Straight or Wait? Your Guide to Timing Law School


Our guide to going K-JD and the possible financial outcomes of postponing law school.

Your law school experience from before the first day of classes to beyond career outcomes is framed within a broader professional and personal context. A decision in timing could affect that experience across a multitude of considerations.

What is a K-JD?

“K-JD” stands for “kindergarten through J.D.” and refers to the sort of law student that seeks to enroll in law school right after graduating from college. K-JD is not a strict term, so one might call themselves K-JD even if they have taken a year off after college or completed a degree beyond a bachelor’s prior to law school. More importantly, what K-JD is not is someone who has taken significant strides in their career (whether it is a legal job or not) prior to law school.

Data on age and work experience

ABA data has reported that in 2020, there were nearly 40 thousand law students that enrolled for their first year across the nation. LSAC has periodically gathered law school admissions data and the most common age for a law student seems to be between 22 and 24 years old. These students are likely no more than 3 years out from college, and many are K-JD. Another large age group makes up the 25-29 year old students, and there is a smaller but not insignificant number of 30-39 year old students. The most uncommon ages for law students are either 21 and younger or 40 and older, each group consisting of no more than 5% of all law students.

Age and post-graduate work experience can produce interesting data about law students. You can explore some of that data by perusing through the publicly posted class profiles from each school. Just search up “___ law school class profile” to get an idea of each school’s student body. Here are some examples of data you can find from the class of 2023 profiles.

  • The average age at matriculation at Northwestern University (which has a reputation as being an “older-student” law school) is 25 years old with an overall age range of 20-38.
  • For comparison, Georgetown University has an average age of 23 while Notre Dame Law School’s overall age range goes from 20-47.
  • Only 11% of students from New York University have been out of college five or more years while 70% of students at University of Virginia have post-graduate experience.

By comparing class profiles over the years, you may find schools trending towards certain kinds of student bodies or further diversifying experiences. However, the student bodies at any of these various schools can hardly be said to be the same.

This article does not try to answer any questions about whether someone is in a better or worse position to pursue a legal career because of their age or professional experience. There is no simple equation to answer if law school is a “right,” “good,” or “safe” idea for a given individual. This article does try to discuss some advantages, disadvantages, and considerations that a potential K-JD law student might benefit from thinking about with regards to their finances and the law student experience. For those of you who are years removed from undergrad, you may no longer have the choice to pursue law straight out of college, but much of what is discussed below will still be useful to think about as you contemplate a legal education.

Finances

Timing can definitely affect your wallet before, during, and after law school. Assuming that any prior year not spent in law school is a year with income, there are two ways to think about the effects of that income.

First, savings can help to reduce the cost of attending law school. Saving your income before law school can efficiently reduce the amount of student loans you take out. Because of how loans work and the time value of money, a dollar not borrowed is worth more today than a dollar borrowed tomorrow. In addition, having more money and time to fund your LSAT studies can manifest into a higher LSAT score and in turn, bigger scholarship money that also reduces the total cost of attendance.

Many applicants experienced the value of having stable income during the COVID-19 pandemic, while others found themselves struggling to find the cash to pay seat deposits. The pandemic has also led to some volatile and unpredictable trends in the recent admissions cycles, and applying more broadly, though costing more, may be a safer approach. Leading up to law school, the money you are earning can be a very comforting factor in your decision making and preparation. You can also look into unconventional ways to save for law school.

However, as a K-JD, you may not have a job at your disposal to choose between working or enrolling. Finding a post-graduate job that pays is not a simple task in and of itself, but it is even less likely that the job is going to allow you to save a lot of money while better preparing you for a legal education. The law school application process can begin long before graduation, and few potential K-JDs will find themselves in a position to choose between saving money and attending law school.

Secondly, and more importantly, are the long-term opportunity costs associated with timing law school. Here, the decision may be to put off law school for more than just a year or two in preparation. As an investor, and probably someone who is interested in Biglaw (you are at Biglaw Investor after all), thinking long-term is a must. Being able to save even $1000 can have a profound effect on eliminating certain worrisome aspects of starting law school (e.g. seat deposits, books, a new laptop, etc.), but if you are intent on pursuing one of the more lucrative career outcomes available to successful law students, each year that you put off your legal education is a year’s delay on earning potential. Biglaw associates also get raises through a consistent firm-wide pay scale, so even waiting one year to enter law school can comparatively cost you tens, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.

