Law School Can Pay Off, but Not for Everyone

Legal education in America constitutes a classic case of the haves and have-nots.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D.
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Mark J. Drozdowski, Ed.D., is a senior writer with BestColleges. He has 30 years of experience in higher education as a university administrator and faculty member and teaches writing at Johns Hopkins University. A former columnist for The Chronicle ...
Published on July 10, 2024
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  • A new study demonstrates the career advantages graduates of top law schools enjoy.
  • The initial return on investment of the highest-ranked law schools is roughly four times greater than that of the lowest-tier schools.
  • Although larger numbers of underrepresented minorities are going to law school, many attend lower-ranked schools and experience less favorable outcomes.
  • Women constitute the majority of law students but less than 40% of the legal profession.

The college you choose may not determine your long-term success. But the law school you attend almost certainly will.

Few professional programs are as rank-conscious as law schools. Law students study essentially the same things, especially in their first year, so where you go often makes all the difference to future employers.

Graduating from a top law school pays significant dividends, often earning you enough money to quickly repay student loans. At the lowest tier, students don't enjoy nearly the same return on that investment, or ROI.

But law schools aren't just stratified financially, a new Georgetown study points out. They're also imbalanced in terms of race and ethnicity, posing serious questions for the legal profession.

Calculating the ROI of Law Schools

In its new study, "A Law Degree Is No Sure Thing," Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce ranks 186 law schools according to median earnings four years after graduation, accounting for each school's average debt load.

Topping the list, at $253,800 in annual earnings net of debt payments, is Columbia University, followed by the University of Pennsylvania at $238,000. The University of Chicago, Cornell University, and Stanford University round out the top five and also crest the $200,000 threshold.

Across all law schools, the median net earnings for graduates is $72,000.

Toward the bottom of that list, among the 33 lowest-ranked law schools, which collectively educate about 12% of law students, graduates' net annual earnings fall between $22,000 and $55,000.

When it comes to law school, the best returns are concentrated among a small number of institutions, educating approximately 20% of law students, center director and lead author Jeff Strohl said in a statement.

Earnings are especially important given the high cost of a legal education and the student loan burden many graduates carry. The median debt for law graduates is $118,500, and that's just for law school. Add in undergraduate loan debt, and that total swells to about $130,000.

The consequences of six-figure debt are ... far-reaching for law school graduates, Catherine Morris, report co-author and senior editor and writer at the center, said in the statement, impacting their ability to purchase a home, start a family, and achieve other traditional markers of success.

Higher salaries obviously help. The Georgetown study determined that the median salary for all lawyers is $135,700, though it varies widely by sector. Well into their careers, partners at top firms can earn more than $1 million, while those working in state government make $97,600.

The unfortunate truth is that some graduates, many of them coming out of the bottom tier of law schools, aren't finding jobs remunerative enough to cover student loans and other living costs. One in 5 law graduates responding to Georgetown's survey said they wouldn't be able to come up with $1,000 in emergency funds.

Racial and Gender Imbalances in the Law

Legal education offers a textbook case of the haves and have-nots, with the status of schools largely dictating the fates of their graduates.

Over the past three years, 16% of law graduates landed jobs with the biggest law firms (known colloquially as "Big Law"), and 44% of students coming out of the 26 highest-earning law schools did so.

Graduates of those 26 schools had an unemployment rate of 3%, while 13% of those from the lowest-tier schools weren't employed 10 months after graduating.

Employment figures can be attributed in part to bar passage rates. Alumni of law schools with the highest median earnings had a first-time bar passage rate of 91%; for graduates of schools with the lowest earnings, the rate was 59%.

First-time bar passage statistics also vary by race and ethnicity. White test-takers passed at a rate of 83%, followed by Asian Americans (75%), Hispanics and Latino/as (69%), and Black/African American test-takers (57%).

Perhaps those stats aren't surprising given that, relative to their share of enrollments, Black/African American and Hispanic/Latino/a students are overrepresented in law schools with the lowest net earnings.

How does this translate to legal careers? In 2022, only 11% of law firm partners identified as a race other than white, the study found, with 4% Black/African American, 5% Hispanic/Latino/a, and 8% Asian American.

Black/African American law graduates in fact face multiple headwinds. Almost 1 in 5 had more than $200,000 in student loans, a higher percentage than any other racial or ethnic group. And they earn the lowest median salary throughout their law careers — $108,000, compared to $132,000 for Asian Americans and $131,000 for white lawyers.

Overall, though, law schools have become more diverse. From 2010-2023, the percentage of white students fell from 66% to 60%, while the Hispanic/Latino/a population grew from 9% to 14% and the proportional representation of Black/African American students grew from 7% to 8%. Asian American enrollments held steady at 7%.

Women also have made great strides in legal education, currently accounting for 56% of law school enrollments. They've held the majority since 2016. At the same time, their representation in the legal profession was only 39% in 2023, up from 33% in 2012, suggesting that many women don't pursue law careers after law school or end up leaving the field at some point.

They also suffer from a pay gap if they do persist in the profession. Among attorneys ages 25-54, women on average make $28,000 less than men.

Is Law School Worth It?

So is law school ultimately worth it? For those with the opportunity to attend a top-ranked school, the answer is definitively yes based on salary expectations alone. Anyone contemplating attending a bottom-ranked school, however, should weigh ROI implications carefully.

Such value considerations are evidently enough to scare away some prospective students. Today's law school enrollments are one-fifth below what they were a decade ago, the study points out.

Potential applicants might also fear the threat of artificial intelligence (AI), which promises to automate some of the more rudimentary tasks performed by early career attorneys, perhaps limiting job prospects in the process.

Still, the Georgetown report calls a law degree a solid bet, with employment opportunities projected to grow over the next decade despite the looming specter of AI.

What's clearly undeniable is that the odds associated with such a bet shrink or grow depending almost entirely on the law school one attends.