While studying law could lead to a lucrative legal career, it can also be expensive. The average law student graduates with $130,000 in student loan debt, according to the American Bar Association (ABA). Additionally, many new lawyers end up with lower annual incomes than their total loan balances, which can make it difficult to repay the debt.
Here’s the average law school debt in several categories:
- Average law school debt
- Cost to repay law school debt
- Average interest rates on law school loans
- Typical loan balances and interest rates for law school grads
- Percentage of grads passing the bar
- Average time to repay law school loans
- Average earnings with a law school degree
- Law school debt and earnings by school
- How to pay off law school debt
Average law school debt
Here’s a look at the average law school debt and earnings for graduates nationwide, according to data reported by the ABA and the Bureau of Labor Statistics:
- Average law school debt: $108,000
- Average education debt after law school: $130,000
- Median salary with a law school degree: $127,990
- Average salary with a law school degree: $148,030
- Average time to repay law school debt: 20-25 years
Before you attend law school, it’s important to understand the full cost involved so you can make the right decisions with your finances. In general, lawyers graduate with higher student loan debt balances than their incomes, which leads to longer repayment times.
Average law school debt by year
The chart above shows average total education debt for law school graduates is:
- For the class of 1999-2000: $57,500
- For the class of 2019-2020: $130,000
That’s an increase of 126%, without adjusting for inflation.
Keep in mind that total education debt includes both law school and pre-law debt taken on to earn a bachelor’s degree. Excluding pre-law debt and looking only at loans taken out for law school, average law school debt at graduation averaged:
- For the class of 1999-2000: $51,800
- For the class of 2019-2020: $108,000
That’s an increase of 108%, without adjusting for inflation.
See More: U.S. Student Loan Debt Statistics
Cost to repay law school debt
Law school students take on far more debt than other grad students. The cost to repay law school debt depends primarily on three factors:
- The interest rates on your loans
- How how long it takes you to pay your loans back
- Whether you’ll qualify for loan forgiveness
Tip: One way to potentially reduce your overall repayment costs is through refinancing. If you qualify for a lower interest rate, you could save money on interest charges and even pay off your loans faster.
Keep in mind that while you can refinance both federal and private student loans, refinancing federal student loans will cost you access to federal benefits and protections — such as income-driven repayment plans and student loan forgiveness programs.
You can use our calculator below to see how much you could save by refinancing your student loans.
Average interest rates on law school loans
If you’re taking federal student loans for pre-law and law degrees, there are three interest rate tiers — one for undergraduates, one for graduate students, and one for PLUS loans. Many lawyers have all three types of loans by the time they graduate from law school.
Based on average student loan interest rates in recent years, a typical law school graduate would have the following loan balances and interest rates:
Typical loan balances and interest rates for law school grads
Graduate and professional students are allowed to take out a lifetime total of $138,500 in Direct Subsidized and Unsubsidized Loans. Keep in mind that the annual borrowing limit for grad students on these more affordable loans is $20,500.
What this means is that students earning a law degree in three years will be able to borrow no more than $61,500 in Direct Unsubsidized Loans for grad students. After this, law students will need to consider costlier Grad PLUS Loans or private student loans to cover their unmet funding needs.
Tip: If you’re wondering how competitive your loan is, the loan score tool below can help. Just enter your APR, credit score, monthly payment, and remaining balance (estimates are fine) to see how your loan stacks up.
Check out: Best Law School Loans
Percentage of grads passing the bar
Graduating from law school is only one hurdle on the path to becoming a lawyer. New law school graduates must also pass the bar exam in the state where they’d like to practice law in order to start their careers.
The bar is a notoriously difficult exam, but the good news is 79.86% of first-time bar exam takers passed it in 2021, according to the American Bar Association.
Unfortunately, taking the bar exam could also add to your debt. The exam itself can cost anywhere from $100 to $1,300 or more, according to JD Advising. Additionally, many exam takers will need to pay for a prep course that could cost upward of $4,000, as well as the cost of lodging for the multi-day exam.
Tip: Law school graduates who fail the bar on their first try have the option to take the test again. In some cases, the cost to retake the bar exam is lower than the first-time fee. However, you might end up paying a higher fee if you are already licensed and need to take the bar to practice in another state.
If you need help paying for the bar exam and its associated expense, a bar exam loan could be a good option. This is a type of personal loan specifically designated to help cover bar exam costs.
Before taking out a bar exam loan, it’s important to consider as many lenders as possible so you can find the right loan for you. Here are a couple of Credible’s partner lenders that offer bar exam loans:
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Average time to repay law school loans
The repayment period for your law school loans will depend on a number of factors, including your choice of repayment plan, income, and whether you’ll qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness as a government or nonprofit worker.
For law school grads, the average time to repay student loans after graduation is:
- Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF): 10 years
- Standard repayment plan: 10 years
- Income-driven repayment (REPAYE): 17 years
The table below illustrates how your repayment plan impacts the time you’ll spend paying off the average law school debt of $130,000 with a weighted interest rate of 5.23%. You can also see how some borrowers might save more money and pay their loans off faster by refinancing their loans.
