Is a JD Really Worth It?

So, you want to become a lawyer? You may have heard it can be a challenging path. There are multiple tests, and at least three years of additional coursework after you complete your undergraduate degree in order to earn a JD degree. But once you obtain a JD (Juris Doctor) degree, pass the bar and meet any other state requirements, you can pursue a rewarding, well-compensated career, right?

Truthfully, the answer depends on what type of career you want, if you’re passionate about law and what career opportunities present themselves. For many people, getting a JD degree is worth it. But not everyone feels they get a good return on their investment. Only you can decide if a JD degree is right for you.

How to Decide Whether a JD Is Right for You

Deciding whether to apply to law school comes down to what you hope to get out of a legal education. If your focus is to become a lawyer, it’s best to understand what the job entails. You may not spend much time in a courtroom. Instead, you might spend your time reviewing facts, researching laws, thinking, writing (a lot) and looking for creative ways to solve problems.

Your day to day may also look different depending on the area of law you go into. Some areas of law may interest you more than others. Before getting a JD degree, consider thinking about what interests you most, and research job prospects in that specific area.

Whether to go to law school also depends on understanding the multi-step process of becoming a lawyer. You generally have to prepare to take the LSAT before you can attend an in-person or online JD program, and then pass a state’s bar exam after you graduate. To better understand this process, it may help to review an LSAT study guide or bar exam study guide.

Benefits of Completing a Juris Doctor Program

There are many potential benefits of completing a law degree. For example, you may develop skills related to:

  • Critical and analytical thinking.
  • Legal research.
  • Oral and written communication.
  • Advocacy.
  • Negotiation.
  • Relationship-building and networking.
  • Confidence.
  • Professional flexibility.

While these skills may help you practice law, they also may be applicable to other fields. Many of the skills you gain during law school may help you in other industries such as business, compliance, publishing, education or healthcare.

Should you get a JD degree if you don’t want to become a lawyer? Some people may look at a JD degree as an opportunity to grow as an individual and professional independent of becoming a practicing lawyer. With a better understanding of the law and how courts and regulatory agencies apply it, you may also have a greater understanding of how the law relates to business and legal risk. In many ways, it’s what you do with your education that counts.

Financial Return on Investment for a JD

The big question: what’s the ROI of a JD degree? Since each person’s circumstances are different, there’s no clear answer.

Is a JD degree worth it for you? To answer this, you may want to consider the factors below.

  • The cost of law school: Tuition, fees and living expenses vary significantly from one institution to another.
  • How you’ll pay the cost of law school: Think about if you can pay out of pocket or will need scholarships, grants and loans.
  • The income you’ll make afterward: How much you make will depend on the type of law you go into; not every lawyer makes six figures.

To get the best ROI from a JD, it’s a good idea to determine practical ways to reduce the cost of attending law school and, in the future, maximize your salary. You may need to think about your comfort level carrying student loan debt for years. The average law school debt at graduation was $164,742 per person in 2020 [PDF, 1MB], according to a law school student debt survey from the American Bar Association (ABA). For 40% of the ABA’s survey respondents, their law school debt increased after graduation. Since interest accumulates daily on direct federal student loans, those who use loans to pay for their legal education generally pay much more for their degree than those who can afford to pay upfront.

How Much Money Can You Make with a Degree in Law?

Salaries for individuals with a JD degree vary significantly, even among licensed attorneys. The 2020 median pay for lawyers was $126,930, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The bottom 10% of earners made less than $61,490 per year, while the top 10% made more than $208,000 per year.

How much you make as a lawyer may also depend on where you work. Below are the 2020 median salaries for lawyers in the top industries in which they worked, as reported by the BLS.

  • Federal government – $152,200.
  • Legal services – $126,660.
  • Local government – $99,900.
  • State government – $91,450.

The size of your firm may also impact your salary. For example, the BLS notes that lawyers who own their own practices typically make less than those who work for firms and other businesses. Your geographic location can also affect your legal salary. The BLS reports the following top-paying states for lawyers, based on 2020 mean annual wages:

  • District of Columbia – $197,100.
  • California – $179,470.
  • New York – $174,060.
  • Massachusetts – $169,120.
  • Connecticut – $158,190.

Risks of Completing a JD Program

Most things come with pros and cons. Education and career paths are no different. Here are some potential risks of completing a JD degree and becoming a lawyer:

  • Accumulating a significant amount of student loan debt.
  • Entering a competitive job market.
  • Learning you aren’t suited for or don’t enjoy the legal profession.
  • Suffering from depression and/or anxiety disorders.
  • Falling into alcoholism and/or drug addiction.

Is a JD degree worth it in spite of these risks? While you may face some of these risks personally, you may avoid others — everyone is different.

In terms of the cost of law school, it can be offset with loans, grants and scholarships. Some law school graduates who struggle to find a full-time job after graduation may take on a short-term job to gain experience, or find a job in another industry due to the field’s competitive nature. As far as the potential mental health and addiction risks go, these may be prevented with strong mental health practices, such as taking breaks from work and spending time with family and friends. Deciding if a JD degree is worth it despite these risks may come down to your self knowledge and career desires.

On Campus vs. Online Law School: Which Is Better?

In recent years, more law schools have expanded their offerings. You don’t necessarily have to attend a full-time, in-person program anymore; you might choose to go through a part-time program while you work. Or maybe you’ll decide to complete an online JD degree program and only visit campus a few times each year.

Should you get a JD degree from an on campus or online law school? Ultimately, this depends on your unique goals and circumstances. To help you decide, you may ask yourself these questions:

  • Am I able to be a full-time law school student, or is a part-time program better for me?
  • How quickly do I want to complete a JD degree program?
  • What’s my ideal learning environment?

Thinking through these questions may help you choose between an online or in-person JD degree program. Whatever you choose, make sure you go to an ABA-accredited law school. Most states require lawyers to complete a JD degree from an ABA-accredited law school. Earning your JD degree from a non-accredited program may prevent you from taking your state’s bar exam and practicing as a lawyer.

Alternatives to Law School

If you want to become an attorney, you must earn a JD degree and pass your state’s bar exam. If you’d like to build a legal career without going to law school and passing the bar exam, there are other options, such as earning a Master of Legal Studies (MLS) or Master of Business Administration (MBA) degree.

In a Master of Legal Studies program, you can learn more about the law. You’ll come away with a better understanding of the legal system, how it functions and how it applies to different areas of business. MLS programs may prepare you to work in professions that work with attorneys or deal with specific areas of law like healthcare.

People often wonder about an MBA vs. a JD degree. Well, they’re two very different degrees. A Master of Business Administration program teaches you the broad strokes of business, like accounting, finance, marketing, sales and management. If you want to move up in a specific area of business or become an entrepreneur, an MBA may be helpful. Through MBA courses, you may learn about trade law or legal writing.

So, Is a Law Degree Worth It?

Whether or not a JD degree is worth it is entirely up to you. It’s a personal decision. Think carefully about what you want out of your life and career and whether a JD degree will get you closer to your goals. If you’re confident you want to become a practicing attorney, then earning a JD degree will be necessary. If you’re undecided about the type of legal career you want to pursue but you know you’re interested in learning more about the law, then you might consider other law degrees as well.

As discussed above, a JD degree offers many benefits in terms of sharpening practical skills and potentially earning a favorable salary. There are risks, however, such as entering into a competitive field. If you’re still not sure if a JD degree is worth it for you, try writing down your own list of pros and cons. Spend time reviewing this list and discuss your options with a trusted friend or family member. With time and discernment, you’ll decide what’s right for you.

Last updated February 2021