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04 September 2007


Prospective law student

Bubblegum - I appreciate the advice. But now I've been accepted in a 2nd tier (ranked 87 by US News reports)law school. The cost of attending is still the same. Does the advice still stand?
I know that I really want to be a lawyer, but I'm aware that the amount of debt I will might dictate what my job will be. But let's assume that I will still love my job. Does a 2nd tier school significantly increase my chance of securing a job that would make financial sense?


Prospective law student - From a financial point of view, no, it is absolutely not worth it. However, if you really really want to be a lawyer, and you're willing to put up with a very mediocre standard of living, that's different.

prospective law student

or not...
I just got accepted into a tier 4 private school. After reading all of these comments, I just feel that forgetting about it would be the best course of action. A 30k yearly tuition plus cost of living for myself and my child add up to roughly a $180.000 debt after three years. I've just finished my undergrad. I've been trying to figure out the chances that I can possibly enjoy life for the next 10 years with this kind of debt, even if I happen to enjoy my job. Is it worth it?

prospective law student

or not...
I just got accepted into a tier 4 private school. After reading all of these comments, I just feel that forgetting about it would be the best course of action. A 30k yearly tuition plus cost of living for myself and my child add up to roughly a $180.000 debt after three years. I've just finished my undergrad. I've been trying to figure out the chances that I can possibly enjoy life for the next 10 years with this kind of debt, even if I happen to enjoy my job. Is it worth it?


I assume law professors are reading this; here is a glimpse of reality. I know you guys are well intentioned (for the most part), but many of you just don't know. For more like this, check out jdunderground.com:

"I regret going to law school for the following reasons:

(1) Owing $125K makes me feel shackled every day. EVERY SINGLE DAY. I am now in a hole that I am slowly digging out of.
(2) I didn't need it because I learned pretty quickly that I didn't really want to be a lawyer. But I, like many others, was under the impression that I couldn't go wrong having the degree. My parents encouraged me to stay in school, despite wanting to quit and move on to something else. So I stayed. I've given it a try (at BIGLAW and as a solo practitioner) and I just . . . don't wanna do it. I didn't then and . . . ain't nuthin changed.
(3) I spent three years of my life (and these subsequent years thereafter) delaying the critical exercise of really figuring out what I want to do and how to go about living the life that I want. All, the while, spending a ridiculous amount of money only to learn that it wasn't well-spent (my T1 degree notwithstanding).

I know that this is part of my journey. I just wish I didn't have this big debt mountain to climb, reminding me of my error in judgment."


"( i know the business already and have the competative advatage and connections.....its not where did you go to school...but can you come in and do the job....and hit the ground running?"

Considering the company is paying for the law degree, and he is doing it part time and not leaving his job their either I'd say things looking good for him.


People are still linking to and talking about this post.


( i know the business already and have the competative advatage and connections.....its not where did you go to school...but can you come in and do the job....and hit the ground running?

You are fooling yourself - just because you know the business that doesn't mean you know the legal business. Better hope your connections are family because I wouldn't count on being able to beat that T1 grad with better grades than you. HTH


This is an interesting chart. I'm 26 looking at a few tier 2 publics in the west and southwest. I've worked for a couple years and I decided to go back to school. I can't see how a non-tier one private school (which isn't BYU) could possibly be as good an investment as a public.

At the same time I see lots of smart kids overlooking tier 2 publics (that they could get into) for 3rd and 4th tier privates at 2 or 3 times the cost. Am I missing something?

trademark registration

And nowadays, starting salaries at the top firms are at $160,000. Is there no end?

Legal Eagle

Starting salaries suck for most lawyers and there aren't any jobs. This will never change nor is this news to most seasoned attorney. However, I konw for a fact that the salary dilema changes after 10 years out. Big settlements, a handful of good clients, a connection from undergrad and just plain luck is the catalyst to a higher salary.

Of course, what is ultimately sacrificed in exchange for the higher salary is prestige.

Divorce lawyers can make a lot of money. I know some divorce lawyers that I would say are terrible attorneys and they charge $275 or $300 an hour.

Personal injury can be very lucrative if you are selective and take only good cases. For a long time the stereotypical soft tissue ambulance chasing lawyers were making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

Foreclosure law is absolutely booming right now - it's not the big firms who do foreclosure work; it's smaller firms and the 'mills' who are living it up right now.

Small to medium sized business corporate work. Often small and medium sized suburban businesses don't want to go downtown to hire lawyers; instead they hire small suburban firms to handle their day to day work. Albeit at a lower salary. Of course, being in the 'burbs means lower overhead.

Real estate transactions were all the rage for the last few years. A lot of attorneys did tons of closings based off a staff of paralegals and they made a lot of dough.

Collections - they're doing pretty good right now too. The market for buying and selling debt has been changing over the last few years and attorneys are at the forefront of that market. The poorer segments of society are defaulting on consumer debt at alarming rates. Someone needs to find a way to garnish that paycheck...

