How Much Student Debt is Reasonable for Law School?

A cost-benefit analysis of attending law school is challenging.

Some lawyers earn an excellent living and benefit greatly from attending law school. Others struggle.

Because there is a wide variety of potential outcomes for law school graduates, prospective students must consider many factors before making any borrowing decision.

Undergraduate Student Loans

Undergraduate debt is a significant factor in determining how much you can afford to borrow for law school.

If you have over $100,000 in undergraduate student loans, you might see law school as the only path to ever paying off your loans. This is a dangerous attitude.

Prospective law students with substantial undergraduate debt should be cautious in selecting a law school. Staying in-state or attending a school offering scholarship could be the best route.

The Law School You Want to Attend

Many law school applicants obsess about the US News Law School Rankings. Others think law school rankings are a dumb exercise and ignore them completely.

The best practice is a middle-ground approach. Very little separates the school ranked 42 compared to a school ranked 35. However, there is a vast difference between the top schools and the bottom tiers.

The issue here isn’t prestige. It is a question of statistics. What is the bar passage rate at your school? How many students have jobs at graduation? What is the average salary? What percentage of students are in jobs that require a law degree?

Not sure if your law school is worth the price of admission? Talk to some current students and recent graduates. Find out how things went for them. Ask how helpful the school was in finding a job.

Your Desire to be a Lawyer and Career Plans

Some people attend law school because they dream of being a lawyer and changing the world. Others attend law school because they are struggling to find a job, and law school seems like a reasonable next step.

Many current lawyers hate being lawyers.

Among the high-paid lawyers working at a large firm, only 44% are satisfied with their careers. In the public sector, the satisfaction numbers are a bit higher, but the salaries are usually much lower.

Breaking the bank to enter a field that you might hate is a risky venture. If you borrow so much money that a six-figure salary is a necessity just to keep up with your student loans, things could get especially ugly.

Figure out if you really want to become an attorney. The best time to figure out whether or not you want to become a lawyer is before law school. Think about the sort of legal job you want. Ask someone in that position to shadow them for a few weeks so that you can get a feel for what the work is really like.

Part of being a lawyer is networking with other attorneys. Finding someone to shadow is good practice for an essential skill.

Federal vs. Private Loans

The loans you plan on borrowing have a significant influence on how much debt is reasonable.

If you are considering private loans to pay for law school, you are choosing a risky approach. Private loans are far more restrictive than federal loans and can present enormous challenges after graduation.

Federal loans are a much better option for the vast majority of law students. Income-driven repayment plans and Public Service Loan Forgiveness help many lawyers afford their law school debt on smaller salaries.

Even with the borrower protections available, a massive amount of federal debt still presents a major risk. However, it is less risky than private loans.

Planning for Setbacks

If you are considering law school, you probably have a long history of being an academic over-achiever.

Law schools are filled with bright students, hard workers, and great test-takers. Don’t assume you will graduate at the top of your class.

In fact, given the amount of debt that might be required to pay for law school, you should consider the many ways in which it might go wrong.

  • You might not graduate. Graduates rates vary widely from one school to the next, but a shocking number of law students don’t finish school.
  • You might not pass the bar. At some schools only about half the students pass the bar. Each year, students from Harvard and Yale fail the bar. The bar is incredibly difficult and stressful, and anyone considering law school should also consider what they will do if they can’t pass the bar.
  • You might not find a job. There are great opportunities available for lawyers. However, US law schools produce more lawyers than what the economy needs. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, competition for jobs over the next 10 years is expected to be strong because more students graduate from law school each year than there are jobs available.

Is Borrowing Money to Attend Law School a Mistake?

Maybe.

(Side note for those who eventually attend law school: maybe is the answer to pretty much every exam question you will see.)

Even in the best of circumstances, law school is an investment that comes with risks. That doesn’t mean that attending law school is necessarily a bad idea. It does mean that there are no easy answers to this question.

So How Much Can I Safely Borrow for Law School?

There isn’t a magic number for law school borrowing.

If you are going to a top law school, have a great scholarship, are passionate about becoming a lawyer, and don’t have any debt from undergrad, it is probably safe to borrow some money to pay for school.

For the rest of us, it is a risk-reward question.

The most important thing for anyone considering law school is to do your homework. Learn about the law schools you are considering. Learn about your options if things go south. Learn about yourself and what you really want.



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