Law school can be expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. Sure, if you plan to go to one of the elite law schools in the nation, like Columbia Law or Harvard Law, you should expect to pay a lot of money for the privilege. You can also probably expect to land an extremely lucrative job upon graduation, so there is a case to be made that it’s actually worth the money. And we’ll explore that case here below. But let’s presume for one second that you aren’t exceedingly wealthy, that you aren’t lined up for a comprehensive scholarship to a T14 law school, and it isn’t even necessarily your plan to land a job with a top law firm. If that sounds like your situation, maybe it isn’t such a great idea to purchase a law degree that costs more than most four-bedroom suburban homes. But is there an alternative?
Absolutely. You just need to make a few key decisions first about where you see your law career ultimately heading. This should inform the size of your educational investment and, consequently, help determine which law school can help advance your goals without plunging you into a lifetime of student loan debt. If you think you’d be better served by simply earning a well-paying bachelor’s degree and getting on with your career, check out these 10 College Degrees That Can Lead to a Six-Figure Income.
If you’re convinced that you’d like to earn a law degree, but you’d also like to keep the costs down, read on…
Law School Can Be Crazy Expensive
If you’re approaching the end of your bachelor’s degree program, you probably already have some amount of student loan debt. After all, with more than $1.75 trillion dollars in student loan debt already floating out in the ether, the average college graduate owes more than $39,000 to a combination of federal, state, and private lenders. Those who will carry this debt into law school should prepare for this number to quadruple, at a minimum. Because if you think college is expensive, wait until you get the bill for law school.
According to one LSAT Prep study program, the average cost for tuition and fees at a private law school was $48,869 during the 2018-2019 school year. To attend a law school affiliated with a public university, out-of-state enrollees paid an average of $40,725 per year while state residents paid the discounted rate of $27,591. This means that even the average student at a public in-state law school is likely spending well over $80,000 to earn a Juris Doctor. That, of course, if before you add in the cost of Room & Board.
And the numbers can go up dramatically from there. Public Legal lists law school degrees in order of their tuition cost per year, using data from 2020. The cost per year at America’s elite law schools is, in a word, ludicrous. At the top of the list is Columbia University, which charges an annual tuition of $69,916 alongside Room & Board fees of $19,190. Though New York University charges a slightly lower tuition rate of $66,422, the addition of Room & Board at $24,400 places the cost of a single year at over $90K.
But it’s not just New York prices that might cause you sticker shock. With tuition and fees added to Room & Board, you’ll pay $68,310 for one year at Indiana University’s Bloomington campus law school; $73,894 per year to attend Southern Methodist University in University Park, Texas; and $72,774 to enroll for a year in Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
Simply stated, if you feel you must attend an elite law school, you will be hard-pressed to do it at a discounted rate. Moreover, if you plan to attend most other schools ranked anywhere in the Top 100, you should probably expect to pay a fortune.
But Is An Expensive Law School Worth It?
Well, for one thing, that depends entirely on what you plan to do with your law degree. On its face, a career as an attorney offers the potential for an extremely robust return on your investment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for lawyers in 2020 was $126,930. With the field growing as fast as the average for all occupations at roughly 9%, the BLS projects that roughly 71,500 new jobs will be created between now and 2030.
In other words, there is both an abundance of opportunity and a great deal of money to be had for seizing that opportunity. In fact, for those who ascend to the top of the profession, earnings are among the highest in any profession. According to the BLS database of Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics, those in the 75th percentile will earn a median wage of greater than $189,000. The numbers go even higher for those in the 90th percentile. Indeed, should you find yourself serving as an attorney or even a partner in a prestigious law firm, the sky’s the limit on what you could ultimately earn.
But let’s be clear. This is extremely rarified air. First and foremost, it should be noted that many of the most prestigious law firms will literally only consider applicants who have graduated from T14 school–that is, one of the 14 elite law schools that, regardless of their order within, almost always occupy the top 14 slots in any ranking. While the pool of jobs for licensed attorneys will expand at a rate of roughly 7,000 positions a year for the next decade, how many of those candidates will carry an elite academic pedigree into the competition?
