University Career Center

Today, Wendy Perdue, Dean and Professor of Law at University of Richmond School of Law weighs in on the soundness of investing in a legal education.

Is getting a J.D. degree a good investment? The answer to this question, like the answer to all questions about investments, depends first and foremost on what the investor’s objectives are. If the primary reason for “investing” in a J.D. degree is to become wealthy, a J.D. may not be the best investment. Instead, you may want to pursue a career in finance. Likewise, if you are looking for a degree program from which you can graduate and then step effortlessly onto a career escalator without having to do much work, the J.D. degree might not be the ticket for you.

Being a lawyer is an intellectually engaging and challenging career. It is for many people a wonderful way to spend one’s life. A legal education is also tremendously versatile – the legal and analytic training that one gets in law school is a terrific foundation for a career in business, politics, public policy, non-profit organizations, law enforcement, and a host of other careers.

Nonetheless, law school is an expensive proposition, both in terms of time and money. It is not right for everyone and ought not be undertaken lightly. It is also true that along with the recession, there has been a downturn in the job market for lawyers. Law graduates do not have the luxury of graduating into the protective arms of guaranteed employment.

So, in the face of these new economic realities, why choose law school? To begin, the value of legal training cannot be measured in cost alone. Unlike many other graduate level disciplines where the education focuses on an ever-narrowing subject, a legal education focuses on the broader subjects of logical thinking and clear expression. The utility of these benefits – which is difficult to quantify – is not limited to the confines of employment. In everyday living, our society confronts us with the ubiquitous presence of laws, rules, and regulations. How to problem-solve, how to express oneself orally and in writing, and how to navigate our system of laws is the quintessential product of a legal education. And, of course, these invaluable skills are not easily factored into the routine cost-benefit analyses that rely solely on raw employment statistics.

One concern for anyone considering law school is how to finance it. Most law students borrow the cost of their legal education and the average loan debt for a law graduate today is about $100,000. That is a big number and causes an understandable worry about whether you will be able to pay that off. “What if my starting salary out of law school isn’t large enough to service my debt?” Fortunately, it is possible for most law graduates to service their debt regardless of the size of their salary. Most law students’ education loans are financed by the federal government which offers all borrowers the option of repaying their loans based on a percentage of their income (known as “income-based repayment” or “IBR”), thereby allowing graduates at all income levels to be in a position to repay their loans. The current IBR cap is 15% of “discretionary income.” This means that no matter what your salary and no matter the size of your loan, your monthly repayments can be capped at a manageable amount. Anyone considering law school should be completely familiar with this loan repayment program. You can find more information about it at studentaid.ed.gov/ibr.

So is getting a law degree a good investment? Right now, new graduates may have to hustle a bit more – and be more creative – in their job search, and allow more room for flexibility in terms of job type and location. But getting law degree is a sound investment if you have a passion for justice, if you want to serve clients, if you want to be a part of a wonderful profession; if, in short, you want to be a lawyer.