FAQ: How much do lawyers really get paid?

Probably not as much as you think. I have often warned students that Admissions Counselors at law schools and other higher education institutions are salespeople. They are selling their courses, the degrees, advanced degree programs beyond the initial degrees, and all of the activities you will pay for through your tuition. I value my education, and I have definitely learned to make things happen with what I have available. But an ABAJournalArticle and the comments that follow it give a clearer picture of what really happens now that educational institutions are more focused on operating as “big businesses.” Students are taking huge loans for the promise of a better future that might not come anywhere near the level we believed. Some of us hope to pay off our loans by the time we retire. Those of us who went to second-tier schools because it was more affordable are often paying more in the long run.

Fortunately, the 2009 Federal Student Loan program helps some of us. Yet the situation still begs more careful consideration of a student’s career options:

1.    Do your own research on job opportunities and salaries. 

Even the best Admissions and Career Counselors are biased and need to sell you on their school’s programs. They will often quote the high-end salaries as representative for your field of study, but you are more likely to be on the lower end or somewhere in the middle. You need to plan for that and ask yourself if you would still enjoy doing this work for less money. (For the record, I do!)

2.    Do a cost-benefit analysis. 

If a college degree is going to cost you $50K and help you get a $30K per year job, is it worth it? Are you already earning near this amount? Are you likely to advance in your current position and eventually surpass your target salary?

3.    Consider why you work. 

Is it to say you are a lawyer, doctor, MBA, business owner, etc.? Or is work merely a means to the end—the paycheck? If you are a lawyer without a fancy car, is it still rewarding? If you are a doctor in a third-world country or rural county, does it bring you what you want? Are you willing to postpone marriage, children, travel, or other personal pursuits if you have to? Or would you prefer to take a lower salary and live your life now (assuming that choice has to be made)?

I will admit that I thought I would be making more money when I enrolled in law school. I was surprised to learn how little I would have earned at the FBI in NYC if I had continued the application process. I couldn’t have paid my student loan payment—unless I had lived on the street, given up food, or otherwise made even more happen with even less. I see so many new graduates struggling as I did, both after getting my undergraduate degree and after passing the bar exam. I wonder if it’s worth it for all of us, when there are decent jobs available in skilled trades, for example. Many graduates end up taking these jobs even after attaining their degrees. I am concerned that we are pumping too many people through the universities with the promise of a future reserved for the few. Again, this is why I encourage you to do your research here, too.

Nance L. Schick, Esq. is a mediator, and conflict resolution coach based in New York City, where she works with creative professionals, entrepreneurs, human resources professionals, labor managers, risk managers, and executives to generate results beyond the boundaries of their imaginations. She is committed to creating a unified human race by empowering people to have lives they forgot were possible.