Are you considering law school? You’re not the only one. Law school applications have increased nearly 12% over the last two years. That’s a pretty significant jump in interest, and there’s a good chance we’ll be seeing more diversity in the law world and more juris doctors in general in the next few years.
There are many possible reasons for this sudden increase. Some believe it has to do with our current tumultuous politic system while others think that the economic recovery of the 2010s made pursuing legal studies to obtain a JD degree more appealing. Regardless, tons of people are entering law school right now, or at the very least considering it. One factor to consider before jumping into law school is how long it will actually take from start to finish to end up with a degree.
So just how long does it take to finish law school? The simple (and not always correct) answer would be three years. However, law school in the United States is quite complex. There are a variety of factors that come into play when calculating how long it takes to graduate from a JD program.
In this in-depth guide, we’ll be breaking down various law school scenarios to help you figure out which law school timeline works best for you.
Let’s start with the basics of law school and how long it usually takes to graduate when taking traditional classes.
The basics (and timeline) of law school
Accurately answering the question “How long is law school?” depends on the particular path a student may wish to take.
The first step of this timeline begins with a bachelor’s degree. A vast majority of law schools don’t require a bachelor’s degree, but having one is absolutely allowed before applying to a law school. That being said, there are a number of undergraduate degrees one may want to have to better prepare them for specific niches in the law world. These degrees are considered “pre-law” degrees. Here are a few degrees that are popular as pre-law:
- Political science. This major focuses primarily on theory and practice of politics and government at various levels, from state to national to international. Political science could be an excellent pre-law major for aspiring lawyers who want to get into political or federal law.
- History. A degree in history can be useful for passing the LSAT (Law School Admission Test) and provide a well-rounded education in the history of society, community, trials, and constitutional law.
- Criminal justice. It makes sense why criminal justice would make a great pre-law major. Criminal justice is a very interdisciplinary degree that studies pretty much everything that relates to crime and law, from psychology to public administration. If you plan on becoming a criminal justice lawyer, this is a great pre-law degree to have.
- Psychology. Psychology courses are very useful to aspiring law students, as they provide a lot of insight into the human psyche. For law students who want to apply psychologic insights into their practice and communicate better with clients, a background in psychology could be great. A background in psychology can also be useful for criminal justice.
- Sociology. The study of the structure and development of human society obviously has some great use cases for lawyers. Sociology is actually a major aspect of the law, so taking this major as a pre-law investment can provide students with a healthy background in the foundation of law.
A majority of these degree programs will take approximately four to five years to obtain, depending on how many credit hours per semester a student wishes to take. Remember that this isn’t a requirement– almost all major law schools do not require a pre-law major or degree. However, investing in pre-law degrees can demonstrate how dedicated you are to becoming an attorney and will look very good on a resume or school application.
The next step in the law school timeline is the LSAT test. The Law School Admission Test is a standardized exam that is given to all students who have applied to law school. It isn’t that different from the SAT exam you may have taken in high school, except the focus of the test is on law, logic, reasoning, reading comprehension, and critical thinking. LSAT testing is required by all American Bar Association-approved schools. It is highly recommended that when selecting a law school one should only apply for ABA-approved schools.
You will only be able to take the LSAT three times in a year and seven times over a lifetime. If you do poorly on the LSAT seven times, you will not be able to enter law school. This is important to consider when calculating how long your law school journey will take. You’ll need to spend some significant time studying for this exam, and that could take up to a year when taking into consideration the available yearly testing dates. The actual test itself is timed at just under four hours.
Once all of these factors are taken into consideration, it’s time to look at the actual “school” portion of law school. As we mentioned before, law school usually takes around three years. Unlike undergraduate programs, law school does not permit students to take credit hours at their own pace, so this amount of time is more or less set in stone. Sometimes extensions may be granted for very specific situations, though this is uncommon.
When you take all of these traditional steps for law school into account, you could be looking at six to seven years from applying to a pre-law program to graduating with legal certification.
But the timeline possibilities don’t end there: What about night school?
Alternative law school programs
If you’d like to work in law but don’t necessarily want to go the traditional route, there are some options that could be shorter. Some law programs out there offer part-time classes in the evening in order for students to stay employed during the day. Through these programs, a student could complete their degree in around four years. This reduced course load can also be helpful for students who are interning while they are in school or are facing a significant financial burden.
