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The average law school debt was $145,500 in 2015-16, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics. That total includes law school loans and loans taken out for a lawyer's undergraduate degree.
But a July 2020 report from the American Bar Association found that student loan debt for law school graduates has grown.
The median law school debt of the nearly 1,000 new lawyers in their survey was $160,000, including undergraduate debt and other money a law student may have taken on to cover expenses, like a bar exam loan.
» MORE: How to pay for law school
Is law school debt worth it?
The average law school debt of $145,500 is a heavy burden. But it may be worth it to you — if you get the post-law school salary and job you want.
Jeffrey Hanson, a financial aid consultant for the Law School Admission Council, says you shouldn’t necessarily choose the law school with the best scholarship. Instead look for the one with the best chance to pursue your desired career.
“Not all schools are going to give [you] the same opportunity for that,” says Hanson.
That may mean taking on six figures of debt to attend a top-tier law school. Hanson refers to this as your "education mortgage," and you'll need to be prepared for this investment to affect you in the long run.
The ABA report found that many new lawyers are frustrated with their debt. More than 40% of those surveyed said they currently owed more than when they graduated from school and are delaying major life events, such as getting married or having children, due to their debt.
» MORE: How much does law school cost?
Law school loan payment calculator
How much would the average law school debt cost you? If you had a balance of $145,500, you'd repay $198,700 over the standard 10-year plan, assuming current interest rates. The average law school loan payment for that amount of debt would be $1,656 a month.
Estimate your potential costs with this law school loan payment calculator:
Paying off law school loans
The right strategy to pay off law school loans will likely depend on your career path — and the salary you earn as a result.
If your earnings are on the low end. Salaries are typically lower for public interest lawyers than those in the private sector, but income-driven repayment may benefit anyone who needs lower federal student loan payments. If you’ve chosen a career in public interest law, you may also be able to benefit from Public Service Loan Forgiveness or a different loan forgiveness program for lawyers.
If your earnings are on the high end. Those who opt for careers in Big Law will likely earn good money, as will some other private sector lawyers. These borrowers should pay their loans as fast as possible to minimize interest costs. That could mean sticking with the standard plan or refinancing law school loans at a lower rate. Refinancing federal loans will cost you options like income-driven repayment, but if you’re confident you won’t need these benefits, refinancing could save you money.