Law Schools with the Highest Starting Salaries for Graduates
At OnlineU, we use earnings data to evaluate how well colleges prepare graduates for high-paying careers in their industry. We give each program a Salary Score to show how alumni outcomes for that school compare to other graduates from the same programs. We also assign each school a Debt Score which shows how much alumni owe when they graduate compared to their peers from the same programs at other colleges. A high debt score indicates a school’s alumni have more debt than others, while a low score means graduates finish that college with less debt than their peers.
The law schools on our list have median alumni starting salaries in the top 5% for graduates who earned their Juris Doctor in 2017 and 2018. This list showcases some of the most prestigious law schools in the country, which may reflect the importance of prestige placed on universities in the legal profession. While it isn't always the case, it's clear that these universities have strong student outcomes to back up their reputation. However, our research shows there are less elite options that still offer top starting salaries for graduates.
Columbia University in the City of New York
Median Alumni Salary: $193,362
Median Debt: $188,253
Columbia Law School graduates earn the highest median starting salary for those with a JD at more than $193,000. While alumni end up saddled with some of the highest student loan debt compared to their peers, that high payoff means they still earn $5,000 more than their total debt at the end of their first year.
Columbia is also one of the best universities for employment at the highest-grossing firms, with 7% of graduates going to the 10 largest firms in the country.
Prospective students should note that Columbia Law is highly selective. The university touts a 17% acceptance rate, a median LSAT score of 172, and undergraduate GPAs ranging from 3.63 to 3.84 for its incoming classes.
New York University
Median Alumni Salary: $189,685
Median Debt: $184,952
Alumni of NYU Law see some of the highest salaries in their first year out of law school, with a median of nearly $190,000. While earnings are in the top 99% for recent JD graduates, NYU Law reports alumni can expect an average debt of around $170,000, which is quite high, even for law students. However, with high starting salaries, graduates are likely to see their investment pay off earnings-wise. It's worth noting that NYU Law offers a loan repayment program for attorneys who go on to public interest work.
NYU Law is less intensely competitive than some other universities on this list, with an acceptance rate of 24%. Most of the incoming class in 2021 had LSAT scores between 170-174 and GPAs of at least 3.73, according to NYU Law's incoming class profile.
Median Alumni Salary: $187,194
Median Debt: $135,060
Northwestern is a particularly strong choice for prospective law students. Alumni see median earnings in the top 99% of law school grads for the 2017 and 2018 cohorts. However, with a median debt of $135,000 for students who receive financial aid, alumni see a very high payoff of $52,000 more than they owe in their first year after college. While they still owe more than 73% of their peers, Northwestern grads do earn top dollar for a smaller investment.
Northwestern is the third-best school for a job at a top firm, with 9% of alumni working for America's highest-grossing firms.
The law school has an acceptance rate of 19%, and incoming undergraduate GPAs range from 3.58 to 3.9, while LSAT scores fall between 164-170.
University of Pennsylvania
Median Alumni Salary: $186,571
Median Debt: $161,363
UPenn has the fourth highest alumni starting salary at $186,500, with earnings in the 99th percentile for JD graduates who used financial aid to pay for college. Those students also owed a median of $161,000 after college, resulting in a $25,000 payoff in their first year.
Penn Law is also a favorite for top law firms, with about 8% of grads going onto the highest-grossing firms.
It's one of the most selective law schools in the country, with an acceptance rate of 15%. Incoming GPAs range from 3.49 to 3.95, and most students score between 164-171 on the LSATs.
University of Virginia
Median Alumni Salary: $185,710
Median Debt: $166,203
One of only two public schools on this list, UVA Law graduates also fall in the 99th earning percentile with a median salary of nearly $186,000. Although they also owe more than 92% of their peers from other schools, alumni salaries are high enough to see a $19,500 payoff in their first year out of college.
UVA also sends the 2nd highest rate of alumni to the highest-grossing firms at 10%.
The law school has an acceptance rate of 15%, and incoming GPAs range from 3.59 to 3.97. LSAT scores tend to fall in the 163-171 range.
