As good lawyers know, the answer is “it depends.”

The Washington Post’s Wonkblog published an article in 2013 titled “Ignore the haters. Law school is totally worth the cash” that argued that law degrees were still worth the cost, assuming tuition of $180,000 total.  The premium for attending law school was about $350,000 over the total life of the law student graduate.  Even with my amount of debt, assuming I can see that premium, I would have around $125,000 in earnings premium over the amount spent for law school (yay!).

However, let’s delve further into my situation, for an example.  Assuming a starting salary of $50,000, and a raise of 5% per year (1% raises while with any current company, 10% raises if make a lateral move), and in 20 years I can expect to be making about $132,000, for total salary earned over that period of $1,785,963.

On the other hand, if I just used my bachelor’s degree, and started at about $43,000 (average starting salary in 2003) by 2016 I would be at about $70,000 per year, 10 years into whatever career, and by 2036 would be making about $185,000, or about $2,501,864 over those 20 years.  By that calculation, I’ve lost money attending law school and getting into a low-paying legal job.  I’m not sure it’s reasonable to expect that I would actually have earned $43,000 right out of college though, since I had few marketable skills.  In Japan as an English teacher, I was making around $32,000 per year, which would have grown to $1,861,852 over the same period, which is still slightly higher than the law degree.

But wait!  Again according to the BLS, the average wage for a bachelor’s degree holder is $59, 124 and for the professional degrees is $89,960.  Each masks a lot of variation, but one of the variations is the capped amount of lifetime earnings available with each type of degree.  As a BA holder of a political science degree (tops out at around $100,000 or so) my lifetime earning potential is lower than as a JD holder (tops out higher than $187,000 or so).

The problem is, we’re talking about averages, and if the average cost of law school is about $110,000, and the average increase is earnings is about $30,000 per year (see above) it would take about 3 and a half years to get your money back on the investment (not taking into account other costs, such as interest).  Which sounds great, except this does not take into account those of us with high loans and low salaries, nor does it take into account the individual variety of practices, locations, and working hours.

So, when making your decision about whether law school is going to be worth the monetary investment, you’ll need several factors:

  1. Your current earnings, and your potential lifetime earnings based on current career (this is different for an unemployed political science major (me!) and a computer engineer).
  2. Your potential earnings depending on what area of law and what type of practice setting you want to go into.
  3. The cost of attendance (minus grants and scholarships) at several institutions you can reasonably expect to get into.

It’s likely that for me, law school was not worth the investment, unless my income spikes dramatically in the future.  I’m not sure it will, I think slow growth is more what I’m looking at, since I like being able to work 50 hours a week, instead of 80.  Additionally, since I spent so much on school, I’ll need to make a commensurately high salary to make the amount paid worthwhile.  A student who paid less (scholarships/grants/rich parents) will need to have less of a salary increase to see a positive benefit.

Do your homework people!