Prepare to pay for law school.
A law degree is often a costly investment, and the price of law school nowadays is much higher than it used to be. According to a financial analysis released by LawSchoolTransparency.com, the average amount that American Bar Association-approved private law schools charged for tuition in 2019 was 2.76 times greater than the inflation-adjusted cost in 1985. Meanwhile, the average cost of tuition at their public counterparts for state residents in 2019 was 5.92 times higher than the inflation-adjusted price in 1985. Below are 17 tips to help aspiring J.D.s make smart choices about how to finance a law degree.
Earn credentials that wow scholarship committees.
One of the best ways for a law school hopeful to increase his or her odds of securing a generous law school scholarship is to study hard for the entrance exam and perform well. Some law schools will accept either the LSAT or the GRE while other schools take only the LSAT, but regardless, an outstanding score will help J.D. applicants stand out in a positive way. A fabulous GPA and resume also improve odds of winning scholarship money.
Target schools where your credentials are above the norm.
A J.D. hopeful who is a standout applicant at the school where he or she applies is more likely to be given a scholarship than someone who is not, and truly exceptional candidates may be awarded a full-ride scholarship that allows him or her to attend law school for free. “An applicant below the GPA and LSAT median will be less likely to receive a scholarship than an applicant above the GPA and LSAT median,” Jeffrey Zavrotny, assistant dean for admissions and enrollment management at the University of Baltimore School of Law, explained in an email.
Realize that you could qualify for need-based aid now even if you didn’t in college.
Understand that your parents’ financial situation will have less influence over your aid package than it did in the past, suggests Gonzalo Fernandez, a partner with Fernandez Law in St. Louis. “You are now an independent adult and applying for need-based aid for graduate school as a person in your 20s can be very different than when you applied to college and all your parents’ income, savings and assets counted in the need-based aid decision,” he wrote. “Just because you did not qualify for need-based aid in college does not necessarily mean you won’t for graduate school.”
Look outside of school for free money.
A number of organizations also offer scholarships for students in law school. Some of these scholarships are specifically for law school hopefuls from minority backgrounds or for individuals who have demonstrated a commitment to a particular social justice issue, while others welcome a larger pool of potential recipients. “For example, if you are of Hispanic origin or interested in gender rights issues, there may be scholarships awarded by specific organizations not associated with the school,” Fernandez says. “You just need to spend time researching and finding them. Many of these may be for lesser amounts but cobble enough together and you are beginning to put a dent on your tuition.”
Understand school scholarship requirements.
Law schools may have strict requirements for students who receive scholarships. For example: Because a school may predetermine the number or percentage of students who will get a certain GPA or grades, it may be impossible for all of the first-year scholarship recipients to meet the requirements that would enable them to keep their scholarship as second-year students, Hanna Stotland, an educational and career counselor who has a J.D. degree from Harvard Law School, told U.S. News in 2015.
Take stock of personal finances.
Before school begins, students should estimate how much they’ll need to spend on things like transportation, living expenses and even undergraduate loans, according to Shawn P. O’Connor, a former contributor to the U.S. News blog Law Admissions Lowdown. Payment for undergraduate loans may be deferred in some cases, but not without a cost. “When you defer payment on student loans, your loans will generally continue to accrue interest, which is usually added to the principal amount of the loan,” O’Connor wrote in a 2014 blog post.
Spend as little as possible.
“While it can be tempting to rent that fancy new apartment or dine out every week, it’s important to keep in mind how much money you’re making now, not how much you might make after graduation,” Stefanie Trinkl, CEO and owner of the Trinkl Estate Planning, S.C. law firm. “Plus, the demands of law school make it difficult to also hold a job – so most students can expect to bring in little to no income during the school year. If you can tolerate having a roommate or living frugally for a few years, you’ll appreciate it when you aren’t in six figures of debt.”
Carefully weigh two-year options.
Some law schools offer two-year options instead of the traditional three years for a J.D. degree. These programs, however, aren’t guaranteed money-savers. “You get two years of a legal education, at some schools, but you pay for three,” Steven Sedberry, author of “Law School Labyrinth” and “Hedging Law School” told U.S. News in 2013. “They charge you basically by the degree. That’s where the student as a consumer has to be very careful.”
Consider career goals.
