Should I Go to Law School?


There are serious financial considerations when it comes to law school, so it isn't a decision to make lightly.

Considering whether you should go to law school in the middle of a pandemic? With a persistent demand for legal services, going to law school might sound like a suitable option in today’s economy. 

But like any path in life, law school isn’t the answer for everyone. For many, the reasons why people commit to law school aren’t always the right ones.

The important questions to ask are – what are your motives for going to law school? And would you consider working before law school to make sure it’s the right path for you?

We’re here to help you decide whether law school is the right path for you. Here are some important factors to consider and discuss before taking the plunge.

What’s your motivation for going to law school?

First, let’s talk about your motivations for heading to law school. What is it that makes you want to go?

Studies demonstrate that certain types of motivation are more likely to result in happiness and contentment than other kinds of motivations.

External motivators, such as money, power, acceptance, prestige, and admiration correlate inversely with happiness. So, if you’re thinking of going to law school because your parents want you to or because you’re hoping to make a ton of money, this is unlikely to the best motivator for you. Recent graduates can tell you that the student loan debt will make you think twice about all those external validators.

Intrinsic motivators that relate to personal growth, close relationships, and helping others correlate positively with happiness. So, if, for example, you dream of excelling in a career as a district attorney and helping others in the process, these are great motivators to join. 

When it comes to deciding whether to go to law school or choosing a school, you should be very cautious about choosing a school based on its prestige and whether or not its considered a top law school or the type of law school that will get you into biglaw.

A healthier path is to choose a school that will support and nurture your personal goals and ensure that you up with a reasonable amount of law school debt, a great chance of passing the bar exam and an even better chance of enjoying the practice law. That’s even if it’s not the most prominent school you can attend.

Think about the reasons you’d like to go to law school and write them down. If they’re mainly external motivations, be careful. In the long run, these reasons for going are unlikely to bring you happiness and pursuing a legal education could be a mistake.

If the reasons are mainly intrinsic, great. Try and hold onto these motivations as you move forward, as these are the ones that will help you gain contentment and peace in your career. But be aware that these motivations can begin to slip away once you’ve taken the LSAT, gone through the law school application process and started to feel the stress of law schoo.  

Remember, the world is full of unhappy lawyers, many of which have significant student loan debt. Chase the career path with the right motivations, and you can be one of the lucky ones, happy and content with your work choices.

The benefits of working before you go to law school

The path you take to attend law school is a personal one, but it usually becomes harder and more unrealistic the further away from undergrad level you get.

Once you start working, the concept of going back to study in the classroom can seem overwhelming and the idea of living a student lifestyle again can seem unappealing.

Sure, it’s hard heading back to school after earning money in the workforce for several years, but there are some advantages of working before law school instead of jumping straight into it from being an undergrad. Some of them you may not even realize until you head back to school. Here are a few of them.

You’ll grow savings and pay off debt

With a couple of years working under your belt, you have the chance to save some cash that will come in handy once you do head to law school. Having some money behind you can help you in various ways. 

Maybe you can pay off some of your loans and credit cards you used from your years as an undergraduate. That will help soften the blow if you need to take out student loans for life at law school. 

Or, you can use it to help you sort out a living situation for when you’re studying law in a new city.

You’ll learn how to budget

This work experience and money set aside can also help you learn how to budget. This will come in especially handy when you’re trying to figure out how to pay for law school and will need to be more stringent with your spending.

You’ll have time to consider whether law school is right for you

As you become used to working, it will likely become clearer to you whether starting a legal career at law school is for you or not. When you get used to working, the idea of leaving a career, a healthy salary, and 401k to study can become less and less attractive.

So, those who do decide to go likely have some very strong reasons for doing so, as it’s a lot to give up.

If after working, you have extrinsic reasons for leaving, you may need to give them a re-think. If the reasons you have for studying again are intrinsic, then this can demonstrate your passion for law school.

Spending some much-needed time away from the classroom and in the “real world” of working can help simplify your reasons and goals for going to law school. It also may make you appreciate the cost of law school and steer you toward one of the more affordable options. And a clear purpose is powerful in helping you move forward in your law career, even if your work is tiring and difficult.

Remember, no path to law school is the “right” or “ideal” way. Every method offers different advantages and disadvantages, you just need to make the right decision to work for you. While returning to school after life in the workforce can seem scary, or like you’re moving backward, remember that lots of the skills you’ve learned in your career will equip you well in law school.

Questions & Answers

If you’re deciding whether to go to law school, it’s likely that you still have plenty of questions.

Can I make a lot of money as a lawyer?

In short, yes you can. Lots of law students head to school striving for that big salary bonus legal job with a massive law firm straight after grad school, and yes some of them gain that.

However, it’s important to note that a lot don’t too. If you look at the statistics, there’s a peak at the $160,000 mark for new law grads. However, most starting salaries in the job market are a lot lower than that.

Realistically, the top legal schools and law firms only hire from around 15 to 20 of the most esteemed schools in the country, with a couple of local ones. Even if you’re from one of those schools, it’s likely you’ll need top grades in your class to snag a high-flying legal job. That means your chances of hitting the top salary as a recent grad in the legal industry is even lower.

So, yes, you can earn very well as a lawyer. But remember to take in all the considerations. 

Is a law degree versatile?

The good news is that yes, a law degree is versatile. Law school graduates don’t always end up as lawyers. Lots end up working in various industries, such as in banking, finance, public, government, non-profit, or for international businesses.

However, if it’s your aim to work in any of these sectors, be aware that there’s probably a different graduate degree that will get you further in your field rather than following a legal profession. Plus, it’s likely to be a whole lot shorter and cheaper too. 

