Is Law School Worth the Cost in 2019?

The costs of law school have swollen in recent years.  But the cost of school is not just the face value of tuition.  One of the first things that my Contracts professor taught us in school is opportunity cost.  (Confession: as a philosophy major, I had no idea what he was talking about).

On day one of Contracts, our professor began pontificating on opportunity cost.  This was all part of a longer speech on “do you really want to do this for the next three years of your life?”  Even if you are going to a public school and paying in-state tuition, the average cost of tuition and fees in 2017-18 was $26,864.  (The average private tuition was $47,112!).  Living a lean lifestyle in a moderately priced city will cost you about another $20,000 a year and so, for the average in-state school you’re talking about roughly $46,000 a year without any tuition money.  That means taking out about $150,000 in loans to get you through to graduation and then perhaps another $10,000 to pay for your bar review course, exam fees, and food/rent/car for the summer after you graduate.

But the opportunity cost of going to law school is even higher than that.  You aren’t just starting out $150,000 in the hole, you’re also missing out on three years of salary which you didn’t earn while you were in school.

In 2018, the average college graduate secured a job paying $50,390 a year, according to CNN.  It’s worth noting here, that if you’ve followed my advice and you’re going to the right type of law school, you are likely above-average anyway and would have been earning more than this.

This means that the average law student will be $300,000 worse off than their same-aged counterpart who did not go to law school right out of the gates.  Now, there are plenty of ways to catch up and pass the non-lawyer, but it will take time.

There is not meaningful “average” starting salary for lawyers.  The distribution of salaries coming out of law school is bimodal.

2014 Bi-Modal Distribution

This graph shows the starting salaries of 4,600 members of the Class of 2014.  There is one peak at $160,000 (then the starting salary of just about everyone in a major city working for a BigLaw firm) and another set of peaks in the $45,000 – $60,000 range.  Even adjusting for inflation since 2015, these salaries are not considerably higher than the $50,390 earned by a college grad.  AND you’ll likely be dealing with crushing student loan debt.

In 2006 and 2007, when my law school class was interviewing for jobs, the skies were blue and the sun was out and we were all but promised $160,000 jobs.  Markets were so good in the early 2000s that loads of new law schools began cropping up – some not even accredited by the American Bar Association.

Then, the bottom fell out of the credit markets.  In 2008 and 2009, BigLaw firms began cancelling summer associate classes, laying off associates, and rescinding offers.  Many of the folks who went to the lower level law schools after having been promised huge salaries ended up filing lawsuits against their schools because the school had misrepresented employment data and no one wanted to hire them.

You need to have a full grasp of what you’re getting into going to law school.  Personally, I cannot see myself doing anything else.  I love being a trial lawyer.  But if you are on the fence and are going to law school because you don’t know what to do or because your parents are pressuring you, you probably are not going to enjoy law school and you probably are not going to be financially better off on the other end.

 

 

How to Choose a Law School in 2019

If you are a bright young college student aspiring to go to law school who stumbled onto this site looking for the answer to the question “should I go to law school?” the answer is probably “no.”  Law school is not a good idea for most people and if you are asking yourself this question, you are one of the many for whom it is a bad idea.

By way of background, I am a practicing attorney who graduated from William & Mary Law in 2008.  William & Mary is a solid regional law school, consistently ranking around the top 30 schools in the country.  I transferred to William & Mary from a school which consistently ranked outside the top 100.  Transferring was, without a doubt, the best move I made for my career.  (The best financial move I made was continuing to work part-time during law school).

Going to law school is expensive.  There are no two ways around it.  My school has become considerably more expensive since I graduated.  When I attended, tuition was around $15,000 annually.  Since that time, Virginia stopped subsidizing post-graduate tuition with taxpayer dollars.  Tuition at W&M has swollen to $34,000 for in-state students and $43,000 for out-of-state (at least in 2018).

Given the outrageous cost of going to law school, my advice to anyone who is considering going is that you should only go to school if:

  1. You go to any Top 20 Law School
  2. You go to the best regional Law School in your state AND you want to practice in that state
  3. You get a full scholarship to Law School

Top 20 Law Schools

These schools are consistently the best.  If you watch the U.S. News and World Report rankings, the Top 20 doesn’t change very much.  You might see #15 slide to #18 and #19 move up a few spots, but you won’t see wild swings like a school dropping from #19 to #45.  These are the schools where the best law firms recruit.  If you are paying list price at a top flight school (or really at any school), the only way to pay off student loans within a reasonable amount of time and get on with the rest of your life is to slave away at a BigLaw firm for a few years.

Sure, there are public service debt forgiveness programs, but they require 10 years of work.  Oh, and the program denies 99% of the people who apply for loan forgiveness!!   99%!!!!

The Best Regional School in Your State

The caveat with this advice is that it doesn’t go very far if your state is New York, California, DC, or some other major hub.  But, if you are looking at going to law school in a state like Mississippi, Iowa, or Kansas AND practice in that state, you will be fine going to the best regional school, and being in the top flight of students at that school.

As another aside – this advice won’t get you very far if you are in the bottom half of the class at the best regional school in your state.  In law school, all of your classes are graded on a curve and you will receive a class rank on your transcript.  Some schools are more forgiving than others and after 51%, they don’t put a class rank or even an approximation on the transcript.  Trust me, employers know why yours doesn’t have one but your colleague’s does.

Any Law School That Gives You a Full Scholarship

This is controversial advice, but I think you should go to any school which will let you attend for free.  One of the mistakes that I made was turning down an offer from a school in the mid-west to let me not only attend for free, but pay me a $10,000 stipend and elected to go to a Big Ten school (the one outside the top 100) at a 25% discount.  This was probably a $30,000 difference, especially since I transferred out after the first year.

The reason that this advice is controversial is that you (1) fewer employers are going to come and interview at your lower level school and (2) these scholarships are often a loss-leader for the school.  Schools may give out 50 full scholarships for 1L year on the condition that you can keep it if you are in the top 10% of the class.  Naturally some non-scholarship students will get into the top 10% and the school will only have to give out 15 scholarships during the 2L year.  You, haven fallen outside the top 10% may now be staring down a $40,000 tuition payment at a low level school.

Life comes at you fast.  Work hard.

Conclusion

In my humble opinion, if you do not get in to one of these three kinds of law schools, you really should stay home, go to work for a few years, and try again later.  It does not make any sense going to a mid-level school in Utah if you want to practice in Massachusetts.  In all likelihood, that just won’t happen.