As students figure out how much they’ll pay in tuition and fees, they should also consider what type of law they’ll get into and where they’ll practice, experts say. “If you’re going to be practicing in Kentucky, obviously the salary you’re going to be earning is less but at the same time the amount of money you’re going to have to spend to live is a lot less,” said Matthew Shinners, a Harvard Law School graduate who has done law school admissions consulting, in a previous U.S. News story.
Research debt for past graduates.
Some schools are known for having students graduate with relatively low debt. Furthermore, a few law schools not only provide an inexpensive education but also provide a gateway to well-paying jobs, meaning that there is an optimal salary-to-debt ratio. Researching how much debt students graduate with and how much money they earn may help applicants calculate the financial risk and long-term payoff of attending a particular J.D. program.
Take a gap year.
It’s common for people to wait a year or two after getting their bachelor’s degree before starting a J.D. program. A gap year before applying to law school can be spent doing volunteer work, exploring a nonlegal career or working in an area of law prospective students would like to learn more about in law school. If applicants choose to work during a gap period, they can save some of their wages for law school expenses.
Consider part-time offerings.
Going to school part-time allows law school students to work while getting their degree. “One primary benefit of attending law school part time is flexibility in your schedule,” Julie Ketover, a former contributor to Law Admissions Lowdown, wrote in a blog post. “Most part-time law programs offer evening classes, which allow students to keep working, meet responsibilities or pursue other interests at the same time.”
Know about graduate student aid.
The type of financial aid available for a graduate student is different from what is available for an undergraduate student. For example, grad students cannot borrow federal subsidized loans and typically are not eligible for Pell Grants. Knowing the loan options available can help aspiring law students decide how they’ll pay for school.
Understand loan repayment options.
A six-month grace period before beginning student loan repayment, which is common for those paying back undergraduate federal student loans, is not always available for law school graduates who borrowed. On the other hand, those with high grad school debt in the form of federal student loans may be able to use income-based repayment plans to ensure that their monthly loan payments stay manageable. Experts encourage graduate students to understand the range of repayment options for all of their student loans.
Compare financial aid packages and negotiate if necessary.
If a J.D. hopeful is admitted to more than one school, he or she should carefully assess how much financial aid each school provides. Then, if his or her dream school offers less money than another, the student should use that as leverage when dealing with financial aid representatives at the first-choice J.D. program. Afam Onyema, CEO of the GEANCO Foundation, a charity that assists Nigerians, says he successfully negotiated with Stanford Law School’s financial aid office. “I was offered a relatively small amount of merit aid from Stanford when they accepted me for admission,” Onyema explained in an email. “NYU offered a much more generous package. I informed Stanford that, while I loved the school and wanted to attend, but I could not ignore the long-term financial implications for turning down NYU’s offer. Stanford’s financial aid office requested a copy of my award letter from NYU, and soon after I sent it, they increased my merit aid package to surpass it.”
Pursue paid internships and clerkships, and consider loan forgiveness programs.
Summer jobs can help law students pay school costs. Paid internships or clerkships are beneficial, suggests Jason Ye, co-chair of the Asia branch of the Ortoli Rosenstandt LLP law firm. Also, future public interest lawyers should conduct research on whether they might qualify for a loan forgiveness program, Ye says.
Recognize that a J.D. doesn’t guarantee a sky-high salary.
Lawyers aren’t necessarily rich, Fernandez warns. “I think there is a big misperception out there that a law degree comes with a license to print money and all your financial problems will disappear if you can just survive the three years of law school,” Fernandez wrote in an email. “There are many lawyers out there that do extremely well financially. However, there are also huge numbers of attorneys working for smaller firms, non-profit corporations or in government positions that do not earn salaries that would allow them to quickly put three years of student loans behind them.”
Learn more about paying for law school.
Follow these 17 tips to ensure that you can afford law school.
- Earn credentials that wow scholarship committees.
- Target schools where your credentials are above the norm.
- Realize that you could qualify for need-based aid now even if you didn’t in college.
- Take stock of personal finances.
- Spend as little as possible.
- Understand school scholarship requirements.
- Look outside of school for free money.
- Carefully weigh two-year options.
- Consider career goals.
- Research debt for past graduates.
- Take a gap year.
- Consider part-time offerings.
- Know about graduate student aid.
- Understand loan repayment options.
- Compare financial aid packages and negotiate if necessary.
- Pursue paid internships and clerkships, and consider loan forgiveness programs.
- Recognize that a J.D. doesn’t guarantee a sky-high salary.
Updated on Feb. 2, 2021: This slideshow has been updated with new information.