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Will Law School Pay Off for You? Here's How to Tell.

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

Cravath pumped first year associate salaries up to $180,000 on Monday, Above the Law reported. Hueston Hennignan, a boutique litigation firm in California, followed Cravath's lead today, also bringing up associate base salaries to $180,000. That's not a bad salary for a fresh-faced law grad just starting out. But it's not one that most lawyers will earn. Most new lawyers make significantly less than BigLaw associates, and many law school grads still can't find legal jobs, despite lower numbers of J.D.s.

So, will an investment in law school pay off for you, landing you a high-paying, high-prestige associate position? Or will you be left unemployed and in debt, like so many others? Here's one way to tell.

Start With the Numbers

As Business Insider recently reminded us, getting into law school, on its own, isn't a good sign that you should go. With 46,000 juris doctors graduating in 2013, only 57 percent of them had a full-time job requiring bar passage nine months later.

And those who do land jobs don't all start at $160,000. That's because law salary distributions are bimodal. Most employed grads make between $25,000 and $85,000. Only a small but significant number land in the $150,000 and above range. Even the $80,000 mean salary is above what most law grads would make, skewed as it is by the small group of new lawyers with high-paying positions.

There are essentially two different, separate realities for law grads -- and most grads end up on the side that doesn't allow them to buy gold-plated toilets.

Where Will I Fall?

So, how do you know what your odds are? Business Insider recommends looking at the data, and we agree. About 50 percent of the grads from the so-called T14, or the largely unchanging collection of law schools that sit on top of the US News rankings, go into BigLaw associate positions or federal clerkships. For those schools that are just under the cut off? It's only 19 percent.

As you go lower in the rankings, the chance of scoring a high-paying job out of school drops dramatically. A quarter of grads from schools ranked 31-50 don't use their JD at all. They may as well have never spent that $150,000 or so on law school.

Does that mean you shouldn't go to law school if you can't get in to Harvard, Yale, or Stanford? No. But you shouldn't expect a major payout if you're in a lower-ranked school, either. So, besides just looking at employment numbers, keep student indebtedness and bar passage rates in mind as well.

And console yourself with the fact that lower-paid attorneys are actually much happier than their richer, BigLaw colleagues.

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