Is Law School Worth It? Factors to Consider

Scales of Justice with stacks of dollars

RapidEye / Getty Images

Law school continues to be a popular path for college graduates, but is it a wise choice? The debate on whether law school is worth it continues to surge. According to Law School Transparency, the average annual law school tuition in 2018 was $47,754 for private schools and $27,160 for public schools, and the average law student debt after graduation is currently around $115,000. With numbers like these, there's no question that the decision to go to law school is a costly one.

While the average tuition rate has continued to outpace inflation, the employment rate for law graduates continues to improve. The overall employment rate for the class of 2018 was 89.4%. Moreover, in 2018, the total number of law firm jobs increased for the first time in five years. According to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), the national median salary for the Class of 2018 was $70,000. The median law firm salary was $120,000, with salaries of $190,000 accounting for 24.1% of reported law firm salaries and salaries of $180,000 accounting for 13.4%.

Of course, not every law school graduate will land at a big firm, so weighing prospective salary against tuition is still an important concern. Here are five other factors students must consider when deciding whether they should go to law school.

School Reputation

While it may sound like a minor factor, school reputation is an important consideration when deciding whether a law school is the right fit. However, not every student can or even wants to be admitted into a Top 14 law school, and contrary to what some prospective law students may believe, graduating from a T14 school is not the only way to succeed as an attorney. 

That said, reputation does matter. If you’re looking to land in big law on one of the coasts, attending a top-ranked school can certainly give you a leg up on the competition. However, performing well at a lower-ranked regional school, acing your interviews, and proving yourself during your internships can increase your chances of following the same path successfully.

It's important to know what your goals are and to understand that those aspirations may change during law school. Regardless of what legal path you intend to follow, be aware of your prospective law school’s ranking and job prospects. 

Legal Specialty 

In addition to school reputation, you will also want to consider the reputation of specialty programs offered by the school and whether they are a good fit for you. If you are passionate about practicing in a certain field, ensure you apply to the schools that will best train you to practice in that field.

For instance, if you are interested in practicing environmental law, look for law schools with top-ranked environmental law programs. You should also research where jobs in that field are and find out your chances of landing a job in that practice area. Taking a realistic look at your employment prospects in your chosen area of practice is a key part of deciding whether law school is worth it for you.

Availability of Alternative Education Paths

One question you must ask yourself before applying to law school is, “Do I want to be a lawyer?” If you are unsure about the answer, you should seriously consider whether law school is a worthwhile investment. While there are several alternative career paths available to law graduates, the purpose of law school is to train students to think and write like lawyers. It is a highly specialized endeavor, and many of the skills you learn simply aren’t valuable in careers outside the practice of law.

Before applying to law school, you should research alternative degrees you could obtain for the work you’d like to do. For instance, if you don’t plan on practicing law and would rather work as a non-legal advocate, a master’s program may be more appropriate. 

That said, if you are certain of your desire to practice law, but are still interested in alternative career paths, explore your options. Lawyers don’t only work in a courtroom. Some lawyers work in advisory roles in hospitals, businesses, agencies, and in other positions you might not expect. Be aware of all the possibilities.

School Culture

Law school is a highly competitive environment. In some ways, it’s the perfect preparation for an adversarial profession like law. However, the competition doesn’t have to be cutthroat. It is possible to become a great attorney in a collegial environment. 

Research the culture at the schools you’re interested in. Visit campus and get a sense of the atmosphere. Ask current students how they feel about their experiences, and don’t underestimate how important a supportive environment is to your overall success and happiness. Life can get pretty miserable pretty fast in a place where competition is valued over collaboration, so find the setting that feels right for you.

Practical Experience

Does the school offer a variety of clinics and externships? Are there opportunities to get involved with student-run journals and activities? Gaining hands-on, practical experience during law school is an important step toward success after graduation. If you’re trying to decide whether law school will be worth it, find out how well your prospective school will prepare you for practice. 

Finally, choose a school known for student support. Look for a place where you can easily find a mentor—a place where alumnae return to volunteer and bolster the next generation of attorneys. Deciding whether law school is worth it is a uniquely personal decision, so find out what’s important to you—and confidently follow your dreams.