Is Law School Worth It? Law Grads Answer


Is law school worth it? Depends on who you ask.

According to a recent study released by AccessLex Institute, law graduates who were able to graduate with a good job and low debt are more likely to rate their J.D. as highly valuable than their debt-ridden, underemployed counterparts. 

No surprises there. But AccessLex dug deeper into the J.D.’s postgraduate experience to understand how the value of a law degree is perceived, looking at financial payouts as well as wellbeing and professional engagement. The study shows that the perceived value of a law degree varies between law grads who graduated before the Great Recession and those who graduated during or after the recession. 

“There is a lot of negative attention paid to law students and legal education,” said Tiffane Cochran, Director of Research at AccessLex. “Prelaw students may hear a lot of voices telling them not to go to law school. This study gives people more perspective on the value of a legal education.” 

The study shows that the perceived value of a law degree remains high across all bachelor degree and advanced degree holders. Nearly nine out of 10 adults view a J.D. as either “very valuable” (47 percent) or “valuable” (41 percent). Moreover, law graduates view the J.D. even more positively than non-law grads — 59 percent of J.D. holders would recommend the degree to other people like them.

But there was a big difference between lawyers who graduated before 2008 and after. Pre-recession law graduates are 3.7 times more likely to strongly agree that their law degree was worth the money, and 1.4 times more likely to strongly agree that they would still get a J.D. if they could do it all over again.

Study participants who graduated during or after the recession were less positive when asked about the value of a law degree — probably because they are less likely to find satisfactory employment within one year of graduation.

Over half of all study participants reported that they had a good job waiting for them when they graduated from law school. For students finishing in the top 10 percent of their class, 71 percent had a job lined up before graduation. By contrast, only 30 percent of law grads falling outside of the top 33 percent of their class landed a job before receiving their diploma.

Post-recession law grads had a harder time than their predecessors. Only 44 percent of post-recession law graduates reported that they had a job waiting for them at graduation. Twenty-six percent had to wait over a year.

“I graduated in 2011. I think a lot of us didn’t know that, at the time, the legal market just kind of fell through,” one respondent wrote. “So I know a lot of people who came out a decade, five years earlier — they walked into much better jobs. And I don’t think anybody could have seen it coming. Certainly if I had, I wouldn’t have done it. I think the legal education system now is reflecting that.”

Student debt also impacts the perceived value. Roughly half of those who graduated in the 2000s took out over six-figures in loans, whereas only a quarter of those who graduated in the 1990s borrowed as much.

Overall, less than half of all J.D. holders “strongly agree” that their degree was worth the cost, but only 23 percent of law graduates with student loan debt exceeding $100,000 “strongly agree” that their J.D. was worth what they paid. 

AccessLex also looked at the purpose, social, financial, community and physical wellbeing of degree holders. J.D. holders fall behind other advanced degree holders in four out of five of those wellbeing factors, most notably financial wellbeing. Only 48 percent of law graduates reported that they are “thriving” financially, whereas 35 percent reported they are “struggling” and 17 percent reported that they are “suffering.” 

In other words, students who went to law school primarily to obtain high-paying jobs were least likely to perceive their degree as highly valuable. 

Despite low valuations of the J.D. compared to law school debt and employment, most law graduates reported a positive experience in law school. Over half of all J.D. holders “strongly agree” that if they could go back and dot it all over again, they would still seek a law degree.

Several factors may be at play for this favorable perception of the degree. Respondents reported high levels of satisfaction with the analytical and critical thinking skills they developed in law school. Law graduates also were more likely than other degree holders to agree that their studies prepared them to handle financial, legal and other personal issues. Furthermore, law graduates have the highest levels of community wellbeing when compared with other degree holders.

“Law school definitely teaches you
how to think, how to advocate,” one respondent wrote. “I find
it very beneficial in my everyday life because I know how to speak to people. When you’ve got to call your insurance company because they’re deciding something, well, I know how to read the contract and I know how to reference this section with that definition. I can speak to those things in a way that is more persuasive.”

Although recent law graduates are more likely to be down-in-the-mouth about going to law school, they may change their gloomy tune as they build careers. Data from the study indicates that a law grad’s perception of their degree may improve as they become more experienced and overall wellbeing increases. More than 20 percent of those who graduated before 1990 are “thriving” in all five elements of wellbeing, compared with just 5 percent of those who graduated after 2009.

“As you get further out from your education you may have a brighter outlook on your decision,” Cochran said. “You will have more time in job market to see the fruits of labor in law school and the return on your investment.”


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Law Schools with the Most Improved Employment Rates


Tyler Roberts is an editor for The National Jurist. You can follow him on Twitter at @wtylrroberts