Is law school really worth a million dollars?

When I advise students about law school, I advise them to view the decision to attend law school as a career decision, not as a financial one. That being said, common sense, experience and Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) all suggest that for most people law school is a good investment. For example, according to BLS statistics, in 2011 the median pay for attorneys was $113,310 and the employment rate was 97.9 percent.

But how much is a J.D. really worth? And what about all those folks who have a J.D. but don’t practice law?

According to Michael Simkovic and Frank McIntyre, a J.D. is worth $1 million. Simkovic, a law professor at Seton Hall University, and McIntyre, a business professor at Rutgers University, collaborated on a sophisticated economic study of the value of a law degree. Relying on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the authors compared college graduates who went on to pursue law degrees against college graduates who did not attend any graduate school. Using present day valuations, they found that, on average, lifetime earnings for the students attending law school were $1 million higher in pre-tax earnings.

Interestingly, this study studied both people with J.D.’s who are currently licensed to practice law and those with J.D.’s who are not licensed and are presumably working in positions that don’t necessarily require a J.D. This is important because there has been a lot of discussion recently about what graduates can do with a J.D. Some critics posit that the only successful outcome for law graduates is working in a big law firm in a major metropolitan area. Other critics downplay whether “J.D. advantage” jobs should be counted as a positive outcome. This criticism always makes me smile because my job, assistant dean at a major Midwest law school, is categorized as a J.D. advantage position. There was no J.D. requirement when I applied, but I can assure you that my J.D. definitely gave me an advantage in getting what I think is a pretty cool job. Back to the study, what the authors found in their study is that there was a significant financial advantage for J.D. holders, whether they were actively practicing law or using their J.D. in other fields.

So, is a J.D. really worth $1 million? Not being an economist, I’m not sure I’m qualified to answer that question on my own. On the other hand, Simkovic and McIntyre’s study generated a lot of conversation and debate in legal education circles. TaxProfBlog is a legal education blog site run by Professor Paul Caron from Pepperdine University School of Law. On the site, Caron did an excellent job compiling numerous articles, both pro and con, about the study. I encourage you to read them for yourself and reach your own conclusion.

— Steven Freedman is assistant dean for admissions at the University of Kansas School of Law.