Jack Catchem.com

Want to be a poor lawyer or a rich cop?

I still remember the day I defied convention and gave societal norms the finger. Screw Law School, I was going to be a cop! Police Academy here I come. Why? In six years would you rather be a cop with $400k in the bank or a lawyer with no money? 

Having graduated from UCLA with a History B.A. I was faced with the decision of what to do next. I’d applied aggressively to various government jobs which appealed to me and was accepted into Pepperdine Law and Big City PD the same month. I can’t remember which was more stressful, the LSAT or the polygraph! I was faced with a decision that many would have no problems making. However, looking into it more deeply, I believe that the choice was simple and can use hard data to prove it.
Obtaining a law degree is a momentous occasion that opens up a career, but there are a lot of factors that people fail to consider.

Let’s look at two hypothetical 6 year careers and compare.

The Lawyer: Pepperdine Law School, (all numbers are acquired from Pepperdine Law School’s website) cost of attendance: $51,120 per year. This is just tuition. When you add in total expected cost of living Pepperdine budgets its fledgling lawyers at $79,800 per year. Thus over your three year education there you would travel $239,400 into debt.

Now to follow the scenario through, let’s say you are a dedicated servant of the public like myself. I’m not interested in going private and would have been solely interested in working in the District Attorney’s office. Per “Transparent California” an entry level DDA walks out the door with approximately $60,000 a year. More advanced DDA’s make $70-$80k a year.

The Cop:
 Big City PD (thanks to my Bachelor’s Degree/prior military service) was willing to start me at $55k. After 6 months of an academy I would be increased to $60k. After a year of probation my pay would again be raised to $65k. It would then continue increasing by approximately $5k a year until capping out at $90k.

So let’s presume that the DA and the cop both camp in their parent’s basements, live off of Ramen, and drive Mom’s Astrovan for 6 years. The (very) hardworking DA (if he did not get any grants) will be able to pay off his $239,000 Law Degree in a little over 3 years. That’s right, 6 years of hard labor to break even.
Now the cop. Over the course of 6 years, he has been paid since starting the academy. Without adding in any overtime, Big City has paid him roughly $409,000 and he has 18% of his paycheck guaranteed for life after his retirement age.

Conclusion: SIX YEARS into a career a cop has made $400k and has pension benefits. The Lawyer just broke even.

Disclaimers! You can of course alter the math by going to a private firm and making millions, just don’t forget the prerequisites. Great grades and super long hours. Honestly most lawyers will agree that being in a top law firm is like a highly paid sweat shop. I love a well balanced life and that isn’t for me.
Also without getting soppy, I have a lot of love for public service and like believing in what I do. I chose to join Big City PD and loved it for all six years I was there. If you are thinking of a legal career, working it on the street isn’t all bad. Did I mention that of those 6 years, 6 months would be spent on paid vacation?

Related Articles:

How to be a cop and make over six digits a year by age 25!

Why even be a cop? (With the hate, murders, and lawsuits)


Seriously though, leave your comments below. Careers are give and take and I’d love to hear your opinions on what compels you most.


  1. C. O. Gnoman

    I have always wanted to “help”people. It took me a long time to figure out how best I could. I wanted to save lives, so I was a firefighter paramedic. I wanted to keep people from suffering, so I dabbled in psychology (Mariage and Family Therapy in particular). But where I really found a niche, through an altruistic means, that I fell in love with was law enforcement.

    Although, to be perfectly honest, I spent the first good portion of my career seriously wondering if the job was for me. It wasn’t until I starred working with my old partner that I truly gained a love for the job. His name was Jack, and after seeing him work, I attempted to emulate his abilities. I have never worked with a finer person nor officer since working with Jack. He became my mentor. I now love my job, but what’s better is that I have developed, maintained, and enhanced myself in a career path where I have a direct and, often times, positive impact on the community I serve. Maybe the people I have sent to jail would disagree, but the victim’s would not.

    1. Jack (Post author)

      I couldn’t agree more! There are those who don’t appreciate our service when taken to jail and shout “I pay your salary!”

      My reply is usually, “yes, and this is what you pay me to do.” Really it’s like getting mad at the gardener for trimming grass and pulling weeds. This is what you paid for!

