Paying for law school—do you want the good news or bad news first? OK, here’s the good news—there’s plenty of money out there. The bad news—you’ll probably have to pay it all back. For you econ majors that’s called a “loan.” The fact is, getting a law degree is an expensive proposition. Not med-school costly, but your J.D. degree can easily top $50 thousand and for many top-tier law schools that figure can soar up to $150 thousand. So, where will this money come from?
1. You will self-finance. God bless, read no further. By paying all this by yourself (or through your amazingly generous parents) you’ve been given a freedom to pursue any post grad law and not have to focus on the few very competitive but breathtakingly well paying entry level jobs. Do I need to mention that those jobs will almost certainly exclude any public interest or public sector positions?
2. The law school admissions office. For most law schools, the financial aid and admissions function are in the same office. That stands to reason because once you’re admitted, schools want to make every effort to see that when/if you come you can pay. Most law schools live off their tuition fees to survive.
3. The Feds and private financial sector. If you loved filling out your 1040, you’re going to love filling out the required forms necessary to apply for the variety of government-backed or bank loans available as presented to you by your law school’s admissions office. I won’t bore you with repeating the materials exhorting you to meet the required (and crucial!) deadlines and form-submissions, but missing or ignoring them may leave you with an empty-hand and wallet.
4. Merit money. Again, once they’ve admitted you law schools want you to be able to afford them. Although not very plentiful, carefully review the school’s catalog to see if you qualify for any of their free-money merit grants. Except for the top-ten schools which already have them, most schools LOVE big LSAT numbers. If your LSAT was 10+ points higher than the school’s published medians, they may very well want to throw incentive money at you (usually in the form of a tuition discount, not hard cash). Huge GPA numbers with average LSAT scores don’t have the same clout, but may be worth giving it a shot. What ever you do, if you think you may be in the merit-money category, DON’T accept an admission offer until you negotiate with the admissions folks. All of us Admissions Consultants know how to finesse this process, so don’t be shy! You will never be in a stronger negotiating position once you’ve been offered an admission spot and before you accept and a few minutes of polite “negotiation” can be worth thousands.
5. Fellowships, scholarships and loan-forgiveness programs. Law schools are a bit defensive about the reputation of the legal profession. In a way, they see themselves on the front lines in countering the public’s vision of it as an essentially mercenary occupation so many schools have special programs to encourage its graduates to enter pubic interest law careers. Often this takes the form of so-called “loan forgiveness” programs which means if you take a certain category of those kinds of jobs (with their attending modest salaries) an increasing percentage of your loans will be forgiven over time. Another fellowship type programs require a competitive application to receive these outright grants. Again, the school’s admissions office will detail all those programs and application criteria. These are worthwhile programs, but very competitive.
6. Jobs and internships. Those of you out there at or near the top of your class from a reasonably competitive law school and have an expressed interest in a private-sector law career may have the opportunity of injecting good money into your budget through well-paying summer internships after your first year. If your academic performance is stellar, these positions can go a decent way towards lightening your debt burden.
To wrap up, let me share a true story. Some years back, an advisee of mine got into both Harvard and University of Miami. The school she eventually selected was a shrewd parlay based on her extraordinarily focused goals. (1) She wanted to live and work in southern Florida, (2) wanted to make her career in the judiciary, with the ultimate objective of becoming a judge, (3) wanted a school well-networked in that employment sector and, finally, (4) did NOT want to pay a dime for her legal education. Of course Miami Law is a fine school, but they’d be the first to admit it’s no Harvard. My advisee’s knew her highly targeted career goals were easily covered by Miami and it was worth the cool $150,000 to forego the ego blast that invariably comes with the Harvard J.D. Last time I checked, she was well on her way to the bench and living happily ever after.