Deborah Morris Burton
Thinking of Becoming a Lawyer? Part 1
Making the decision whether to become a lawyer is a big one.
Obviously, no one can tell you (or if you’re a parent, your child) whether to go to law school or strive to become a lawyer. What I can offer is information that will help you or your child make an informed decision.
For some people, there is no doubt that they will become a lawyer. For as long as they can remember, they have dreamt of being in the courtroom, making a passionate plea as a prosecutor or a defense attorney. Or they imagined themselves ruling on motions as a judge—perhaps even saw themselves on the Supreme Court. However, even they will find it helpful to have some additional knowledge when making plans for college and law school. Some of the statistics might surprise them!
But this article is mostly written for the high school (or younger) student who has a bit of interest in becoming a lawyer—and for the parent who is trying to navigate these waters with his/her child and may not know where to begin. There are a lot of things to consider when making this decision.
This article will provide helpful resources, both for the student who is simply considering this career path and the student who is 100% certain of this path. While I will be sharing some of my personal experience in becoming a lawyer, I am well aware that my law school experience was decades ago. I did extensive research to ensure that I am providing the most current information.
Because there is so much information to consider, this topic warrants two blog posts. This first post will look at the overall question of whether to pursue the path of law school. The second post will get into the nitty gritty of planning a successful admission to a law school (including choosing an undergraduate major, the LSAT, the admission process, opportunities in law school and what happens after law school).
Let’s get this out in the open right away—there are two facts you should know about law school:
* It is expensive.
* It is difficult.
Now, neither of these facts leads automatically to the conclusion that law school is not worth it. It was definitely worth it to me! But there’s no getting around those facts, so they must be factored into your decision.
The Expense of Law School
To lay it all out on the table, let’s look at some statistics about the cost of law school. Costs will vary, of course, mostly depending on whether the schools are public or private. Private schools are generally more expensive than public. But just looking at the advertised tuition and fees for each school does not tell the whole story.
There are fewer students applying to law school, so the demand for students has increased at law schools. Some offer scholarships and other discounts from the advertised cost. For example, one report found that students who enrolled in private law schools in Fall 2016 paid an average of $29,754 after discounts and scholarships (average net tuition). Most law students who received a grant award (one that does not need to be paid back) for that academic year received amounts between $20,000-48,300.
When looking at the difference between average annual tuition and fees at private schools and average annual in-state tuition and fees at public schools, it was around $21,300. Average private law school tuition was around $49,550 and public in-state tuition $28,250.
It’s important to remember that law school takes three years to graduate.
The bottom line is that the most important financial number is the amount of debt a law student graduates with. Whether the number is low because the student was offered great scholarships or the school was less expensive is not as important. So let’s look at the average amount of debt a law student incurs, knowing that many factors can change that number.
The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) collects and analyzes data related to education, including the average amount of debt students have upon graduation. In the academic year 2015-2016, 69% of law students graduated with loan debt. The average total student loan debt for law school graduates was $142,870 in 2016.
That is a lot of debt!
But wait—if law school graduates are making six-figure salaries after they graduate, maybe $142,870 isn’t such a high number.
It is difficult to look at an “average salary” for an attorney, because salaries can vary drastically depending on type of job, location and number of years in practice. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median income for lawyers was $122,960 in May 2019. The best-paid 25% of lawyers made $186,350 or more that year, while the lowest-paid 25% made $80,950 or less.
Attorneys in states like California and New York, or those working at very large law firms, will earn more but their cost of living will also be greater. And some of the highest-paying jobs may require graduating from a prestigious law school or graduating at the top of the class. But lawyers are generally paid fairly well no matter where they are.
The bottom line is that the high cost of law school can be mitigated by making wise decisions about where you obtain that degree. Making choices that lead to less debt after graduation gives new attorneys the most flexibility when making career and family decisions.
Benefits of Law Careers
Because we’ve discussed in some detail the potentially high cost of earning a law degree, I want to emphasize some of the benefits:
* Intellectually challenging work—the law really is quite fascinating.
* Variety of work—the details and issues involved are always changing.
* Fulfilling work—sometimes working for a higher purpose.
* Helping others—whether it is an individual or an organization.
* High earning potential—not guaranteed, but there.
* Very helpful if you are interested in politics or business.
* Because of the broad curriculum, it can prepare you for many different jobs.
Types of Lawyers
It is a misconception that all lawyers spend their time in the courtroom. In my first week of law school, a professor told us that only about 25% of attorneys ever set foot in a courtroom. And even those trial lawyers who do are not there very often. Many cases settle before trial and there is a lot of work leading up to the trial that takes place in offices.
