The Break-Even Starting Lawyer Salary?

Above the Law has a very interesting post summarizing a talk given by the Dean of Northwestern Law School, David Van Zandt, at a PLI conference on law firm management – Dean Van Zandt talks about the model of law school education and tries to approximate the median starting salary for a lawyer to make legal education pay.  His conclusion is – $65,000.

ATL has some discussion of that number, what it reflects and how derived, as well as other models that suggest the figure is much higher.  But equally interesting is the discussion of changes in the teaching model at law schools, including the introduction of a 2 year degree, and curricular changes.

[W]hat salary would you have to earn upon graduation in order to make going to law school an economically rational decision?  Van Zandt and some of his Northwestern colleagues did a study to determine the added value of a J.D. degree. They concluded that the break-even starting salary for a law school graduate is $65,000. Put another way, going to a law school with a median salary upon graduation that’s below $65,000 is not a wise investment.

Schools with median starting salaries under $65,000, which generally land somewhere in the 70s in the U.S. News & World Report rankings, are not good values. They need to either lower their cost to students and/or improve job opportunities for their graduates, according to Van Zandt.

(A break-even point of $65K seems low to [ATL], given high law school tuition, the borrowing costs associated with student loans, and the opportunity cost of going to law school when you could be earning a salary in some other industry. We’ve reached out to Dean Van Zandt to ask for more detail about the data he utilized and the assumptions he made in reaching his conclusion. Another academic, Herwig Schlunk of Vanderbilt Law, believes that the break-even point is much higher.)