Well, just for a microcosm of accessibility, Going Ivy notes that “According to data from Harvard Law’s class profile for the class of 2022, Harvard Law School received 7,419 applications and offered admission to 916 applicants. This means that the admissions rate for the school was 12%.”
Public Legal places Columbia admission rates at 16%+. Yale accepts just 6.9% of applicants. In most consensus rankings, these are 3 of the highest ranking T14 schools, with prominent institutions like Stanford, University of Chicago, NYU, and UPenn rounding out the cream of the crop. At $88,371 after adding Room & Board, Stanford is something of a discount option among these.
But here’s the thing–the prestige of a given law school goes down at a much more precipitous rate than does tuition. In other words, once you fall below the Top 14 in terms of ranking, your odds of getting a position with a top law firm drop considerably. The drop in price for your degree, unfortunately, is less considerable. Whereas Public Legal ranks Chapman University as the 77th best law school on its list, the school ranks as the 44th most expensive school, with a price tag of $73,824 after Room & Board. Seton Hall ranks 64th overall, but clocks in at 40th in terms of cost, with a total price of $68,166. At a ranking of 52nd overall, Baylor University nonetheless comes in at a cost of $76,151, making it the 13th most expensive law school.
What’s the point of all this number crunching? Well, in the simplest terms, while a high price may indeed equal prestige and opportunity, it may not always offer opportunity proportionate to the cost. If you get into Harvard or Yale, you will likely see a significant return on your investment in terms of job opportunities and salary potential. But what if you fall just outside of the Top 10 or 20? What if you’re looking at a school like Baylor or Chapman? Respected though these institutions may be, does the money you’re paying really buy you better professional opportunity than a degree from an affordable law school outside of the Top 100?
Not necessarily. But we’ll get to that. First, let’s acknowledge that there is some readily definable value to attending an elite law school.
When You Should Go to An Elite Law School
Simply stated, if you plan to go into what they call “Big Law,” you probably need to attend a T14 Law School. According to Nerdwallet, “Big Law is a nickname for large, high-revenue law firms that are usually located in major U.S. cities, such as New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. These firms often have multiple branches, sometimes in smaller cities, as well as an international presence.”
Nerdwallet points out that attorneys working in firms that fall under this umbrella will generally enjoy very strong pay. In 2019, according to reporting from the National Association of Law Placement, the most common salary point for first-year associates was $190,000.
Evidence suggests that you can significantly improve your odds of landing at a Top 100 law firm by attending a law school at the top of the ranking heap. According to Above the Law, 52% of Penn Law graduates landed a job at a Big Law firm. 57% of NYU law grads, 60% of University of Chicago law grads, and, at the top of the list, 68% of Columbia Law grads, earned jobs at the most elite law firms.
These elite law firms typically do their most aggressive recruitment through the most prestigious institutions, and at an opening salary that could place you at the top 75th percentile of all lawyers right out of the gate, there’s a good chance you’ll ultimately get your money’s worth out of the investment.
The same is true if your goal is to secure one of several other prestigious and specialized opportunities in the field of law. For instance, 7Sage LSAT says that you’ll likely want to attend a top law school “if you want a clerkship with the Supreme Court, or if you have your sights set on becoming a law school professor.” The LSAT prep site notes that “the chances of clerking for the Supreme Court are highest if you attend a T14 law school (and particularly excellent if you’re a graduate of Harvard or Yale)…Likewise, if you are interested in pursuing legal academia, your odds are much better if you graduate from a T14 law school, according to several years’ worth of entry-level professor hiring reports.”
One more important benefit of attending an elite school is the geographic flexibility it can create. According to 7Sage LSAT, students from top law schools tend to exhibit greater mobility in the pursuit of post-graduate employment opportunities, whereas those attending schools outside of the Top 20 to 30 schools are more likely to secure employment within the region where they graduate.
For instance, Wake Forest University School of Law is ranked No. 32 and “about 50% of its graduates remained in the Southeast region. Similarly, UNC Chapel Hill Law School, ranked No. 45, reported that more than 60% of its graduates remained in the Southeast. It’s hard to say how many alumni of the two latter schools were actually looking for work outside of the area, but the variance in the numbers suggests that the higher-ranked the school, the greater the mobility.”