Condo board law: the real estate boom created a ton of new condos and they all need legal counsel - usually on retainer. Some feel like they need to hire the BigBoys at $400 an hour but others are just as happy at $200 an hour to the smaller firms....

Random niche law: Some firms specialize in dog bites, some firms defend nothing but strip clubs and head shops (at $300 an hour btw), some do nothing but sue cruise ships, one firm in Chicago does nothing but sue the City of Chicago Police Department (a $4 mil verdict last week);

Immigration: there are millions of illegal immigrants and they all want citizenship. Congress may give it to them. Most lawyers charge $1,800.00 or more, plus filing fees, just to fill out the paperwork to get a green card. If the applicant's situation deviates even the slight bit from the standand the attorney's fees shoots up to $3,000 or $4,000.. or more.

My personal favorite is DUI laws. Dui arrests increasing and the laws are getting harsher and harsher. The courtrooms are PACKED with defendants for every call. The more ghetto the courthouse the more crowded the courtrooms.
A handful of lawyers are earning anywhere between $1,500 to $4,000 for each and every DUI defendant in the courtroom. Money grows on trees in the rougher branch courthouses.

My point is this: Most people in society think that all lawyers are the same. They think that all lawyers are expensive thieves and they expect to pay their attorneys a lot of money.

Pedigree never crosses most client's minds outside of BigLaw. Obviously, the most pedigreed lawyers charge the most money to the biggest Fortune 500 clients for their complex and sophisicated legal work. Because of our pedigree, we are shut out of that legal market.

Fortunately, for the rest of us JD's, there are millions of other clients with less 'sophisicated' or 'prestigous' work who are willing to pay lots of money. You just have to hustle for it.


Ok, I don't know exactly how this whole UGA/Emory war started, but I've got to weigh in on it. I applied to both schools, got accepted at both schools, took a look at the tuition bills, and promptly went to UGA. I'd still choose UGA over Emory. And I don't know how true it is about in-staters getting tuition assistance at Emory, but that wasn't the impression I got. I went to Emory's "open house" for law school, was there less than an hour, and left after sitting through a very discouraging presentation on financing my JD at Emory. I sat amid lots of rich people and their parents, dripping with jewelry and looking bored at speaking of the drolleries of financing one's education. They flat out said that pretty much all of the financing would have to be in the form of student loans. Plus, Athens v. Atlanta--which is more pleasant to live in for three years?

That being said, I would agree that if you want to work in biglaw in a big area like NY, Emory would be the way to go I would think. For me, I'm trying to get out of Atlanta because I find it too much of a big city. Trying to get back up along the GA/TN border where I'm from. If your situation is similar--planning on staying in the south--go with UGA not because of reputation--they're close enough when you get down to it--but because you'll have less debt.

gimme a break

ken, save the drama for your mama. you represent a small minority - the "kept man." most law students don't get full rides from their companies.

if you base "most" law students' experiences on your own personal experience, that's just intellectually dishonest. in fact, it makes me wonder if you deserve an MBA, considering that your grasp of statistics is so lacking.


How hard would it be to show this graph in four colors with separate data for four tiers of law schools?...for big cities vs. smaller cities? ...for private practice vs. other endeavors?
It occurs to me the 9.6% clerks and some of the public interest likely skew the graph as they will likely jump from the second lowest quartile to the top in a year or two; that could swing the median significantly.
And even with the bi-modal distribution, clerkship and DA type jobs are often a good economic decision for those just below top 10% as it may get them into big firms a short way down the road.



you have it all wrong. i graduated back from undergrad in 2001 and started fresh out of college making $52,000 with just a business undergrad degree, working in telecommunications for a large player in the business...age 22. now i am 28 still in telecom, completed my M.B.A. last year ($35k in tuition, while my company picked up the tab) and now age 28 i am a senior manager making $101,000 a year. i recently took the lsat and now am applying to law school for next fall, and plan on attending night school part time. oh by the way ( the company will pay %100 of tution if going to a part time program for a JD). due to the connections that i have made i am surely going to get a position in the company's legal department over a tier I grad( i know the business already and have the competative advatage and connections.....its not where did you go to school...but can you come in and do the job....and hit the ground running? ), ....(here's a hint.....it doesnt matter what school i go to...its about who you know). oh by the way....attornery's that work for my company get between $130,000 a year and $150,000 a year as in house council). but i am still trying to figure out is it worth going back to school worth the extra hasle...it balls down to the age old question "MONEY VS. PASSION".


I graduated somewhere near the top third in a top 15 law school. I started out making less money per week than I made when I was 19 years old working in the summer.

Law school was a financial disaster for me. Oddly enough, I've had a lot of success in my four years of practice, and I generally enjoy what I do.