Median Alumni Salary: $185,154
Median Debt: $139,926
Cornell is another especially strong choice for students who want to minimize debt while maximizing profit. While alumni earn some of the highest starting salaries in the country, they typically owe less than their peers from comparable schools. The median debt for alumni who used financial aid to pay for college, including federal student loans, is nearly $140,000. While that is still a significant amount, it's still less than 22% of JD graduates.
Although still competitive, Cornell has a slightly higher acceptance rate than other schools on this list at 21%, with GPAs ranging from 3.73 to 3.89 and LSAT scores of 164-168.
Median Alumni Salary: $184,307
Median Debt: $137,424
Harvard grads earn some of the highest salaries in the country straight out of law school, and student debt is surprisingly low for those who use financial aid to pay for college. The median debt for Harvard graduates is $137,000 based on the latest data available, which is still less than 25% of JD graduates owe.
Harvard is a top producer of notable environmental lawyers, especially those who work for nonprofits.
With an acceptance rate of 13%, the university falls only behind Yale and Stanford in selectivity. Students will need top grades to get into Harvard — incoming GPAs range from 3.8 to 3.97 and LSAT scores from 170 to 175.
University of Chicago
Median Alumni Salary: $181,006
Median Debt: $169,731
With a median salary of $181,000, Chicago Law graduates are some of the top earners straight out of law school. Although alumni also have a high median debt of about $170,000, they earn $11,000 more than they owe in their first year.
Chicago Law is the number one law school for a job at the highest-grossing firms, with 11% of alumni going to a top firm after college.
Chicago Law accepts 17.5% of applicants, with GPAs in the 3.73-3.96 range and LSAT scores between 167 and 173.
Median Alumni Salary: $165,914
Median Debt: $166,026
With a median alumni salary of nearly $166,000, Georgetown is the 9th best law school for earnings after graduation. Alumni tend to owe about as much as they make in their first year, which means they may not see the full financial payoff for a few years to come.
Georgetown is also the alma mater of many of today's noteworthy environmental lawyers.
The university has an acceptance rate of 21% with a low GPA of 3.56 and LSAT scores of 163-168.
University of California - Berkeley
Median Alumni Salary: $160,390
Median Debt: $156,898
Berkeley Law alumni earn a median salary of just over $160,000, making it the 2nd best public law school for starting salary. Berkeley Law has a strong reputation and was home to many of today's notable environmental lawyers, especially those making big changes early on in their careers.
The university has an acceptance rate of 20%, with its lowest accepted GPA at 3.64 and LSAT scores ranging from 165 to170.
For students who are looking for slightly more affordable and accessible options that still lead to high salaries, there are a handful of prestigious schools that are a bit more widely available.
Vanderbilt University graduates still earn salaries in the 98th percentile but owe less than 30% of law graduates. Boston University also offers alumni earnings in the top 90%, but graduates walk away with less debt than 43% of law graduates.
Washington University in St. Louis is a particularly strong choice for salary-to-debt ratio and is slightly less competitive. The minimum GPA for the incoming class is 3.39 at WashU, and LSAT scores range between 160 and 170. The law school has an acceptance rate of 30%. However, what is most notable is its salary-to-debt ratio: Median alumni earnings are $90,605 in the first year, which is higher than 77% of law school graduates. However, WashU graduates also tend to finish college with under $100,000 in federal student loans, putting them in the bottom third of borrowers who earn their JD.
The Bottom Line
It's no secret that law school is expensive, and many students are dead set on making their investment count. Prospective law students can use these rankings to help them choose a school that will most likely result in high salaries after graduation. These earnings are also just in the first year, which means many of these students will see a bigger return on investment as they advance their careers.
Those determined to earn top salaries after college will likely have to take out a large amount in student loans and compete for highly coveted seats at these prestigious universities. However, there are a handful of slightly less competitive options where students still earn higher average salaries while borrowing less to go to school.
Choosing where to go to college should involve many factors, including but not limited to potential debt and salary. Students should also assess what programs and classes they're interested in, the law school faculty, who their peers will be at that school, and other factors to find a college that will offer them the best support on their way to becoming an attorney.