Law school is still worth it—but not if you’re in it for the money

Image: Reuters/Luke MacGregor
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If your primary aim is to rake in millions, save your time and put the law school applications down now. It wouldn’t be a good bet.

A legal education was once a fail-safe route to a lucrative career in America, but no longer, thanks to a surplus of law schools and a tightened post-recession job market that doesn’t need nearly as many lawyers as before. A new survey of more than 10,000 college graduates, law graduates, and other degree-holders released this week from Gallup and nonprofit education group AccessLex Institute found that there is newfound hesitation among law graduates about the payoffs of their degree. When asked whether their law degree was worth the cost, less than half (48%) replied “strongly agree”—and that number drops to 23% for people with over $100,000 in debt, a group that has grown at a rapid rate over the years.

“While the law degree is still held in high esteem, it is now seen as a riskier investment than in the past,” said Aaron Taylor, a director at AccessLex, in a statement. Of the post-recession law graduates who said they would not recommend a law degree to others (about half), the majority cited “cost of a law degree” and “job market for JD holders” as their reasons.

But that’s not to say a rewarding career in law isn’t still possible.

First off, the value derived from a law degree varies widely from school to school, because certain institutions can offer much better and high-paying job prospects than others. (Many middling ones, realizing they’re not reputable or large enough to sustain themselves, are now shuttering.) Below are the top- and bottom-ranked US law schools as examined last year by online lender SoFi, which looked at data from 60,000 student loan refinancing applications it received.

Then, there’s the satisfaction aspect. Lawyers, according to the AccessLex and Gallup study are among the most emotionally and intellectually engaged people in their communities. Peace of mind after leaving law school is also high: About half (51%) of the JD holders surveyed reported they had a good job already waiting for them by the time they graduated, compared to 29% of bachelor’s holders. For law grads in the top 10% of their class, 71% had a job waiting after graduation.

Personal well-being among law degree holders is also higher than that of other advanced degree holders, or bachelor’s-only holders: lawyers reported the highest feelings of “community well-being” and “physical well-being” among those groups. Granted, the comfortable figures of average legal income—even factoring in the setback of student loan debt—can’t be dismissed as a factor in that sense of well being.