look at your salary-to-debt ratio. To get this figure, divide your expected salary by the amount of debt you’ll have at the end of your time in school.
For example, if your expected salary is $100,000 and you borrow $80,000 in student loans, your salary-to-debt ratio is 1.25. The average ratio for all law school graduates in the top 20 law school programs is 1.2, according to a report by SoFi. So if you can do better than that, you’ll have a better chance of meeting your student debt obligations.
On the flip side, if your expected salary-to-debt ratio is below the average, you may have a harder time maintaining financial stability, especially during the first years of your career.
How to decide if law school is worth it
There are several indicators to keep in mind as you try to determine if law school is right for you. Here are the top seven factors to consider:
Your school’s reputation: Where you attend school is incredibly important in the legal profession. The Internet Legal Research Group has found that the median salary for private attorneys can range from $45,500 to $180,000, depending on which law school you attend.
Your rank: Your standing among your peers is a huge factor in whether you’ll land that lucrative career in law. Some might argue that it’s even more important than the reputation of your law school.
Your specialty: It’s easier to find work in certain legal fields than in others. Having an idea of which fields to pursue — and the relevant courses affiliated with them — can help improve your marketability upon graduation. Do your research on which areas of law have higher demand and relatively high earnings, then try to find a match based on your interests.
Your expectations: If your only reason for going into law is to make a lot of money, you may end up burning out quickly. Law is a profession that often requires a great amount of time and sacrifice. If your heart isn’t in it, you will find yourself in a miserable position. A great way to determine where your expectations fall (and if law school is worth it) is to pursue a part-time career in a law firm. This can give you valuable experience and a chance to shadow lawyers to determine if it’s the right career path for you.
Your connections: Getting into a good school and acing your classes is only half the battle. The law grads who are getting jobs are the ones who have spent time hobnobbing with future employers. Putting yourself out there by joining student organizations and attending networking events can increase your marketability considerably.
Your financial prospects: Part of the reason so many people ask if law school is worth it is because of just how expensive it is. If your financial prospects were not stellar to begin with — and if there aren’t any great financial aid options — that could be a sign to steer clear of law school. The good news is that many law schools offer loan assistance and forgiveness incentives, and public interest workers may be eligible for accelerated federal loan forgiveness or repayment assistance.
Your goals: When it comes to reasons to go to law school, your decision should involve a healthy balance between ethics and ambition. However, it cannot be stressed enough just how important experience is in reaching this conclusion. You should spend as much time as possible familiarizing yourself with the day-in and day-out of an attorney’s career. If you find that your life goals do not fall in line with the job, then law school might not be right for you.
Ways to pay off law school debt
Once you’ve graduated, there are several options for paying down your law school loans. Here are some of the options that are widely available:
Income-driven repayment plans: If you’re struggling to keep up with your federal student loan payments, you may be able to get on one of four income-driven repayment plans. These plans reduce your monthly payment to between 10 percent and 20 percent of your discretionary income and also extend your repayment term to 20 or 25 years. If you have a balance at the end of the term, it’ll be forgiven and counted as taxable income.
Law school loan forgiveness: If you have federal student loans and choose to work for a government agency or eligible nonprofit organization, you may be able to get forgiveness under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. The program requires you to meet certain employment requirements and also make 120 qualifying monthly payments. Forgiven amounts aren’t considered taxable.
Law school loan repayment assistance programs: Attorneys with federal student loans may be able to get tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of repayment assistance through various programs. Some examples include the JAG Corps Student Loan Repayment Program, the John R. Justice Student Loan Repayment Program and the Department of Justice Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program.
Student loan refinancing: If you don’t anticipate needing access to an income-driven repayment program and you don’t qualify for loan forgiveness or repayment assistance, consider refinancing your student loans with a private lender. Depending on your credit and finances, you may be able to score a lower interest rate than you’re paying right now. You’ll also have the option to shorten or extend your repayment term, which can help you find the right monthly payment for your budget.
Regardless of how you approach paying off your law school debt, the important thing is that you research all of your options and take proactive steps to find the best strategy for you.
Is law school worth it?
Given the amount of time and money required to get through law school, you really can’t afford to not answer this question before your first day. Take your time to think about the financial considerations, your career goals and other factors to make sure that you’re making the right decision for yourself.
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