Should I apply for law school if I don’t have anything better to do?

If the only reason you’re applying to law school is because you don’t have anything else to do, the simple answer is no. You shouldn’t apply for law school if you don’t have anything better to do.

This route is common for many college seniors or recent grads who feel stuck with what to do next in their life and career.

But if this is how you feel, it makes sense to spend a few years working, earning money, and exploring different careers and industries that excite you. Remember, law school will always be there for you if you still want to join later in life.

Should I apply for law school if I love “the law”?

If you ‘love the law’ then that’s great. However, it’s a pretty broad statement, so you should probably decide which aspect of the law interests you before choosing to go to law school. That way you can focus on your passions and help turn it into a career.

For example, if you’re obsessed with ‘Law and Order’, then law school could be great for you.

If the idea of negotiating terms of a credit agreement or filing motions appeals to you, then law school may not be the best option. 

Will I get to make a difference?

Yes, there are plenty of lawyers out there that don’t use their work for the greater good. But thankfully, the world is full of lawyers who do their best to make the right choices and help people through their work.

Many lawyers strive to make an impact on social change through human rights groups or advocacy organizations. But while these public interest jobs are very rewarding, it’s important to be aware that they generally don’t pay too much.

That said, having an interest in these sorts of roles is a great reason to head to law school. Plus, plenty of law schools will help postpone the cost of law school for students that dream of working in the public interest by presenting loan repayment assistance programs to them.

Joshua Holt

Joshua Holt A practicing 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 spends 10 minutes a month on Personal Capital keeping track of his money and is currently fascinated by the JD Mortgage products offered by several banks.

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    Three thoughts on Should I Go to Law School?


    1. All good recommendations. In addition to considering why you want to go to law school (and determining that it’s for all/mostly the right reasons) I also recommend this exercise, which I’ve gone through with a few would-be law students: (1) Start with a baseline of existing (undergrad) debt, which may grow while you’re in law school; (2) Determine whether you’re likely to get into a T-15 school (if not, consider any public school in the locality where you want to end up); (3) Determine how much debt you’ll incur in going to law school (don’t forget compounding that occurs once certain loans are taken out); (4) Plan to make $40-50K/year out of law school (it’s much more likely this’ll be the case than making $160K/year; if you end up making more, good for you, but you’ll have planned for a likelier scenario); (5) Determine your monthly law school loan payments (add in any existing debt as necessary), both for a 10-year repayment and a 30-year refinance schedule; (6) Determine realistic monthly living expenses, including rent/mortgage, food, transportation, etc.; (6) Determine whether you have any money left over (after taxes, loan repayments, and any other obligations) or if you’re already under water; (7) Consider that you’ll be working in a stressful position/field, regularly working 50+ hour weeks; (8) Determine if this is an acceptable scenario for X number of years.

    2. I enjoyed the post, Josh, and I think this is all very useful advice. I have a couple specific thoughts to add about working before law school:

      1) As someone who did it, I don’t necessarily encourage working as a paralegal first.

      Many people considering law school work in paralegal roles first. I imagine they do this thinking, as I did at the time, that they will gain a better sense of day-to-day life in the law. You do, to a limited extent. But if you’re seeking a panoramic picture of “life as a lawyer,” it’s hard, at least in my experience, to get that as a paralegal.

      After practicing for five years, I’ve learned that there can be vast differences between legal employers. One employer’s culture and work expectations might be totally unlike another’s; the public defender’s office, for example, will of course barely resemble a big law firm. Further complicating matters, there are often cultural differences between the same types of employers; two different corporate firms can feel nothing alike. There are even significant differences between often very siloed practice groups within the same firm. I had awesome co-workers as a paralegal and the job was a great experience, but it didn’t inform my perspective on the legal industry as a whole or alert me to these differences to any great degree.

      Given that, I’d strongly encourage those considering law school to “explor[e] different careers and industries that excite you” prior to law school, as Josh says, rather than working in law-related employment to understand “what lawyers do.” I don’t think you can truly get a full picture of this from any legal job—especially prior to law school. Shadowing a lawyer, informational interviews, or simply observing court in session may be more constructive and efficient uses of your time as you gather information about the legal field.

      2) Another advantage of working before law school is that it’s entirely possible to make yourself a better candidate during that time, increasing your chances of receiving merit-based aid.

      If you wait a few years to attend law school, gaining work experience and improving your LSAT score in that span, you may drastically increase the odds you are offered merit-based financial aid. I was a stunningly average law school applicant when I graduated from college; my chances of getting merit aid at a school I’d consider attending were exactly zero. But I waited a few years, made a little money at the paralegal job mentioned above, and reapplied to schools with a higher LSAT score. This was a game changer that led to a significant merit-based award.

      If, as a graduating college senior, you survey your law school options and they don’t look enticing or financially manageable, consider waiting a year or two and try boosting your LSAT score. You’ll have saved money while working and better stats/work experience may make law school significantly less costly.

      1. I know a bunch of paralegals that saved themselves from becoming unhappy lawyers by working for a couple of years in a law firm. In my experience, the differences in “firm culture” are dramatically overblown (i.e. there isn’t a significant difference) but the difference in the partners you work for rarely gets a lot of attention among law students. Unfortunately, as you said, that is something that is hard to figure out before you’ve gone through the process of getting a JD and you’re actually doing the job.

        But taking a step back and looking at the broader picture, I still think getting some exposure to the day-to-day of a real lawyer is a worthwhile exercise before you decide to go to law school.

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