Working as a lawyer can be a fulfilling and rewarding career choice, but the road to court can be an expensive and bumpy ride. Before embarking on the journey to becoming a lawyer, it’s vital to understand both the costs and benefits. We’ll go over the literal costs such as schooling expenses, the figurative costs including long hours and difficult clients, in addition to the numerous benefits of a career in law. After reading this guide, you’ll be one step closer to deciding if a job in the legal field is right for you.
How Much Does It Cost to Become a Lawyer
A legal career will require an investment of both time and money. The first step to becoming a lawyer is obtaining a bachelor’s degree. A bachelor’s degree is awarded after four years of study at an accredited college or university. According to CollegeBoard, the average college tuition in the 2021-2022 school year was $10,740 for in-state students and $27,560 for out-of-state students.
After finishing college, students can apply to law school. Before applying, students must take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). Currently, the LSAT costs $215 and students pay an additional $45 dollars for each score report that is sent to a law school.
Law school is a three-year program designed to teach students how to write and think like lawyers. A law degree carries a significant cost. In the 2020-2021 academic year, the average cost for one year at a private law school was $53,000. At public law schools, the average cost was roughly $29,000 for in-state students and $42,000 for out-of-state students.
After law school, students must apply for admission to the state bar. Nearly every state requires graduates to take the bar exam as part of this process. The bar exam is a rigorous two-day test of legal knowledge and skill. Because the bar exam is so important, most students take a bar review course to prepare. Bar review courses last roughly six weeks and can cost up to $4,000. Graduates must also pay fees to sit for the bar exam and complete the necessary background checks.
Top 10 Benefits of Being a Lawyer
There are many good reasons to pursue a career in law. Here are some of the reasons people are drawn to the legal profession.
- Intellectual stimulation. The practice of law is rarely boring. Because unexpected things happen in court, lawyers must think and act quickly. A career in law presents many opportunities for creative thinking. Since laws change regularly, even experienced lawyers can still be challenged.
- Helping others. When the American Bar Association (ABA) studied the reasons students applied to law school, it discovered that 35% wanted to help others. The law provides many opportunities to do just that. Lawyers help families deal with the loss of loved ones. They get justice for wrongfully fired employees. They help veterans get benefits. Lawyers help real people with real problems. In fact, 52% of lawyers provide free legal services to those in need.
- Earning potential. In 2021, the average lawyer made more than $127,000. This number places lawyers well above most professions in terms of earning potential.
- Multiple career options. Lawyers have many career options. Corporate lawyers represent major companies. Government lawyers help federal, state, or local officials draft and enforce laws. Criminal prosecutors are probably the most well-known type of government lawyers. Some lawyers, like public defenders and legal aid attorneys, work for public interest agencies.
Also, the law has many specialized practice areas. These include contracts, personal injury, and intellectual property. As new technologies and businesses emerge, so do new legal specialties.
- Working for oneself. According to the ABA's most recent numbers, at least 26% of lawyers had opened their own firms. Though opening a small business may be a risk, it’s one that usually pays off for lawyers. A lawyer with a good location and an excellent marketing strategy can easily build a successful business.
- Mastery of communication skills. Hollywood would have you imagine that every lawyer goes to court and argues for hours on end. In fact, the total amount of practicing trial lawyers is actually quite small. However, effective communication is one of the most important skills a lawyer will use throughout their career, no matter what area they practice. Whether it's explaining a legal document, negotiating a settlement, writing a motion, or speaking with clients, your interpersonal skills will see a big boost.
- Career options beyond the law. A law degree opens doors that other degrees cannot. Law school teaches students to write sharply, argue logically, and think quickly. Because these skills transfer to many professions, a law degree can give a person an advantage in other industries.
- Career longevity. Whether it's the educational requirements or the cerebral nature of the profession, the average age of lawyers skews higher than the average American worker — or 47.5 and 42.3, respectively. Many lawyers tend to keep practicing late into their careers, gaining more prestige from their long-lived experience.
- Prestige and power. In a 2020 poll, a majority of the 22,000 people representing 16 countries (including the U.S.) believed a career in law was a prestigious profession. Since the days of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, lawyers have shaped American history. Today, 33% of U.S. Representatives and 47% of U.S. Senators are attorneys. Two of the last five presidents — Barack Obama and Bill Clinton — hold law degrees. A legal career can be a path to political power.
- Creating social change. For many years, racial segregation was legal in America. In 1954, a lawyer named Thurgood Marshall convinced the Supreme Court to change the law. This is just one example of the power lawyers hold. A motivated lawyer can win a case that changes the law — and the entire country — forever.
The Downsides of Becoming a Lawyer
While the law can be a wonderful career, it is not perfect. Lawyers face many challenges in their daily work. Here are a few of the downsides to the legal profession.
- Long Hours. While some people work 40 hours per week, lawyers often do not. Many corporate firms require their lawyers to bill a certain number of hours each year. Many lawyers work 60 to 80 hours per week to meet their goals. Lawyers who work for themselves spend long hours working on current cases while also doing the work needed to keep the business afloat.
- Stress. Many things are beyond a lawyer’s control. Even the most prepared lawyer cannot predict how a judge will rule. Lawyers have to deal with the whims of the opposing counsel. Also, lawyers often handle cases involving highly emotional issues such as divorce and custody. Uncertainty, high emotions, and other factors make the law an incredibly stressful occupation.
- Low Salaries. While the average salary for a lawyer is $127,000, many lawyers earn far less. The average salary for an entry-level legal aid attorney is just $48,000. This salary may seem acceptable, but law school is very expensive. As such, lawyers with low incomes struggle to repay their student loans and cover other bills. Having an expensive degree without the money to show for it adds to professional stress.
- Difficult Clients. Legal ethics rules state that the client, not the lawyer, directs the representation. So, unless the client’s request is illegal or unethical, the lawyer must follow the client’s orders. This is so even if the lawyer knows that the client is making a grave mistake.
- Uncertain Job Market. Some think of the law as a “recession-proof” industry, but this is not necessarily so. The Great Recession of 2008 toppled the legal job market. Major firms stopped hiring and some even laid-off employees. New lawyers struggled to find jobs. It took nearly 10 years for the legal market to fully recover. While some believe the legal profession will be better prepared for the next recession, the fact remains that the law seems more vulnerable to economic shifts than other industries. Because litigation is a major expense, it’s reasonable to predict that clients will once again cut their legal budgets in future economic downturns.
- Disrespect. Many people dislike lawyers. The ABA once stated that while people admire lawyers’ intellect, they feel lawyers lack empathy. To make matters worse, many films and television shows portray lawyers as immoral creatures who fake evidence and twist facts. In reality, ethics rules strictly prohibit lawyers from doing either of these things. Whatever the reason, many people take delight in criticizing the legal profession.
Entering the Industry
If you want to become a lawyer, this may be a good time to enter the legal profession. Not only has the legal job market rebounded from the losses suffered during the peak of the pandemic, the Department of Labor predicts that the legal job market will grow by 9% over the next eight years. Now is the time to seriously weigh the pros and cons of a legal career.
Novelist L.E. Modesitt Jr. once said, “Justice is an ideal, and law is a tool.” Every day, lawyers use the tools of law and logic to get justice for their clients. If you want a job where you can work for justice every day, you want a career in law. Visit Joblist today to find a legal job that's right for you!