What are your financial goals and how do they intersect with law? If you, a potential K-JD, know that you want to aim for biglaw and intend on making as much money as possible over many years, hardly any financial concerns would keep you from starting that path ASAP. If the plan is to use Biglaw as a vehicle to quickly pay off student loans before moving onto another career path, then frontloading your debt damage control could be the right decision. Biglaw is not an opportunity that every law student will be able to choose, so keep that in mind as you balance risk-aversion with predicted financial outcomes.

The law student experience

It is impossible to explore every single way your law school experience can be affected by timing, so I’ll only note a few common ones here and discuss them briefly; they are: (1) fitting in with colleagues, (2) the student lifestyle, (3) professional experience, and (4) personal life.

Fitting in at law school

First, as mentioned above, the most common age group for law students is in the early to mid-20s. As a K-JD, you will have no worries about how you fit in with your classmates at most schools. Most law schools are connected to undergraduate institutions, and the legal education understands that they are fostering many young professionals. In my personal experience, the older students also have had no issues with making friends and other personal or professional connections, but a K-JD will undoubtedly fit in age-wise.

The student lifestyle

As a K-JD, you will probably have fewer lifestyle adjustments to make as a student. Not only will you be able to enter law school with existing study habits (hopefully good ones!), but building your schedule and lifestyle as a student will already be familiar. However, many non-K-JDs have testified that their time in the workforce has helped build a stronger work ethic, professionalism, and overall resilience that few K-JDs will have had time or opportunities to develop.

Law school is demanding, and anyone can find themselves struggling to meet those demands as a student. For example, if you are a K-JD and have never had to move away from your parents or live off of a budget, you may want to pay careful attention to how you navigate those challenges. If you have not been a student for many years, expect a period of adjustment as you return to the classroom and books while keeping in mind that law school will not wait for you to get comfortable.

Professional experience

Ideally, a law student, and ultimately the lawyer formed out of that student, is both a generalist and a specialist. You want to be familiar with a broad range of topics within the law, but you also want to be marketable to law firms and show them that you are more than just a blank slate with potential. Work experience can be particularly appealing to employers. Some examples include a prior computer programmer looking to practice cybersecurity law, a prior paralegal having first-hand exposure to the legal industry, a prior small-business owner having the entrepreneurial spirit that a law firm seeks to foster in their associates, general professionalism, and know-how of the real world.

From an application perspective, a weak undergrad GPA from years ago could benefit from being paired with professional work experience (also relevant for splitters). K-JDs have the advantage of youth, which is often associated with potential and adaptability. Letters of recommendation are often part of the law school admissions process, and K-JDs might have an easier time getting academic letters from professors, some who might have fresh memories of the applicant from just the past year. Of course these are not exclusive advantages. A dedicated college student can still accrue valuable professional experience with part-time jobs and internships and a non-K-JD can still be adaptable and full of potential.

Personal life considerations

The last common consideration is that a K-JD has less of their personal life to manage as he or she transitions into law school. Examples of this “personal life to manage” can include romantic partners, children, local friends, a developed professional network, etc. It isn’t limited to people either, as the house you live in, and time for leisurely activities can change as you transition into becoming a law student. As one lives more of their life, it is expected that there is an accumulation of relationships, responsibilities, and history that are all subject to drastic changes once law school enters the picture.

Someone who decides to put off law school for a few years might find themselves having to decide if law school is still as good of an idea as it was before. This can be particularly true for someone who finds themself sharing a life with a spouse or raising children. If you have a job that you really enjoy and do not want to give it up while studying law, deciding between a full-time and part-time program could become an important consideration.

However, not all law schools offer part-time programs, and it may require a perfect storm for your preferred school to have a good part-time program while also being geographically well suited to your needs. A K-JD should also think about the effects that pursuing a legal career can have on these aspects of their personal life. Heading straight into law school can mean that some goals of your personal life are sidelined or ditched entirely.

So… K-JD?

The answer is of course that you’ll have to decide what is best for you. It would be irresponsible to claim that attending law school is always going to be better or worse as a K-JD. I myself am a K-JD and have often wondered if I should have waited to attend law school. But I also wonder if I would have attended law school at all if I had waited. It is unavoidable that with a difficult life decision, you can’t choose to have all of the advantages. But most importantly, whether you are a K-JD or not, you can make your decision work for you and work to achieve a great legal education and career.

Joseph Kim

Joseph Kim A 2L at Notre Dame Law School, Joseph grew up in California where he developed an interest in working with music, powerlifting, and bowling. He's been a member of the FIRE community since before law school and plans to pursue FatFIRE following graduation.

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