Law School Tuition: Is It That Bad?
Does It Matter?

Law school tuition is not cheap at all.

It is, in fact, really really high.

But you know this already.

What you may not have a sense of is the concrete impact paying so much in law school tuition will have on your choice of law school, your career choices, and really, your life.

1. How much is law school tuition really?

Let's just focus on the sticker price of law school for the moment. Forget about how you will pay for law school for a moment.

On the high end you have your top ranked law schools. Let's skip exact numbers for now.

Basically, of the top 14 law schools, six cost more than $50,000 a year (the highest in 2012 is Berkeley Law School, which is $54,370 this year if you have the misfortune of not being a California resident). All of the others are just short of $50,000 per year. So let's just call it an even $50,000 per year.

Let's further assume that the law schools don't increase tuition over the course of your time in school. They will, at rate that is higher than inflation, but forget about that for a miniute, too.

Basically, you are paying $150,000 just to have the right to show your face in class and subject yourself to the torture that is the Socratic method.

Not included: food, shelter, books, and just living and doing anything fun that doesn't involve law. Let's even be conservative and say you can eat, drink, sleep, and be merry (and pay for your books) for just $50,000 over three whole years.

(My bar tab alone in law school was -- and I am just guessing -- probably a good $10,000 over the course of three years. So good luck.

That gets us to $200,000.

Have you ever seen that much money in your life? After taxes?

Hold that thought for a second.

2. Law school tuition & law school rankings

Now, you think to yourself, I guess $200,000 (post tax, mind you) is a lot of money. But, you think, it would be worth it to go to a fancy place like Yale, Harvard, Michigan or Northerwestern.

Plus, you think to yourself, even if I go into debt, I'll just take one of those fancy $160,000 per year (pre-tax, mind you) law firm jobs for a couple of years to pay off my debts.

But if I don't get into a top-ranked law school, surely law school tuition gets cheaper as we go down the ranks?


Take, for instance (and I do not mean to pick on anyone in particular), University of New Hampshire Law School -- ranked #142 according to US News.

UNH Law School charges its students $39,990 per year. In other words, rounding slightly, $40,000 per year, $120,000 in tuition for three years (assuming no tuition increases), add in $40,000 in expenses for three years (is it that much cheaper to live in Concord, NH than New Haven, CT or Cambridge, MA? Let's assume so and knock $10,000 off the cost of living in Concord).

For one of the lowest-ranked law schools, according to US News, you will still graduate with close to $160,000 in total debt.

But how many UNH Law School graduates get those fancy, chardonnay-sippin', Gucci-wearing, $160,000 per year big law firm jobs?

My guess is close to zero. Maybe 1-3 people at the very top of the class. Maybe. (I can tell you that I know someone who graduated second in her class at California Western School of Law, which is not even ranked by US News. She did get one of these fancy jobs. But none of her classmates did.)

So in short: If you pay the sticker law school tuition price at a lower-ranked law school, you are paying Harvard prices for Harvard dreams, graduating with Harvard debts, but with no chance at a Harvard salary.

3. Why does law school tuition matter?

It doesn't too much if you are hell-bent on becoming a lawyer. Your strategy is still: Get into the best law school

But if you are going to law school for any reason other than "I want to be a lawyer," such as "I don't know what to do," I would really consider the cost of law school tuition as a factor to be considered amongst others to help you decide whether to go at all.

A lot of ink has been spilled on this already, but it is possible to go to law school full of dreams and leave with those dreams shattered plus $200,000 in debt that you may have the rest of your life (it is not even dischargable in bankruptcy.)

I don't know that anyone has boiled it down this way, but there is an intricate balance between four factors and your future as a lawyer:

  1. The cost of your law school tuition;

  2. How much money you get in law school scholarships, financial aid and outright grants, excluding loans;

  3. How highly ranked your law school is; and

  4. How well you do in law school.

Let's play this out for a second, looking at a couple of scenarios:

  • High tuition + high scholarships + top ranked law school + top law school performance = the world's your oyster - This is where you would like to be, ideally - fancy degree, no debt. You can do anything -- get a high paying job, go into a lower-paying government job that usually is more interesting and results in more substantive work experience, teach at top gun. Typical of this is the kind of person who gets a Furman Scholarship at NYU Law School or a Mordecai Scholarship at Duke Law and does well in law school.

  • High tuition + high scholarships + any law school + any level of law school performance = you're fine. If you are not paying sticker price, you don't need to go to a top ranked law school or you don't need to do as well. You might not get a fancy job, but you can learn to lawyer and have a decent career without being mired in debt.

  • High tuition + no scholarships + top law school + decent (but not top) performance = likely to be OK but risky. There was a golden age before 2008, before the financial crisis changed legal hiring. Back when I graduated in 2003, I knew of only a handful of people in my class at NYU Law School who did not have fancy summer jobs at big law firms. Almost no one who wanted one was denied one. Now, it's different. If you're not towards the top fourth or third of your class, even at very highly ranked law schools, you might not get a high paying job. Again, that's not the be all and end all, but it does affect how quickly you can pay off your loans.

  • High tuition + no scholarships + not top law school + decent (but not top) performance = potential danger. Even at top 14 institutions, since 2008, graduating in the middle of the pack is no longer enough to ensure that you get a job that will enable you to pay off your loans at all.

  • High tuition + no scholarships + bottom law school + not number 1 or 2 in class (much less being in the middle or bottom) = disaster. Even at top 14 institutions, since 2008, graduating in the middle of the pack is no longer enough to ensure that you graduate.

The one warning about the oversimplified formulas I've come up with above is this: people, before going to law school, way way overestimate the likelihood that they will be a top law school performer in terms of grades. Frankly, even if you went to a top undergraduate college, getting straight As will be tough. Most people because of the forced grading curve are disappointed.

Sadly, some lesser ranked law schools are depending on your optimism. Some offer full or partial scholarships pending a certain level of academic success, such as a greater than 3.3 grade point average or being in the top quarter of the class; falling below that threshold means that you lose your scholarship.

In any situation where you will have to finance your law school tuition with debt, it is very dangerous to assume that you will be at the top of your law school, get a high-paying job.

Again, if you are hell-bent on becoming a lawyer, then these formulas shouldn't matter too much. But do know that if you pay high law school tuition at a lower-ranking law school, your road will be tougher.

And if you have doubts about going to law school, think about the cost and any scholarships you get in deciding where to go and whether to go. Then, if you decide to go, use whatever tools you need to do well in law school. Rock your exams.

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Manny Recommends:

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