WHY are attorneys so expensive?  

WHY does my divorce cost so much?  

WHY is my attorney bill so high?  

WHY can’t you tell me what it’s going to cost me to (enter your legal action here)? 

WHY do lawyers get paid so much?  

WHY do I even need a lawyer when I can represent myself?  

WHY is litigation so expensive?  

WHY? WHY? WHY?

I hear these questions on a fairly regular basis, from clients and people without experience in the legal world as well as people to whom the legal experience is not new. 


So, in a multi-part series, I am going to offer some of my insights of WHY. 

 PART ONE: The Legal Education & Becoming a Newly Minted Lawyer


To become a lawyer, it takes three years of law school (four years if it’s part-time, which more and more students are doing in order to hold a job to pay rent and living expenses).  At graduation from law school, a law student is conferred the title of J.D., which stands for juris doctorate, which is a graduate degree.  Technically, lawyers are “doctors” just as a Ph.D. is a “doctor”, it’s just that most attorneys don’t refer to themselves as “Dr. So-and-So”.  

Rather, an attorney’s name is usually followed by “Esq.”, which is an abbreviated form of “Esquire” and has its history in English social titles.  The title “Esquire” was used in England to signify a male of high social standing, below a knight but above a gentleman.  These days, both men and woman can be an “Esq.”, and even England has come to the present by giving women the equivalent of a knighthood (think: Dame Judy Dench).  When writing to an attorney, you will often see something like “Katrin M. Cusack, Esq.” on the envelope and in the salutation of a letter, but the greeting is simply “Dear Ms. Cusack”.  In other words, it would be odd to see, “Dear Dr. Cusack, J.D.” or “Dear Ms. Cusack, Esq.”

J.D. versus Esq.: what’s the difference?  The difference is, a J.D. is the formal educational degree earned after attending and passing post-graduate law school.  Esquire is reserved for someone who actually practices law.  Several of my law school professors had J.D.’s but never actually practiced law (now there’s a topic for a whole other blog).  Although California allows licensure for people without a law degree in very limited circumstances, as a practical matter, I have never personally encountered a licensed attorney that did not have an actual J.D. degree.  

So back to law school.  Law school is an additional three years after college, and college is a minimum of four years – five years of college not being at all uncommon these days.  That’s anywhere from seven to nine years of schooling, which either way is the better part of a decade.  For myself, that was the better part of my 20’s.  What did you do with the better part of your 20’s?  I spent mine sitting behind a desk, learning, or studying.  It takes a lot of discipline, drive, and stamina to spend what for me was eight years in college and law school.  I remember my first year of law school orientation, when one of the speakers said, “Look at the person to the left of you.  Look at the person to the right of you.  Chances are high that those people will drop out before three years is up.”  She was right – one of the two people next to me at orientation dropped out during his first year.

Then there’s that whole bar exam thing, which in California is a notoriously difficult two-day (used to be three-day, when I took it) closed book exam on whole bodies of law: torts (this is stuff like personal injury, defamation, trespass), contracts, real property, criminal law, criminal procedure, corporate law, civil procedure, rules of evidence, wills and succession, trusts, constitutional law, community property law, remedies, and professional standards.  There’s also something called the MPRE, or Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam, which tests on a candidate’s understanding of professional rules (attorney-client relationships and responsibilities, duties to the court, duties to other lawyers).  Finally, there is also a comprehensive background check administered by the DOJ, which requires fingerprinting and slew of moral aptitude standards. 

The California Bar Exam is a mix of written essays and multiple-choice questions, while the MPRE is all multiple-choice.  Personally, I think the multiple-choice questions are harder than the written essays, because the multiple-choice answers, and there is always only one correct answer, can be really tricky.  It’s never straightforward, like “Flying saucers as opposed to peaches.”  No.  Instead, the answer options are more like:

  1. Apes 
  2. Monkeys
  3. Primates
  4. A and B
  5. A or B
  6. A and C
  7. B or C
  8. Neither A, B, nor C

Ugh.

So after four or five years of college and three or four years of law school, a prospective lawyer then studies another three months or so to try to pass a notoriously difficult, closed-book licensing test  called “the Bar Exam”, the lesser known but equally difficult MPRE, and a comprehensive background check.  None of which actually secures the license to practice law, they’re all pre-requisites to getting the license.  

And, none of this pre-licensing stuff comes cheap: my law school debt exceeded $100K, and that was twenty years ago!  Generally speaking, the more prestigious the law school, the higher the tuition.  Law books are not inexpensive, either: my Constitutional Law book alone was over $200, and again, that was more than twenty years ago.

As if books and tuition weren’t enough, every step toward licensure requires a fee: pay to take the LSAT (which is like the SAT only it’s for law school), pay to register to be a law student in waiting, pay to go to law school, pay to take the first year law student exam with the State Bar, pay to take the MPRE exam, pay to do study prep for the Bar Exam, pay for the Bar Exam.  And then of course, assuming one passes the bar exam (only 40.7% of applicants passed in 2018, which is significantly less than half), there are yearly bar dues which increase every year.  For 2020, the bar dues for active attorneys were $544.00.

To recap, the education behind a lawyer is a long and exhausting one, never mind extremely pricey to earn and obtain.  Nearly a decade of study and, in California, repeated grueling testing along the way are required to become a newly minted licensed attorney.  And that’s just the beginning!

In the Part Two of this blog, I will examine what it takes to get experience as a licensed and practicing attorney.  Stay tuned!

This publication is not intended to provide legal advice.