Lucky Right Side

B, you're sadly misinformed. Or tremendously lucky. Most people are not 100% efficient in billing every minute they're at work, ESPECIALLY if they're in anything but litigation. At 80% efficiency, one would need to work 3000 hours to bill 2400. And most firms also shunt enormous amounts of non-billable work onto the associates. All those articles and legal "alert" pieces you read in magazines and papers? There's nearly always a law student listed along with the partner (hint: the associate "pulled the laboring oar," as a partner told me when I co-authored an article with him). Hiring committees, lunch seminars, meetings, etc. All take a huge bite of time and are unbillable. And that doesn't even count the cuts made to one's billed time.

No, Mr. Partner, it's plenty demanding.


Stefanie makes a common, erroneous assumption about lawyers' workload at big law firms (i.e., that they work "80 hour weeks"). At such firms, the ratio of hours worked to hours billed is nearly 1:1. So, if they worked 80 hour weeks, in a 50 week year they'd bill 4000 hours. Average billables at most big firms are closer to 2300 to 2400. It's not nearly as demanding as myth would have it.


This bimodal distribution implies there are actually two distinct job markets. Each market may require passing the bar, but one market has other requirements beyond that. It can't be a "quality" issue or you would see a single mode graph with a very high skew. No, there are other qualifications beyond the law degree. Sometimes the qualifications for a job aren't publicly stated.


Thank you for finally posting some accurate information regarding the disparate salaries of law school graduates!!! I wish I had seen this prior to starting law school. The school I went to specifically told us that the median starting salary for a lawyer is $80,000. I feel that this was extremely misleading in light of the reality of the situation. I did not go to law school hoping for "great wealth", but I did expect to be able to pay my bills when I graduated. If it were not for the fact that I am married, I would have to move back in with my parents to afford the debt.

I do not work for the D.A. or other public or non-profit agency. I work for a small law firm. The left side of the graph is basically anyone who doesn't work at a large firm.

I think it is also interesting to note that those lawyers making $150,000 out of law school at the big firms are working 80 hour weeks, essentially two jobs. This is not an acceptable option to anyone whose priorities include starting a family or having any kind of life outside of work.


Law School is indeed a risky proposition. Not only is it a problem for new law grads to get attorney jobs that pay roughly 50k, a bigger problem that I see are the law grads that can't get attorney jobs at all. Even ignoring the amount of people who graduate law school but don't pass the bar (and there are a significant number), even some people who pass the bar have nothing to look forward to. There's simply an oversupply.

Not sure if this is a recent development, but more and more firms use temps. I'm sure it makes financial sense for them, since they can fire people whenever they want. But the temps aren't treated as "real attorneys," and obviously are not paid as well.


Seriously, this whole idea of using temps is starting to make the legal profession look more and more like a joke. It was bad enough when Simpsons cartoon had lawyers saying "hire me! hire me! me so litigious!" (lol.) now massive amounts of attorneys are "code monkeys." At least one third of all the law schools need to be closed.

Common Sense

The data in that chart are misleading for several reasons:

1. The chart does not take into account regional cost of living variations. $50,000/year in the Midwest buys more than the same amount of money in Manhattan or San Francisco.

2. There is no consideration of two-income families. A growing segment of law students are married, and are better equipped to pay down student loans. For two-income families, law school at any cost is a good investment because of the corresponding increase in future earnings.

3. The data gloss over the fact that these are starting figures! A DA earning $50,000 her first year might be up to $85,000 (or more) in less than 5. If a new lawyer can deal with a couple lean years after graduation, her education will reap great returns.

4. I can't think of many careers that pay as well as that of a lawyer. While $50,000 to start may be disappointing, that represents the high end of most Americans' earning power. While many people have to work their entire lives to get up to $50,000/year, a starting attorney can make that (after the necessary investment of time and substantial money). Once again, if a new attorney can survive a few lean years, the financial rewards of a legal career are great.

Taken in context, I don't feel the data support your conclusion that going to law school is a "risky proposition." In fact, I'd say it's one of the best ways to achieve financial and job security!

Dale Gribble

Students who foot high tuition bills at the Harvards will earn it back, but students who take on nearly as much debt at lower tier schools might not. Doesn't that make the top 10% students at lower tier schools and their large firm employers free riders with the tuition bills the less successful students pay? Think of the astronomical costs law firms would incur to train associates as they did in the old days, in their offices.


Fordham places better than most higher-ranked law schools.



Hope this helps!

Suzanne Wynn

Great article. Many of the comments assume that student loan debt goes down over time, regardless of where on the salary curve the student falls. For those on the left of the curve, and even for those on the right, it would be interesting to look at the relationship between salary and student loan debt 5 years after graduation. With negative amortization built into student loan hardship deferrals, for a student graduating with $85k in debt on the left side of the curve, it is possible the debt will grow over time instead of decrease. I graduated in the late 1980s and know classmates who now owe more on their student loans than they did when they graduated due to negative amortization.

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