Every year, tens of thousands of college graduates enter law school, often because of [shrugs shoulders]. Part of the the allure (aside from a reprieve from the question “What do you want to do when you grow up?”) is the promise of a high paying job. In the US, the average lawyer earns $120K per year and adds $1MM in increased lifetime income compared to the average bachelors degree holder.

But looking at “average earnings” is a bit misleading. Let’s look at the distribution of salaries of new law school graduates who become “associate attorneys.”

Starting Salary for US Law School Graduates in the Class of 2012

chart, histogramSource: NALP

There’s really two kinds of law school graduates, those that make $160K per year and those that make $50K per year. For those coming out of law school with over $100K in debt, making $50K is economically tenuous. Moreover, for graduates at elite schools with the option of making $160K per year, the debt overhang is going to make it difficult to take any job other than working at a corporate law firm.

This bimodal distribution of salaries for law grads is relatively new. In 1991, the distribution was fairly normal:

Source: Tax Prof Blog

By 2000, however, the pattern of “haves” and “have-nots” among law school grads had emerged.

Source: Tax Prof Blog

So, if you go to an expensive law school, you might end up making a lot of money. Or you might not. Either way, you’ll probably be unhappy.

To get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.