Average earnings with a law school degree
While graduating with six-figure education debt isn’t ideal, many lawyers are able to earn a high annual salary that’s nearly equal to their total debt. According to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, lawyers earned the following in 2021:
- Median: $127,990
- Average: $148,030
Earnings with a law school degree
The chart above highlights that lawyers who work for state and local governments can expect to earn less than the average law school graduate. Working for the federal government can provide a more generous salary.
Landing a job with a law firm as a provider of legal services, or as a member of a company or enterprise legal staff, often provides the biggest paycheck.
Law school debt and earnings by school
The amount of student debt you take on and the salary you can expect post-graduation can both be impacted by which law school you attend. In general, the most prestigious universities have the highest price tags.
However, starting a legal career after graduating from a highly respected alma mater can often command a higher salary that makes it possible to repay the higher debt.
Schools that are less selective, on the other hand, can leave graduates deeply in debt and without a clear path to a six-figure income.
Students who take on debt that doesn’t exceed their annual earnings will have the easiest time repaying their loans. The chart above shows that among the nation’s 20 biggest law schools, the average debt-to-annual-income ratio can be much higher than the ideal of one or less.
Average debt-to-income ratio at the nation's largest law schools
Law school vs. other graduate programs
While studying law can lead to a fulfilling career for many, it’s not your only option for graduate studies. If you’re considering other career options, it’s important to consider how much other programs cost. Here’s how law school debt stacks up against other degree types:
How to pay off law school debt
Some lawyers may be able to land a high-paying job right out of law school that will easily allow them to pay off their student loan debt. But that isn’t the case for all new lawyers, especially those who choose a career in public service.
If your debt-to-income ratio is high, you might wonder how you will ever be able to pay off your law school debt. Thankfully, there are a few options available that could help you more easily manage your debt.
1. Qualify for loan forgiveness
Pursuing PSLF could be a good idea for federal student loan borrowers who plan to work as public defenders or prosecutors or to work for nonprofit organizations that provide legal services to underserved communities.
Under this program, you could have your loans forgiven after working for an eligible employer and making qualifying payments for 10 years.
Tip: There are also several other law school loan forgiveness and assistance programs available that could help you get some or all of your loans forgiven.
2. Choose a repayment plan
In addition to the 10-year standard repayment plan, there are also several federal student loan repayment options available, including:
- Graduated repayment plan: On this plan, your payments will start low and increase every two years. This could be helpful if you expect your income to rise over time.
- Extended repayment plan: This type of plan lets you extend your repayment term up to 25 years, which could reduce your monthly payments. You can choose between a standard extended repayment plan with fixed payments or a graduated repayment plan that starts with lower payments that gradually increase. Also keep in mind that you’ll pay more in interest over time by extending your repayment term.
- Income-driven repayment plan: With this kind of plan, your payments are based on your income — typically 10% to 20% of your discretionary income. Additionally, any remaining balance could be forgiven after 20 to 25 years, depending on the plan you choose.
If you’re wondering how long it’ll take to pay off your student loans, enter your current loan information into the calculator below to find out. Use the slider to see how increasing your payments can change the payoff date.
3. Refinance law school debt
In some cases, it might be a good idea to refinance your law school debt — however, this isn’t the right choice for everyone. If you’re thinking about refinancing your loans, here are some possible benefits to keep in mind:
- Might get a lower interest rate: Depending on your credit, you might qualify for a lower interest rate through refinancing. This could save you money on interest and even help you pay off your loans faster.
- Could reduce your payments: If you opt to extend your repayment term through refinancing, you could lower your monthly payments and lessen the strain on your budget. Just remember that this also means you’ll pay more in interest over time.
- Can combine multiple student loans: It can be difficult to keep track of multiple student loans with different payments and interest rates. Through refinancing, you can combine your loans — leaving you with just one loan and payment to manage. You also have the option to refinance all or just some of your loan balance.
And here are a few drawbacks to think about:
- Loss of federal benefits: If you refinance federal student loans, you’ll no longer have access to federal benefits or protections — including income-driven repayment plans and student loan forgiveness programs.
- Lack of repayment options: Private refinanced loans don’t offer the variety of repayment options that come with federal student loans. For example, you generally won’t be able to sign up for an income-driven or extended repayment plan.
- Fewer options for poor or fair credit: Most law school loan refinance companies require borrowers to have good to excellent credit to be eligible for refinancing — a good credit score is usually considered to be 700 or higher. There are also several lenders that offer refinancing for bad credit, but these loans usually come with higher interest rates compared to good credit loans.
Tip: If you’re struggling to get approved for refinancing, consider applying with a cosigner to improve your chances. Even if you don’t need a cosigner to qualify, having one could get you a lower interest rate than you’d get on your own.
If you decide to refinance your law school loans, remember to consider as many lenders as you can to find the right loan for your needs. Credible makes this easy — you can compare your prequalified rates from our partner lenders in the table below in two minutes.
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Matt Carter contributed to the reporting of this article.