    2. Veronica Forston

      I totally agree that all LEOs have a positive impact on our communities. I think I already told this to Jack on his blog, but I’m not a LEO, only a big supporter. I’ve lost a lot of loved ones to murder/suicide – all LEOs, but I’ve also been attacked viciously twice (and had other violent things happen since I am also a shit magnet).

      One criminal who attacked me was high on PCP and used a crow bar. He got caught. He also robbed a store the night before with a gun. So he went to jail. I doubt he’s a LEO supporter, lol, but I can tell you that I appreciated the police finding the little (censored) and putting his (censored – censored) away. The second one didn’t get caught because I was too terrified and traumatized to ever report it to the police. It happened in the late 70’s or early 80’s and I finally told ONE person this year what happened. I regret not calling and reporting it because he probably hurt others as well and that’s my fault for not reporting it.

      I’m equally grateful to the dept. in a city we lived in for putting away two 3rd strike hard core (censored) felons who did a failed home invasion robbery to our neighbors (who were all drug dealers, etc.) I don’t care about the neighbors they tried to kill – they dealt drugs and asked for trouble. What I am so appreciative about is that we had NO clue this home invasion robbery was happening and in short, (because I can’t see at night), I thought one suspect was a neighbor (long story). All I did was walk up beside him and greet him by saying “What’s up?” He never said a word. Instead he made ONE move and pulled out a sawed off shotgun from a slit in his coat and pulled the trigger. Luckily it jammed. My husband dragged me inside but he tried to shoot again – and it jammed a second time, or my husband would have been dead too. The police caught ALL of them (I think the entire dept. showed up that night), and helped protect us during court since we became the only witnesses and we also helped the police (everyone else took off and moved away). Two went to prison for life because of multiple felonies, etc. and previous strikes. The guy who tried to shoot us leaned forward in court before he was convicted and looked my way and winked. So after they were convicted, we moved. So I’m glad the (censored)’s are in prison. I still have nightmares from that night though and now we live far away in another state.

      So, (censored) the punks who go to jail or the anti LEO groups. There are lots of us that you may not see who TOTALLY appreciate and support you. I would give my life for any LEO, Fire fighter, first responder etc. – and I’m not just saying that. I already informed my family, including my (step) grand kids and explained to them why I would, and they understand. They also respect all LEOs.

      So thank you for your service. 🙂 Be safe.

  2. Jaden

    There is a Sgt in my department who is a fully qualified practicing lawyer. He has chosen to remain a cop and uses his law degree on the side because he makes more money and has more time off than if he practiced law full time. It’s also hilarious to watch him dismantle a defense attorney on the stand as well!

    1. Jack (Post author)

      I love watching savvy cops on the stand destroy the defense. One of my favorite tricks is looking at shouselaw.com during an investigation. It’s a defense attorney site, but The Enemy lists their favored tactics and defenses for each offense. It’s great having a heads up on the other sides strategy.

      (Additionally it gives you insight into why you might not arrest a guy. I still remember the night I came really close to arresting a guy for DUI. The objective symptoms were there, but not too pronounced. However he did ATROCIOUS on the tests. His defense? “Leg Day.”

      Breathalyzer showed .05%, under California’s legal limit. Another reason to skip leg day, it could get you arrested!

  3. John

    I think you captured exactly the reason why becoming a high power lawyer is not for everyone. The economics of it don’t make very much sense unless you’re willing to sell your soul for it. Even if you make it (no guarantees) you may find out it’s not for you, but you’ve dug yourself a hole too big to get out. However, I’d have to say a career in law enforcement isn’t for everyone either! After all the research and wading through advice, just have to go with your gut at the end.

    Liking the new layout by the way =)

    1. Jack (Post author)

      Thanks! WordPress overwhelms with options, but I like it too.

      It’s all about finding the right fit for you, unfortunately many just go with what they believe society will reward most.

      A great artisan is more likely to make it big than a bad Doctor.

  4. Middle Class Millionaire

    Wow great article Jack! I am a deputy sheriff in northern CA. I have a friend who is a dentist. She went to UCLA’s dental schools and racked up a bunch of student debt just as the lawyers you talked about do. She is now making $95k per year working for a dental company after a few years of working there (not quite sure what she started at). While she was in dental school, I went to the academy. I paid my way through, it was about $4,000. My first year on I made about $70k. Four years later I made $111,000 (with minimal overtime). She now wishes she would have skipped dental school and just went to the academy. She has almost $200k in student debt.

