Forensic social work involves working with clients who have come in contact with the judicial system. Either through his or her actions or as the victim of someone’s else’s behavior. For example, the individual may be the victim of domestic violence, sexual abuse, or neglect. Therefore, the social worker in this capacity interacts with law enforcement, lawyers, prosecutors, and even the attorney general’s office. With this involvement with the legal system, it seems logical that a law degree would be an asset. Or would it?

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Earning a Law Degree

Obtaining your Juris Doctor (J.D.) is a lengthy and costly process. First, you need a bachelor’s degree. You could choose a discipline that will benefit your future career in forensic social work (FSW). Some of the possibilities are criminal justice, social work, clinical psychology, legal studies, counseling psychology, and criminology.

In your senior year, you should apply for one of the 202 American Bar Association (ABA) accredited law schools in the United States. There are no online programs accredited by the ABA. Once accepted, you should know that the cost of tuition is steep. If you attend a private law school, the average annual tuition is $49, 095. If you select a public in-state school, the average is considerably less – $27, 591 per year. The tuition for a public out-of-state law school is $40,725. US News reported these statistics in March 2019.

Assuming you graduate within the mandated three years from law school, you will likely have enormous debt. Unless you have had a stellar LSAT score and earned a generous or full scholarship, your loan could hit the national average of $145,500.

Considering the debt, you may think that the law degree will bring a six-figure salary, which in turn will justify the cost. Not so. US News reports that the median private-sector income among 2017 graduates from their 182 ranked law schools was $72,500. Admittedly, that wage will exceed what an entry-level job in forensic social work will pay.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that social workers earn an average of $49,470 (May 2018). The BLS states that the median pay for lawyers is $120,910. Another noteworthy statistic, provided by US News, is that J.D. graduates in the public sector had salaries ranging from $40,000 to $90,518. For comparison, most jobs in forensic social work fall within the public sector. Areas such as county and state mental health agencies, child protective services, community services, and the corrections system.

SOCIAL WORK VS LAW

As a law school graduate, you would be well versed in all matters regarding legal affairs. However, your education lacks the courses relevant to working with clients who are struggling to cope with societal problems. Examples are an addiction to drugs or alcohol, juvenile delinquency, violence at home, prison-time, poverty, and other incidents involving the criminal or civil justice system.

A career in forensic social work is attainable with a bachelor’s degree in social work (BSW). From there, you could boost your knowledge by taking the Forensic Social Work Certificate offered by The National Organization of Forensic Social Work.  Another resource is the School of Social Work at the University of Maryland. The institution has a Forensic Social Work Certificate program that teaches about the legal system, clinical social work, and working with lawyers. All of these can be applied directly to your career.

Forensic social work is a hands-on profession that entails dealing face-to-face with clients at all levels of despair. Any skills earned to help you be a better counselor and advocate will be advantageous. Perhaps, more than a law degree.

Instead of pursuing a law degree for three years, you could opt for a master’s in social work or MSW. Some schools dictate that you must complete the J.D. within this timeframe, whereas a master’s degree has flexibility. You can take it at your leisure at home if you choose one of many MSW online programs.

The typical MSW takes two years of full-time study. Some schools have as many as 60 credits and a cost of $1,863 per credit. These figures amount to $111,780. The total tuition parallels the cost of law school. A less costly opportunity at the University of South Florida is a more reasonable $431 per credit, of which there are only 34 credits. The total cost would be $14,654!  The reduced credits’ admission requires all applicants to have a bachelor’s degree in social work from a regionally accredited school. Applicants must also possess a minimum of a “B” or 3.0 GPA in their undergraduate BSW.

Conclusion

You do not need a law degree to be a forensic social worker. Yes, it will provide the legal education that could become a financial burden for years after earning a J.D. The preferable route cost and career-wise might be an MSW or BSW with additional training and certificates in forensic social work.

Keep in mind that to be licensed as a social worker, some states require a master’s degree. You should check with your respective state of employment as not all demand a graduate degree in social work. It is doubtful that a law degree will suffice in those states where you need a minimum of a BSW to work in this field.

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