Attorney Salaries Fail to Keep Up with Law Student Loan Debt

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Legal commentators continue to discuss concerns over the increasing number of law students, the increasing amount of student loan debt, and the harsh reality that most new lawyers don’t make a six figure income.

“Poor lawyers” seems like an oxymoron, but many new attorneys will admit they are worried about their high student loan debt and struggling to find attorney jobs to repay it.

In The New Math of Legal Education, University of Illinois College of Law Professor Andrew P. Morriss and Indiana University School of Law Professor Bill Henderson note that there are more law schools that are graduating an increasing number of law students today:

The Council and the Accreditation Committee of the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar have accredited 20 additional law schools since 1990.

Law school tuition is increasing:

Since 1987, law school tuition rose 448 percent for in-state residents at public institutions and 224 percent at private institutions. Law school tuition increases far outpaced inflation generally, as the overall cost of living increased only 77 percent in that same period.

Law student debt is increasing:

The average amount of law school debt owed at graduation soared 431 percent between 1987 and 2005, from $16,000 to $85,000.

But most attorneys jobs pay less than law students realize:

With starting salaries at $160,000 and above at large New York City firms, even students who borrow $100,000 or more to attend law school reap substantial economic rewards. But most lawyers do not start at $160,000; the median starting salary at a two- to 10-lawyer firm is a whopping $110,000 less than at a Wall Street powerhouse. Moreover, on average, this gap between large and small firm pay tends to widen during the first eight years of legal practice.

These authors recommend a couple types of reforms and then conclude by expressing concern for law students:

In the short term, these trends are leaving more and more law school graduates worse off economically than if they had never attended law school. If law is truly a profession deserving of the privilege of self-regulation, lawyers and law schools need to take steps to address these problems themselves before legislatures, regulators, and courts decide to do it for us.

Professor Henderson has continued to ring the alarm. He was quoted in a recent article, New lawyers’ salaries clump at high, low ends, discussing how many attorneys have salaries of “$60,000, or even $40,000 – assuming they’re not toiling as ‘contract’ attorneys doing document review for $30 an hour and no benefits.”

Professor Henderson has raised this message in other articles, including being quoted in “‘Cravath model’ that created have and have-not law grads could implode,” ABA Journal; “Law school: A ticket to massive debt?The AM Law Daily; “Analysis: Law schools growing, but jobs aren’t,” The New York Times; and “A deluge of law schools,” The National Law Journal.”

The point of this article is not to worry law students. Rather, it is to help perspective law students, who are contemplating whether law school is the correct option for them, to understand and factor into their decisions the economic realities of law school debt and the job market for recent law school graduates. (Read more at
Most Law Graduates Disappointed: Few Jobs, Low Salaries, High Stress.)

Even if the job market for recent law graduates is slow and does not pay as well as the legal industry did for previous generations, other industries and business in general continue to value those with law degrees, so new attorneys will find jobs somewhere.

A law degree continues to be a valuable investment in oneself, but the payoff may not be as high, as quick, or in the type of job law that students originally expected.

Related posts:

  1. Lawyer Salary Increases Compared to Law Student Debt
  2. Advice for Dealing with Law School Debt
  3. Loan Forgiveness for Public Interest Lawyers
  4. How Much are New Lawyers’ Salaries?
  5. Most Law Graduates Dissappointed: Few Jobs, Low Salaries, High Stress
  6. Student Loan Consolidation

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