    1. Jack (Post author)

      It’s a common theme many don’t see until after graduation. Stability, Security, and minimal debts are an amazing aspect of our industry. It’s true you can come back in a BIG WAY as lawyer, Doctor, or dentist if you are among the best, but there’s the rub, statistically we can’t all be the best.

      I love your resume, too. It ties in perfectly with another post I wrote about how to make over $100,000 as a cop at age 25. If I may be so bold, how old were you by the time you had five years on the job?

  5. Middle Class Millionaire

    I am at 5 years now and I am 27 years old

    1. Jack (Post author)

      Well done and thanks for helping to support my theory through your financial success. 🙂

      Also, congratulations on putting yourself through the academy. Did it add additional stress to the experience or did you see it as an investment in yourself?

      (Big City puts everyone through their internal academy, so I have little experience with the outside academies.)

      1. Middle Class Millionaire

        Yes it was extra stressful… I went through the academy in 2011 and there were almost ZERO jobs statewide at the time. I just kept my fingers crossed and hoped that agencies would start hiring again soon. By graduation I was in backgrounds with a local agency and the rest is history. Hard work pays off

  6. Cash Flow Celt

    Must be a little bit sweeter in California than Florida (no surprise there). Our agency just re-banded the deputy salaries, and now start them at $43k a year; vesting period of 8 years. If you figure that the average rent where a DEPUTY might want to live (that is, a middle-class, low crime area), rents will run about $1200 a month. Per basic housing guidelines, the deputy can only afford $1075 a month.

    Conversely, I could attend University of Florida at $120,000 for three years and work as a DA (in my area) starting at $50,000 with a bump to $61,000 over the next three years. Plus, pretty much anyone who makes a 163 on the LSAT will get 25-45% of their aid in grants and scholarships. Personally, I beasted the LSAT and could have had free tuition to any public school in the nation and most private schools as well (for reference, my top 8 schools waived my application fee and all but two offered me 100% tuition + housing allowance). Another thing your forgetting is the geographic arbitrage a law student (but not an officer) can take advantage of. I can go to University of Wisconsin Law, which is a reputable school in a very low cost of living area and then move to Louisville, KY. Still a low cost of living, but I can make $70,000.

    An interesting aside, I was stunned to see the average pay in San Jose, CA for officers near $120,000 a year. And then I remembered most agencies require you to live within 25 minutes of your agency. 25 minutes within San Jose pretty much mandates a six figure income for housing and personal expenditures.

    1. Jack (Post author)

      That is the rub for many parts of California. Salaries are high comparative to much of the rest of the country, but so is our real estate. This can work out to California cops’ benefit through the same geo arbitrage. There are many cops who work their entire career to purchase a home in California and upon retirement move to Idaho to purchase three properties for the cost of their California home.

      For those daring and financially savvy cops out there, they can attempt the “Officer Next Door” program. 50% off your mortgage, but you usually live next door to a parolee house. Personally I’d rather sleep in peace.

      1. Veronica Forston

        OMG. Just reading that “you usually live next door to a parolee house” freaked me out!

        I actually got the shivers at that thought! I still have the shivers!

        We moved out of California and I love where we live now. I’ll NEVER go back to California. It’s a lot cheaper in Arizona and where we are, the LEOs told me a lot of veterans and retired LEOs live in our city.

  7. Financial Panther

    As a lawyer, I totally see your point. Becoming a lawyer definitely isn’t a path to the big bucks and it put me in the hole to start my career. Only just recently got myself out of the hole. If I could go back, I definitely wouldn’t have gone to law school.

    One question, is being a cop something that is truly open to anyone? Basically anyone with the ability to read and write can become a lawyer. Virtually anyone with the ability to do well in school and take tests can become a doctor, dentist, pharmacist, optometrist, etc.

    But for some reason, becoming a cop always seemed like something that was out of reach or unrealistic for someone like me – a small Asian kid with no military or police background. Genuinely curious if that’s a career path that a lot of people can really consider.