Most lawyers would be considered transactional lawyers. They write contracts, advise nonprofit organizations, work in the government, minimize risks to businesses, prepare wills and trusts, ensure regulatory compliance, negotiate deals, oversee real estate transactions, structure corporate entities, ensure tax compliance—the list could continue. These attorneys may also oversee outside attorneys and their work.
Lawyers advise and represent individuals, businesses, and government agencies on legal issues and disputes. This can be done in many different settings. Almost any organization or business needs competent legal advice.
Name almost any interest you have and there is probably a legal position related to it. Some may require courtroom appearances, but many will not.
If you are excited by the idea of preparing a case for trial and arguing it in a courtroom, there are positions where that is more likely—such as a prosecutor, a criminal defense attorney or a personal injury lawyer. Even lawyers who generally do not have to appear in court must do so occasionally, or represent clients in administrative hearings.
The work environments for attorneys vary quite a bit. The majority of lawyers work in law firms and corporate legal offices. Businesses and nonprofit organizations often have legal departments. Other lawyers work for federal, local, and state governments. There are also lawyers who work in legal aid programs, academia, and court systems.
Legal jobs are generally quite demanding. Whether in a courtroom or working for a business, legal questions present themselves at sometimes inopportune times. Other than government lawyers, most attorneys can generally expect to work many hours above 40 per week. This has a potential impact on family life. And a woman who wants to work part-time may find it extremely difficult. (I know this personally when I had children.)
After all these statistics we need to look at why you want to become a lawyer. Do you have a clear reason? Your reason or reasons will help you decide whether you want to go through this arduous process.
For example, let’s say that your reason for becoming a lawyer is because you want to make lots of money, be well respected in the community, and have a stable career.
Then you will want to look closely at any potential law school to see several things about that school’s graduates: what are the starting salaries? How many are employed in a job requiring a J.D. within ten months of graduation? What is the average debt for its graduates? To earn a very high salary, you will most likely need to be a top law student at your school and work in a major city. (For an extremely high salary, you will need to be a top student at a prestigious law school, too.) You will not want to graduate with massive debt, which could reduce that salary dramatically.
If money, prestige, and a comfortable life are important to you, is there another job you could do? One that may not require the same outlay of money and time and effort?
On the other hand, let’s say that your reason for becoming a lawyer is because you have a deep desire to be a prosecutor, or a public defender, or any other sort of position that requires a law degree. Then your decision is easier. Your task at that point is to research the appropriate law school for your desired job and attempt to leave law school with the least amount of debt.
Another advantage to earning a law degree is that it is fairly flexible. In addition to the different types of lawyers mentioned earlier, people with law degrees may also find themselves working in a job that does not require a law degree. Sometimes this is a practical matter, because that person is not able to find a job that does. However, sometimes it is a deliberate decision to pursue a different kind of career. There is a common adage that says you can do anything with a law degree. While that may be a bit of an overstatement, it is true that you can do a lot with a law degree.
There are particular jobs where a law degree is an advantage, even if not required. One article named nine of them: Human Resources Director, Chief Operating Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Internal Recruiter, Vice President of Business Development, Vice President of Corporate Development, Project Manager, Content Writer and Corporate Trainer. There are other fields, like publishing, academia, risk management and mediation, where a law degree is valued.
I think having a law degree and a law license, even if one doesn't expect to use it in court, is attractive to many employers and would give one an advantage in many fields.
I will end with my own story.
I never had any interest in going to law school or being a lawyer when I was growing up or all through college as a journalism major. It wasn’t until I was out in the working world and saw some legal matters up close that I became intrigued. Luckily, I had been a good student at a large state university. Thanks to my parents, I graduated with no debt. I took the LSAT (Law School Admission Test), almost as a lark, and did very well at two sections and okay in another (there were three sections to the LSAT then, and it was scored differently than it is today).
Many law schools sent me brochures and booklets about their schools. I also received information about joint degree programs, where I could earn a master’s in journalism and a law degree in three years. At the time, there were not very many of those combined programs, and I applied to all the ones east of the Mississippi (I lived in Maryland at the time), plus one on the other side. I was accepted to all of them (along with my state school, which did not have that combined program). However, when the financial aid packages arrived, there was one clear winner—the school on the other side of the Mississippi offered me a graduate assistantship in the journalism program, so my entire first year tuition and fees were covered (I believe my room and board, as well)!