So if it is your goal to land a position with a top law firm, to pursue an entry-level role with the highest court in the land, to eventually become a post-secondary legal professor, or to simply expand the geographic palette from which you can choose career opportunities, you may indeed want to pursue one of the limited spaces at a top law school.
When You Can Bypass the Elite (and Most Expensive) Schools
But what if you have no intention of filling one of these specialized roles? Perhaps you plan to apply your skills in a local law firm, to work in your state’s court system, to become a public attorney, or to work as a legal advocate or activist. In order to become a practicing attorney in any of these contexts, you must earn a Juris Doctor from a law school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). But does that mean you have to spend a fortune?
Evidence suggests that you do not, and that, in fact, you can scale to the bottom of the pricing hierarchy and find ABA accredited law schools with very strong track records for post-graduate employment.
For instance, Florida International University, at a tuition rate of $40,822 with Room & Board included, ranks 251st in terms of cost, but 63rd in terms of 10-month post-graduate employment rate.
With an in-state tuition rate of $19,708, along with $11,876 for Room & Board, University of Georgia ranks 258 out of 277 law schools for its cost, and yet, ranks 50th in terms of its post-graduate employment rate.
The University of Georgia also demonstrates the point that a lower cost law school can be a great option if your goal is to seek a role in the same region where you’ve earned your JD. According to 7Sage LSAT “For example, more than 90% of 2017 graduates from the University of Georgia acquired jobs within 10 months after graduation, and of that group, 82% found employment in Georgia, North Carolina or South Carolina. More than 50% of its graduates secured jobs in private practice, with one third of those jobs at firms of over 100 lawyers.”
To say the least, students who plan to work in the region surrounding University of Georgia will have no shortage of opportunities for getting a foot in the door.
Then there’s the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, which remarkably ranks 24th among all law schools for a 10-month post-graduate employment rate at an impressive 87.5%. And yet, for in-state residents, the overall cost of one year at this reputable school comes to just $28,408 with Room & Board included. This makes the University of Nebraska-Lincoln the 8th most affordable law school overall.
Compare these outcomes to the 10-month post-graduate employment rate for graduates from Baylor (34), Case Western (131) or Chapman (144). To reiterate, a single year at any one of these law schools will cost you more than $70,000.
This is important to note because earnings at the medium and lower levels of the legal hierarchy can be modest. In spite of the enormous potential for salary growth, law is a crowded field, and those at the 10th percentile earned a median of $61,490. This is a decent salary for those at the bottom of any field, but the value of this wage can certainly be tempered by what you owe debtors for your law school degree.
So in a competitive profession, what can we advise those with aspirations outside of Big Law and the Supreme Court?
You would be far better served by attending a reputable school outside of the Top 100 at a tuition cost of under $20,000 than by spending in excess of $50,000 to attend a school ranked in the 30s or 40s. Or to state it more bluntly, unless you’re rich and money is no object, your attitude should be “T14 or bust.” If, realistically speaking, you don’t have a shot at getting into one of the top law schools in the nation, you may want to shop according to price point.
The data at Public Legal notes that there are actually 20 ABA accredited law schools charging less than $20,000 per year for tuition. We’re not necessarily suggesting that you should only shop for your law degree according to price. There are many factors to consider including your short- and long-term career goals, the region where you hope to work, and your expected earning potential based on the type of legal work you will ultimately pursue.
But that also suggests that there are indeed affordable ways to pursue a career as a practicing attorney. With the proper due diligence, you could find a law school with an excellent track record for post-graduate employment and a comparatively modest rate of tuition. In short, you don’t need to plunge into a deep well of student loan debt just get a valuable law degree.
By the way, it’s worth noting that you don’t necessarily need an undergraduate degree focused on law to get into a great law school. In fact, law school admission officers value a diversity of educational experiences and majors. If you plan to enter into one of the countless high-paying roles available in business law, you may want to pursue an undergraduate degree in business. If this sounds like the right avenue for you, check out our look at The Highest Paying Business Majors.