With over 400,000 members, the American Bar Association (ABA) is one of the leading voices for the legal profession. It’s no small matter, then, that in 2009 the ABA issued this warning to law school hopefuls: “The combination of the rising cost of a legal education and the realities of the legal job market mean that going to law school may not pay off for a large number of law students.” Maybe that’s why less than a quarter (23%) of law degree holders strongly agree that their education was worth the cost. Although the environment may have changed since the statement was issued almost a decade ago, the ABA’s position then still rings true today.
The ABA’s statement is not an indictment of the Juris Doctorate (JD) degree, but simply illustrates the point that law school may not be the right choice for everyone considering a career in the legal profession. Is law school right for you? That’s a subjective question, and one that only you can answer based on several different factors. Below are some questions you should ask yourself as you attempt to decide if law school is worth it.
All ABA-approved law schools usually require three years of full-time study to earn a JD. Some law schools offer part-time programs that generally take four to five years to complete. Because of the intense course load and complex subject matter, law school students generally do not work while earning their degree. Some schools even restrict the number of hours students are allows to work while enrolled in a JD program. Harvard Law School, for example, allows students to seek employment under the condition they restrict their total employed hours to a maximum of 20 per week while school is in session.
If you have a full-time job and wish to remain in the workforce, attending law school may be difficult. On top of making time to attend classes in person, there is also the matter of studying outside of class to consider. Just how much time do law school students devote to studying? In short, a lot.
The Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE), part of the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research, examined the experiences of first-generation law school students compared to non-first generation students. Although first-generation students report spending about 8% more time studying for class compared to other students, LSSSE data shows that the average number of hours per week spent studying for all students is over 30 hours.
First-Generation Students vs. Non-First Generation Students
Source: “First Generation Law Students: Use of Time.” LSSSE, Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research. Retrieved October 23, 2018 from http://lssse.indiana.edu/blog/first-generation-law-students-use-of-time/
In a separate study, the LSSSE asked full-time first-year (1L) law school students to estimate how many hours they spend each week on various activities. The results illustrate how much time law school students devote to their studies and how difficult it can be to have a healthy work-life balance outside of the classroom.
Source: “Law Student Time Usage by Age.” LSSSE, Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research. Retrieved October 23, 2018 from http://lssse.indiana.edu/blog/law-student-time-usage-by-age/
The vast majority of law students—almost 90% according to the 2015 LSSSE Annual Survey—rely on student loans to finance their education. Among those with over $100,000 in debt, only 23% strongly agree that their degree was worth the cost (60% of those who completed their JD in 2010 or later report borrowing more than $100,000 to obtain their degree).
Of course, the amount of debt depends on which law school you attend and how much you need to borrow. To give you an idea of the range of indebtedness you can expect, consider this information from U.S. News & World Report on the average indebtedness of 2016 graduates who incurred law school debt:
|Most Debt||Least Debt|
|School||Debt||% of Grads w/ Debt||School||Debt||% of Grads w/ Debt|
|Thomas Jefferson School of Law||$198,962||91%||Florida A&M University||$61,500||99%|
|University of San Francisco||$180,799||85%||University of South Dakota||$58,177||96%|
|New York University||$170,955||61%||University of Nebraska—Lincoln||$57,992||75%|
|American University (Washington)||$169,107||77%||Georgia State University||$56,710||77%|
|Georgetown University||$162,672||72%||Brigham Young University (Clark||$53,237||78%|
|Source: “Which law school graduates have the most debt?”U.S. News & World Report. Retrieved October 23, 2018 from https://www.usnews.com/best-graduate-schools/top-law-schools/grad-debt-rankings|
The Washington Post created a student loan calculator to help students figure out their estimated monthly student loan payments and how much they would need to make in order to afford their loan. As an example, let’s first assume a student is carrying zero debt from their undergraduate career (an unlikely scenario but one that helps focus solely on the cost of going to law school). Even just planning on borrowing $100,000, the monthly payment would be $1,044 on a 10-year plan at a 4.7% interest rate, according to the student loan calculator.
If you want to become a lawyer, law school may be the only route. However, even if you finish law school, you will still need to pass a bar examination to practice law. The bar exam is administered in each state to assess whether a candidate is competent to practice law. Currently, only four states—California, Virginia, Vermont and Washington—allow aspiring lawyers to take the bar exam without going to law school. In 2017, the nationwide average passage rate for bar exam takers was 59%.
Nationwide Bar Exam Statistics (2017)
Source: “2017 Bar Examination and Admission Statistics.” Bar Examiner Magazine, National Conference of Bar Examiners. Retrieved July 12, 2018 from http://www.ncbex.org/pdfviewer/?file=%2Fdmsdocument%2F218
For aspiring lawyers, job market concerns may be worth considering. According to a Gallup-AccessLex Institute study of the long-term outcomes of a law degree, a sizable number of JD holders (41%) would not recommend obtaining a law degree. The job market for law school graduates is cited as the main reason they would not recommend a law degree. Other reasons include the cost of a law degree and work/life balance.
Illustrating the point about job market woes for law school graduates, the Gallup-AccessLex Institute study found that, overall, 51% of law school graduates reported having a “good job” waiting for them when they graduated. However, the time it takes to obtain a job is highly dependent on academic performance. Only 30% of those who finished outside the top third of their class had a good job waiting for them upon receiving their law degree; nearly a quarter of those who graduated outside the top 33% of their class had to search over a year to obtain a good job.
How Long Does It Take JD Holders to Obtain a “Good Job” After Graduating?
Source: “Examining Value,Measuring Engagement.” ABA Journal. Retrieved July 12, 2018 from http://www.abajournal.com/files/AccessLex_report_1.17-2018.pdf
Salary may be another important consideration, especially if you are thinking about becoming a lawyer because of the reported six-figure incomes lawyers can earn in their careers. According to the National Association of Law Placement (NALP), the national median salary for the Class of 2017 was $70,000. Of course, there are other professions in the legal field that don’t require a law degree, many of which are on par with the average salary range of first-year associates in small/midsize law firms.
*Small/midsize law firm (10-35 lawyers)
Source: “2017 Salary Guide for the Legal Profession.” Robert Half International Inc. Retrieved July 12, 2018 from https://www.roberthalf.com/sites/default/files/Media_Root/images/rhl-pdfs/2017_salary_guide_roberthalflegal.pdf
If you are considering a career in law and not sure if law school is right for you, a Master’s in Legal Studies (MLS) may better align with your interests and goals. Students enrolled in an MLS program encounter a curriculum similar to a student’s first year in law school. Whether you earn a general MLS degree or choose to focus your studies and concentrate on an area of interest, you will be introduced to core substantive areas of law that provide the foundation for understanding and interacting with the US legal system. There are also a growing number of online MLS degree programs, which means you can study law and legal practices without putting your life on hold.
Online MLS Degree Programs
Compare online MLS degree programs and find the one that best suits your needs.