While the combined program was small, there were several other law students who were also in the program. I will never know for certain, but I believe I received that assistantship for several reasons. My college GPA and LSAT score may have helped (I do not know how the other students compared). The fact that I worked in the journalism field before coming to law school may have helped, because I had some practical experience. I do not know whether this information was on the LSAT registration, but I was the first person in my extended family to graduate from college. But I also think I was attractive to the school for another reason—I offered diversity with both my major (journalism is not the typical pre-law major) and where I was from (there were very few students from the East Coast at this midwestern school at the time).
The take-away from my story: when deciding how to earn your law degree without overwhelming debt, think of where you can be an attractive candidate. Perhaps your LSAT score is well above the school’s average for admitted students. Perhaps you are willing to move to the other coast. Perhaps the law school has never had a student with an engineering undergraduate degree as a law student before. Perhaps you have a compelling story that captures the admission committee’s interest. (Perhaps all four!) Find where you are unique and perhaps it will open a door where you are not only accepted to law school, but your debt after you graduate is drastically reduced or eliminated!
I think having a law degree and a law license, even if one doesn't expect to use it in court, is attractive to many employers and would give one an advantage in many fields.
What To Do Next
If your child is considering law school but could use some help, here are some steps to take:
1. Relax. Take a step back. If your child is in high school (or younger), there is a lot of time to make a decision.
2. Explore different types of law. This will help open your eyes to all the possible areas of practice, and possibly help your child focus on a particular area—although, as above, there’s no need to rush this.
3. Have your child conduct an informational interview with a lawyer or judge and learn that person’s perspective on law school and the legal profession. Ask them to explain exactly what they do: Do they go to court? How often? What are their day-to-day activities? Where do they work?
4. Have your child shadow a judge or lawyer for a day to see what they do and how they do it. Remember to search out those transactional attorneys, too—perhaps in a field your child is interested in, like business, entertainment or government. This will help your child see if he/she is really interested, as well as providing an advance look at the legal profession—something that might have helped attorneys who became dissatisfied with the practice of law.
Sidebar/One Last Note
Unlike many other degrees, even graduate ones, law school generally cannot be completed online. So there is a significant commitment required to attend in person, especially if you have to move to go to a particular law school—because of its quality or your ability to get into it.
In almost all states, only graduates of ABA-approved law schools can take the bar exam (California being a notable exception). The ABA (American Bar Association) only allows law students to take 30 credits (of the 90 required for graduation) online.
However, there are two programs I found that offer online classes. One, Seton Hall Law School, offers a portion of the required classes online. There is also a part-time option, where the law degree is earned in four years. (To learn more, go to
Syracuse University College of Law fairly recently received approval from the ABA for the first online law degree, with just a few residency requirements. The website also specifies that this option is “designed for talented students who cannot relocate to law school because of work or family commitments.” (You can learn more here: https://jdinteractive.syr.edu/.)
There are other law schools with degrees that are offered partially online, including law schools at Loyola University, University of Denver, University of New Hampshire, University of Dayton, Mitchell Hamline School of Law, Southwestern Law School and Touro Law Center.
It is quite possible that with the proliferation of online degrees and the impact of the pandemic, there will be other online law degrees granted ABA approval. But for now, choosing to go to law school means that you may have to relocate for three years.
Footnotes  In 1956, there were 8,262 law degrees conferred. From 1970-2019, the number of law degrees (J.D. and LL.B.) conferred in American law schools had a high of 46,811 in 2013 and 34,133 in 2019. See Table 324.40, “Number of postsecondary institutions conferring doctor's degrees in dentistry, medicine, and law, and number of such degrees conferred, by sex of student: Selected years, 1949-50 through 2018-2019.” You can find this chart here: https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d20/tables/dt20_324.40.asp.  See this article by U.S. News and World Report for more information about the process of discounting law school tuition: https://www.usnews.com/education/best-graduate-schools/top-law-schools/paying/articles/2017-11-20/law-schools-shell-out-deep-tuition-discounts-to-students.  See: https://www.usnews.com/education/best-graduate-schools/top-law-schools/articles/law-school-cost-starting-salary.  See NCES Table 332.45 at https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d17/tables/dt17_332.45.asp.  See the same chart.  See Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Lawyers, at https://www.bls.gov/ooh/legal/lawyers.htm.  See https://money.usnews.com/careers/best-jobs/lawyer/salary.  See https://abovethelaw.com/career-files/nine-non-legal-jobs-you-can-really-truly-do-with-a-law-degree/?rf=1. For more ideas, see https://www.indeed.com/career-advice/finding-a-job/alternative-jobs-for-lawyers.