As an attorney, I am often asked by aspiring legal professionals if going to law school is a good idea right now. Personally, I love learning about the law, and many awesome and diverse careers can be had in law. Nonetheless, I often discourage law school, as a practical and financial matter. However; someone who goes to law school for the right reasons and is prepared to become self-employed throughout their career, might later be satisfied with their decision. Furthermore, going to law school is not necessarily required to either learn about the law, or to have great and fulfilling careers in law. For instance, you can learn a lot about the law right here on this blog! 🙂
In a series of four posts, I will discuss the following:
- (1) Today’s first post will be about the financial considerations of law school, and why you might not make as much money as a lawyer as you think;
- (2) The second post will be about what working as a lawyer is like, and pros and cons of working in the profession;
- (3) The third post will be on why becoming a self-employed solo lawyer could be your best shot at personal satisfaction and financial success as a lawyer;
- (4) The fourth and final post will be on alternative careers in law which can pay well, do not require a law degree, and have low barriers to entry.
Financial considerations of law school, and why you might not make as much money as a lawyer as you think:
Most people are not motivated solely by money in choosing a career. Nonetheless, everyone still needs to make a decent living and pay the bills. Degrees also need to pay for themselves.
Law school costs a lot of money. It is not unusual for a law student to pay well into the six figures for a legal education – including tuition, fees, books, and at least partial living expenses while you study and do essential (and most commonly unpaid) internships. Accordingly, most students will leave law school with a large amount of debt. Law school will keep a student extremely busy, so students will only be able to work limited hours, if any.
“But wait!”, people often ask when I try to burst their law school bubble. “Don’t lawyers make tons of money, which would make the debt disappear quickly?!” Well, not so fast.
Yes, there are lawyers who become fabulously wealthy. These commonly include high level partners in big law firms. According to Financial Samurai, in 2018, 8th year BigLaw partners made an average of $330,000.00, plus up to 20% of their salaries as a bonus. BigLaw partners can also make seven figures or more with fee sharing, if they bring in lots of business from wealthy corporate clients who can pay BigLaw fees (one has to be pretty well-connected to draw in this kind of business, which even most lawyers are not). These top earners make up a small percentage of all lawyers.
Many other lawyers also make a comfortable living, even if not as much as the top earners. In 2014 (for all of the following numbers), according to PayScale, the median attorney salary in the U.S. was $98,823.00. The median salary for U.S. patent attorneys and IP attorneys was $129,500.00 and $131,728.00, respectively. Tax attorneys and real estate attorneys were both close to the median at $99,690.00 and $90,125.00. Family law attorneys and personal injury attorneys earned less at $70,828.00 and $73,000.00, respectively. Criminal attorneys earned a median salary of just $51,810.00 for those employed by public defenders, but more than double that was earned by their first-year criminal defense counterparts in BigLaw firms at $115,000.00.
Of course, all of these salaries will vary based upon a lawyer’s level of experience, and geographic location. Keep in mind that attorneys and law firms tend to be largely concentrated in urban areas, where the cost of living is higher than in rural areas. Additionally, student loan payments will take a big bite of salaries, and can make the difference between a comfortable living and struggling in a pricey city.
There are also plenty of lawyers nowadays who are unemployed. According to the National Association for Law Placement, only 63% of law school graduates from the class of 2015 obtained full-time employment which required a law degree. These graduates also had an unemployment rate of more than twice the national average. 1.4% of those graduates were working in non-professional positions, giving a glimpse into the underemployment rates (which unemployment rates often do not capture). These unemployed and underemployed younger attorneys are typically not in their situations for a lack of effort or capability on their part. They are competing for jobs as rookies against many experienced attorneys. Such circumstances will make it difficult to impossible to pay off student loans, or even stay ahead of ballooning interest.
In recent years; much of the legal profession has been hit hard by job killers like automation; work being shifted to paralegals and other non-attorneys, and associate work being farmed out to contractors (the “gig work” of the legal profession), paving way to downsizing by big firms in order to cut costs; and the existence of a glut of lawyers and not enough jobs to go around for all of them. Lawyers who graduated law school after about 2008 are likely to find that job insecurity, and firms offering salaries which are too low to pay off student debt, to be more the norm than the exception amongst their peer group.
For myself, student debt is the one reason that I regret going to law school. It’s also why I’m writing books to teach laypeople about law in an easy-to-follow format, much like you see on this blog. If I make this venture successful, it could enable everyone to access valuable legal knowledge without the debt of law school, and also help me get rid of my debt.
If you do really want to become a lawyer, you must have a passion for the law, and a good idea of what you want to do. Don’t go to law school because someone else is telling you to do it – your family and friends can love you with all their hearts, but still not know what is really best for you. You must make that decision for yourself. Don’t go to law school if you are expecting a law degree to be a secure ticket to a middle-class (or better) lifestyle, without too much effort on your part – you will probably be disappointed.
Stay tuned for the next part of this series, where I will discuss what it is like to work as a lawyer.
As always, dear readers, thank you for following me. I hope you enjoyed this, and learned something valuable.
** Got a legal subject or question you are curious about? Email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your question may be discussed in a future blog post!
Please note that the above is offered for educational purposes, and as a means of encouraging intellectual curiosity about the law. The information presented may not take into account every exception, variation, or complication which could apply to someone’s legal matters. Accordingly, nothing in this post or blog is ever intended as, nor should be construed by or relied upon by anyone, as legal advice. If you need legal advice, please consult an attorney who can give you assistance specific to your needs.