Unfortunately, there are some downsides to being in a part-time law program. To start, even a part-time scenario is a massive time commitment between reading and studying and class time. A part-time student can still expect to spend forty hours a week focused on school. Just as well, some employers may see part-time programs as less desirable, which may be a factor in whether or not you are hired after graduation.
Still, night school can be a good idea. Many American Bar Association-accredited schools that are full-time do not allow students to work more than twenty hours per week while enrolled. In fact, some schools don’t let students work at all. A part-time option could be the best solution for students who must work for a living.
How difficult is law school?
We’ve established that the biggest factors of how long law school will take are your ability to finish pre-law quickly and pass your LSAT quickly. Law school itself is pretty much set in stone to take three years unless you opt for a less prestigious night school part-time.
Law school is difficult, and as a result, your LSAT will also be difficult. It’s vital to study very hard before you take this exam. This is going to influence your law school timeline.
Just as well, there are also the fringe requirements around law school that you’ll have to spend time doing. You’ll need to ask for letters of recommendation before you even apply to law school. Depending on who you request these from, getting those letters can take a while.
The difficulty of law school also influences how long law school “feels.” Sure, it’ll take three years in a vast majority of cases. But that first year of the socratic method is extremely rigorous and may make you question your competence. If you’ve even been stuck in a very difficult life event, time seems to move very, very slowly.
However, once you pass the first year, things do actually get better. They may not get academically easier, but law students get a lot stronger after that first year. By your third year, you’ll be ready to focus on extracurricular activities like moot court, externships or thinking about possible clerkships. .
How finances influence the length of law school
Law school costs money. Quite a bit, in fact. Even if you attend an affordable law school, you can still expect to pay five figure sums for tuition and that’s not including living expenses or expenses associated with studying for and taking the bar exam.
When people think of the length of law school, they often forget about how long you’ll be carrying the financial burden of years of study during the time you are practicing law. The average annual tuition for private law schools is around $49,000. Keep in mind, that is a per-year amount. The total cost for three years in one of the best law schools could top $150,000 (and you absolutely do not want to be maxing out your loans). Let’s not forget about the possibilities of out-of-state tuition as well. Law school applicants will either need financial aid or a scholarship in most cases, in addition to some saved money. These scenarios can tack on more time before one can apply to enter law school.
One way for law school students to score more money or possibly get into law school for free is to do particularly well on the LSAT. Many schools reserve special funding for particularly brilliant students. Some schools also offer tuition discounts to applicants who have great academic credentials before entering law school, usually through a pre-law degree. The other method for figuring out the cost of law school is to think about applying to law schools that are slightly below the U.S. News & World Report school rankings where you would have otherwise qualified. In other words, you may want to consider attending a slightly lower ranked school in exchange for a significant scholarship. I say that you may want to consider because law firms are notorious for using the school ranking system for recruitment purposes, so if you want a shot at a Biglaw firm you may need to attend the best ranked school possible.
Guides and resources from Biglaw Investor
Now that we’ve established how long law school can take, how financial situations influence law school timelines, and how difficult law school can be, you may be convinced to take the plunge and get into this particular career.
At Biglaw Investor, we believe that knowledge and preparation is everything when it comes to law school. We are dedicated to helping lawyers and soon-to-be attorneys around the country manage their student loan debt, make great investment decisions for their future, and get educated. A big part of becoming a lawyer involves financial stability and being able to pay for law school. Our in-depth resources and guides explore everything a law student may need to know, from refinancing student loans to how to pay for law school to additional tips for legal education.
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All American Bar Association accredited law schools require 3 years of full-time study to earn a Juris Doctor (also known as a JD, Doctor of Jurisprudence or law degree).
Part-time law students typically complete their law degree in four years.
The cost of law school includes tuition, room and board, books and the opportunity cost of leaving the workforce to pursue a law degree (in other words, the money lost when you would have been working).
Paying for law school typically involves a combination of savings, scholarships, loans and part-time work.
The cheapest law school is the University of the District of Columbia where tuition is around $13,000 a year.
Considering whether you should go to law school? The important questions to ask are what are your motives for going to law school? Would you consider working before law school to make sure it’s the right path for you?
Law school in California takes three years to complete.
Law school in New York takes three years to complete.
Joshua Holt is a former private equity M&A lawyer and the creator of Biglaw Investor. Josh couldn’t find a place where lawyers were talking about money, so he created it himself. He knows that a good law school budget will set you on the right path to financial independence and that if you want to get smart on personal finance you can read his weekly email.