    1. Jack (Post author)

      Excellent follow up question! There are a lot of minimum requirements to be a cop, but if you have a mostly clean record and a healthy body you have potential. If you fluently speak a language other than English, you can actually cut to the head of the line in front of Linebackers fresh out of the Army. Meatheads are dime a dozen and having the ability to communicate in another language is a critical skill. Most departments will give a 5% salary bonus for fluent speakers!

      Stature is a more controversial issue. Many don’t agree with me, but I’ve worked with enough small cops to not worry about stature as long as they are down for the fight and smart.

      Small departments may not prefer smaller candidates, but bigger agencies do not care. I have worked with tiny cops and can say really the deciding factor is the will to survive and fight if necessary.

      There was a phenomenal woman in my academy class who did not make it through probation. She was perfect at EVERYTHING, except for sparring. Give her another person to defend herself against and she could not find it in herself to harm another person. This is a good thing for her soul, but a deadly failing for her career as law enforcement. We try not to, but you do need to be conceptually able to compel obedience.

      Contrast her with a 5’02” officer who jammed a 6’04” monster. The monster said “WHY DO I HAVE TO LISTEN TO YOU?”

      She boldly held up her radio, finger on the red “emergency button” and told the giant, “you don’t. But if you don’t I press this button and I’ll have five officers your size here in a minute and they will be pissed!”

      He backed down (and so did my heart rate! Dude was a beast!)

      Being small won’t stop you from being a cop as long as you have physical courage and accept the risk. I’m depressingly average, but have survived this long due to good tactics, effective communication, and rapid application of force on the few instances I could not talk or tactics my way out of it.

      1. Veronica Forston

        Many years ago, I knew a sheriff’s deputy who was SUPER short. I was shocked at how little he was. Until I got to know him as a friend and found out held the highest belts in all different types of martial arts – and taught martial arts. I found it funny though that I actually scared HIM one time (on accident). He drove by and I wanted to show him my new “pet.” He waited and I ran inside and brought out my snake in my hands. He was always so easy going and calm, so I thought he would smile and say “cool!” (Duh) Wow! I never saw anyone move so fast – and he drove off fast too. Don’t worry, he came back and we remained good friends, but he was terrified of snakes.

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  9. James

    If you are smart enough, driven enough, and strategic enough to be the cop who saves half a million dollars by age 30….I think it is reasonable to believe you will be smart enough, driven enough, and strategic enough to be the big time lawyer who manages to make millions off of one case.

    I think it is just a matter of timing. Sure the cop appears to win at the tender age of 25 because all the big time future lawyers are still in school. But, the big clock keeps moving. In 15 years the now 40 year old cop is stuck working mid nights, going to the same old domestics, and taking orders from a GED graduate. He is also on the cusp of losing half his pension because his wife wants a divorce. The 40 year old lawyer is now the big dog, making $500,000 pey year…with no income ceiling. Trust me kid, nobody…NOBODY has it figured out, let alone figured out at 27 years of age!

    My own little story to counter yours. My wife and I graduated from Columbia Law at age 27. We both got full scholarships, and graduated with 0 debt. We both started out making 200,000 per year, and we lived in a small cheap apartment. We now own our $1 million house, make a combined $1.3 million per year, and are both 34 years old. Ohh yea, we love what we do!

    1. Jack (Post author)

      Lol. First of all, congratulations on being AMAZING! Columbia is an incredible school and you & your wife are geniuses for landing full ride scholarships.

      As a merely slightly above the mean intellect, I was faced with a minimal scholarship and entry into Pepperdine Law. Knowing my own strengths and proclivities I love that being a cop has allowed me job satisfaction, a living wage, and minimal debt.

      I also agree few people have things squared away at 27! I myself was barely out of college at that point thanks to repeated deployments.

      But being on nights after 15 years in? That’s the cop’s own fault. By that time most cops willing to ascend are looking at specialty assignments, detective slots, or promoting to sergeant.

      It’s a good life as long as you don’t get shot, stabbed, infected, or divorced. I think that last one hurts cops and lawyers equally…unless you specialize in family law!

      Thanks for the input, James, it does help to flesh out possibilities. Again, great job getting into a top school. I watched my wife do it, so I know how good you have to be to accomplish it!

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