There are two universal truths when it comes to law school. The cost of attendance increases every year, and there is always a group of people who want to go because they don’t know what they want to do with their lives.
While every person’s story is unique, I found that most of these people tend to see being a lawyer as a temporary or fallback job compared to their dream job. They want to work as a lawyer to earn enough money and learn a few things before starting their own business or transitioning to another job outside of law. Others think that their law degree will make them eligible for well paying nonlawyer positions and if things don’t work out, they can at least work as a lawyer.
For the first group, switching jobs is not as easy as you think, especially if you are living paycheck to paycheck and if your dream job requires a pay cut. So you may want to hold off on the expensive luxury apartment and the $2,000 per month sports car lease until your dream job allows you to pay for those things. Also, you may have to explain to employers and recruiters why you want to leave the prestigious legal profession.
For the latter group, finding a job as a lawyer after a stint doing something else may be challenging. They will have to explain the employment gap and convince potential employers that the skills (or mistakes) they learned during that time will benefit the firm’s bottom line and will be a good culture fit. And in most cases, they will have to start at the bottom both in seniority and salary.
Let’s look at costs using my alma mater as an example. Looking at comparable schools, if Whitter Law School were still around today, tuition, and fees would likely be around $50,000 per year. A reasonable one-bedroom apartment near campus would go for about $2,500 per month (with utilities) which amounts to $30,000 per year. Also, the cost of food and gas has risen considerably in the past few years. Unless you plan to eat inflation stew on a budget and use public transportation for the next three years, you will probably need to budget at least $1,500 per month or $18,000 per year for personal expenses. And if you have student loans, there is accruing interest to consider unless President Joe Biden plans to freeze interest indefinitely when his student loan forgiveness plan is struck down by the Supreme Court.
So some members of the 2026 graduation class of Whittier Law School will leave with $300,000 in student loan debt on top of their existing college debt. Others will have less debt because of discounts or because they live at home rent free.
If you think that is high, most of the top law schools charge on average at least $65,000 per year according to biglawinvestor.com and since most of these schools are located in major cities, living expenses are likely to be higher as well. Except for those who come from wealth or scored major scholarships in exchange for giving up their admission seat to whatever law school U.S. News and World Reports ranks No. 1 this year, $300,000 will be the minimum debt load for these graduates although most will pay them off within a reasonable time.
Despite the above scenarios, surveys show that the average law school graduation debt is about $150,000. Personally, I am skeptical of this number because I suspect these surveys have a high likelihood of survivorship bias. In other words, the people with less debt are more likely to participate in these surveys.
But assuming the average is true, paying $150,000 up front or through loans — in addition to the three-year commitment — is a steep price to pay to resolve indecisiveness.
Before you make that long, expensive, and possibly stressful commitment, it would be best to spend the next few months figuring out what you really want to do and how to get there cheaper and faster.
It may mean working a year doing drudge work for slave wages which in some ways sounds like the first year of law school and your summer internship. But if it gets you experience and connections, it may be worth it.
You may have to reach out to random people for help and guidance, and honestly, most of them will ignore you or give you empty platitudes. In some ways, this sounds like what you will do if you are not chosen to be interviewed at your law school’s OCI session. But you need to connect with only a few people who will genuinely mentor you and guide you to the right people.
And lastly, you will have to be patient but spend the down time doing something productive instead of venting on social media. Sometimes it takes a while before the opportunity arises. In some ways, this sounds like almost every young attorney for the first five years after graduation.
Since the world is constantly changing, it’s okay to want to consider a wide variety of career options. But there are better ways to contemplate your life’s purpose instead of paying at least $150,000 and three years of your life for law school. Especially if you consider being a lawyer as a temporary or fallback position.
Steven Chung is a tax attorney in Los Angeles, California. He helps people with basic tax planning and resolve tax disputes. He is also sympathetic to people with large student loans. He can be reached via email at email@example.com. Or you can connect with him on Twitter (@stevenchung) and connect with him on LinkedIn.
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