If you go to law school, you want it to pay out, right? As our own little contribution to law school rankings season, we wanted to show the schools that are, on average, doing the best job grabbing you a paycheck that can clear up that law school debt within your expected lifespan. We took the top 25 schools from Forbes’ The Law Schools Whose Grads Earn The Biggest Paychecks, removed any schools that placed fewer than 70% of their graduates into full-time legal jobs, and compared the average starting pay to the average indebtedness of grads.

The resulting ratio of average starting pay to average debt gives you an idea why the top-ranked schools belong at the top of just about any ranking you could devise: not only are these schools landing students top-dollar job opportunities, they also represent the best return on your investment, allowing you to pay off all that loan money sooner.

A word on how the “average starting pay” figures used here were calculated: rather than simply using median private sector salary as an indicator of pay, as most rankings have done in the past, Forbes actually dug into the data provided by the website payscale, and pulled out self-reported salaries from anyone who graduated from the top 100 law schools within the past five years. This is an excellent way to do it because it gives us salaries for both private and public sector employees, figures any reported salary into the calculation, and also smooths out bumps that might be caused by low paying clerkships or high-paying internships in the first year.

Only 7 schools — Columbia, Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Northwestern, UChicago, and UT-Austin, were netting their students over $100K on average. Let’s look at who had the least debt to go along with these big paychecks. There are some big surprises:’s Law Schools With the Best Return On Investment

Law SchoolAvg. Starting PayAvg. Indebtedness 2013Starting Pay to Debt RatioPercent Grads With DebtUS News Rank 2015
1Columbia Law School$146,900$141,5661.0381%4 (Tie)
2Harvard Law School$125,400$123,6731.0179%2
3Stanford Law School$104,000$108,391.9684%3
4Yale Law School$101,800$111,916.9180%1
5UT-Austin School of Law$110,800$92,180.8371%15
6University of Michigan Law School$95,500$117,675.8179%10 (Tie)
7University of Virginia School of Law$97,400$132,601.7382%8
8UCLA School of Law$84,200$114,963.7384%16 (Tie)
9Northwestern University Law School$110,800$155,777.7178%12
10Duke University School of Law$87,700$124,549.7060%10 (Tie)
11University of Chicago Law School$105,100$153,753.6885%4 (Tie)
12UC Berkeley School of Law$82,700$141,358.5882%9
13Georgetown School of Law$83,700$145,631.5781%13 (Tie)
14New York University School of Law$76,300$147,395.5180%6

Columbia comes in at the lead spot by bumping off the top 3 schools as ranked by US News. That is not a massive shock, however, because Columbia graduates historically flock to the private sector, and Columbia is a powerhouse at placing into the high-paying NYC market. Still, beating Harvard in starting pay is quite the feat. According to the National Law Journal, Columbia recently placed 65% of grads into the nation’s largest law firms (the NLJ250). That bested any other top school, most of whom hovered at around 50% placement into NLJ 250 firms.

The other big surprise is seeing UT-Austin towards the top. In a sense, they deserve it, as they have some very highly paid graduates that aren’t in a lot of debt (in-state tuition is often combined with generous scholarships to make UT-Austin a very good deal). However, the avg. pay figures here obviously exclude graduates who aren’t collecting paychecks, as well as lower-earning grads who may be less likely to report. UT-Austin, and also UCLA slightly further down the list, do not put up nearly the quality employment stats that their more elite peers do.

UChicago, for example, ranked 11 here, sees 94.5% of its grads employed at graduation. UT-Austin, on the other hand, placed only 75.3% into full-time jobs that required a JD, and that’s 9 months after graduation. UT-Austin isn’t doing badly — 75% placement still makes it one of the better law schools, but when you compare it to the true elites, it’s getting trounced (that’s part of why we argued a few posts back that a T5 at full price beats UT-Austin with big scholarships).

This highlights the fact that this list is far from perfect, but realize that every school on here is doing very well. The debt averse should look to the higher scorers here as the best places to get a very high-quality degree without ransoming one’s soul. Which school is best for you will, of course, depend on your individual financial package.

Moving back to the list, let’s discuss some surprising omissions. For those who were wondering, “where the heck is Penn?”, I am thinking that the interns over at Forbes simply forgot to include Penn on the list. Penn is an elite by any measure that sees well over 90% of its students hired by graduation, most into high salary, private-sector positions. Their omission is either an oversight or graduates from UPenn have yet to learn about the existence of, and thus don’t use it. Either way, Penn surely belongs on this list — there is no way their grads are making less on average than the do-gooders over at NYU, many of whom are taking public interest jobs.

RELATED: The Best Law Schools For Your Money

Cornell is also salient by absence, but that is because they have declined to report their average indebtedness in recent years. When they last did, it hovered around $140,000, which means they would probably land towards the bottom of the list. Cornell should certainly start reporting it’s debt figures again.

One other thing to note: Duke has a startlingly low percentage of its grads coming out with debt. If this is due to their own generosity with scholarship money, they deserve to be higher on this list. If, however, it’s just because Duke students are inordinately rich, they might well deserve to be lower. All T14 schools have a preponderance of well-heeled students, but Duke may have found a way to grab many more of them.

The Best Of The Rest: Other Schools With High Starting Pay

As sort of an NIT for our “Best Return on Investment Rankings” here are the rankings of the other schools that ranked on Forbes top  25 biggest paychecks list, but didn’t make our cut because their percentage of student employed 9 months following graduation was below 70%. Some of these schools enjoy very good starting pay to debt ratios:

  1. University of Utah — Pay to Debt Ratio: .96;  Starting Pay: $82,000; Avg. Debt: $84,473
  2. University of Houston — Pay to Debt Ratio: .88;  Starting Pay: $79,400; Avg. Debt: $89,530
  3. University of Colorado — Pay to Debt Ratio: .66;  Starting Pay: $77,400; Avg. Debt: $115,866
  4. USC-Gould — Pay to Debt Ratio: .54;  Starting Pay: $80,300; Avg. Debt: $147,685
  5. Fordham — Pay to Debt Ratio: .53;  Starting Pay: $76,300; Avg. Debt: $142,435

All of these schools have quality employment scores over 50%, meaning at least half of their grads have found full-time employment requiring a law degree 9 months after graduation. These schools represent good options if you want to gamble for a high-paycheck against the possibility that finding employment may be more difficult.

Five more schools were on Forbes list but will remain unranked because they placed fewer than half of grads into full-time legal jobs.

So that wraps up our “Law Schools with the Best Return on Investment.” For more law school analysis, sign up for our e-mail newsletter or follow us on twitter @onlawschool.


University of Chicago, J.D., 2012 Ready to Kickstart your LSAT Prep? Join the LSAT Mastermind Study Group


  1. Hey guys!

    What is your take to attend University of UTAH vs Pepperdine if given zero scholarships at both and I want to practice in California? Thanks!

  2. Unless I misread your stats, I think UT Austin trounced the rest of the field. It looks like you’ve got your ration backwards. With a $110,800 starting salary and $92,180 in debt, the ration should be 1.2. 110,800 / 92,180 =1.2. Thanks.

  3. Hello gents!

    I was wondering which law school is better to attend in Arizona if I want to work after in California in Entertainment/IP?



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