You've decided that law school is the right choice for you. You took the LSAT and have the grades and recommendations to qualify you for admission, but there's another challenge you need to overcome before starting your legal training: figuring out how to pay for law school.
How you go about financing your legal education can impact your career choices and lifestyle for decades to come. By making wise decisions at the outset, you can ensure that your legal education opens doors for you without becoming a financial burden.
How Much Does Law School Cost?
The cost of law school varies based on several factors you'd already consider when choosing a law school, including geography, the type of program, law school rankings, and ABA accreditation. A law degree from a private school will cost more than one from a public school, and in-state residents often benefit from lower tuition at public schools than non-residents.
On average, students at private law schools pay around $48,000 per year. Public schools cost around $30,000 yearly for in-state residents and more than $40,000 for non-residents.
It's also important to keep in mind that you'll have other expenses besides tuition. If you intend to enter a full-time J.D. program, you won't have much time to work. So you'll also need funds to cover your living expenses.
Law School Scholarships and Grants
There are grants, scholarships, and fellowships available for law students, although they are harder to come by than undergraduate scholarships. But there's no harm in looking for some free money!
Most scholarships offered by law schools are merit-based, given to students who achieve a high LSAT score or exceptional grades in undergrad. But some schools also offer scholarships to prospective students from groups who are underrepresented in the legal profession, such as people of color and the LGBTQ+ community.
You can learn more about scholarship opportunities from your chosen (or potential) school's financial aid office.
Types of Student Loans
Nearly all law students will need to rely on at least some loans as a source of financial aid for either the cost of attendance, living expenses, or both. If you come to the conclusion that you'll need a student loan to make law school a reality, there are some basic concepts that can help keep paying for law school manageable.
It's always best to seek out loans with lower interest rates and carrying fixed rather than variable rates. If you can make the required payments, a shorter term is better than a longer one. And borrow as little as you can manage in order to avoid paying interest on unnecessary amounts.
The source of the loans is also important in determining the loan's long-term implications. Law school loans are typically federal, private, or institutional in nature. Read on to learn more about each type of loan:
- Federal loans: Federal loans tend to carry better interest rates and more flexible repayment terms than can normally be found through private sources. Some kinds of federal student loans may also be discharged or forgiven under certain circumstances. However, it should be noted that federal loans are typically not dischargeable in bankruptcy. Unlike undergraduate students, law students and other graduate students only qualify for direct unsubsidized loans.
- Institutional loans: This type of loan occupies a space between private and federal loans. Institutional loans are provided by the educational institution itself. Institutional loans may have lower rates and greater flexibility than many private loans, but also tend to have stronger legal protections against borrower default.
- Private student loans: Due to their sometimes draconian repayment terms, shifting interest rates, and relative inflexibility if you fall on hard times, private loans are often a last-resort option for many law school students. Depending on how they are structured, private loans for your education may or may not be dischargeable in bankruptcy.
Private loan providers often look at a loan applicant's credit report in order to determine the amount the lender is willing to make available, as well as the rate and repayment terms offered to the borrower. Before applying for financial aid, request a copy of your credit report and examine it for errors or issues that can be resolved in order to ensure that you receive offers with the best possible terms.
It's also important to note that international students generally aren't eligible for federal student loans. However, lawful permanent resident students may still qualify for federal financial aid.
The best student loan strategy for most students is to start with federal direct loans due to their lower interest rates. Depending on your financial need, you can take out up to $20,500 in federal direct loans per year. Then, fill in the gaps with federal graduate PLUS loans. Grad PLUS loans are specifically for graduate or professional programs. You can apply for both sets of funds through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
Repayment of Student Loans
Students who pay for law school tuition with student loans have several repayment options.
Law school graduates who go into public service could have their loans paid off through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program. Details of the program can change, but the general idea is that a law grad who works for a government agency or non-profit and makes payments on their student loans for ten years can have the remainder of their loans forgiven.
In addition to the federal public service program, 24 states offer their own repayment programs. These statewide loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs) are often only available to those who work in public interest law.
Many law school grads opt for income-based repayment plans to pay off their student loans. These plans allow students to make monthly payments on their student loans based on their current income. Loan payments will generally be around 10-15% of your income.
Some graduates choose to refinance their student loans after they finish school. However, refinancing comes with a few drawbacks. Namely, if you refinance your federal student loans, you cannot take advantage of repayment programs like the PSLF. You would also miss out on student loan forgiveness proposed by some policymakers.
Refinancing can also mean lower monthly payments and, usually, a lower interest rate. But not all student loan borrowers qualify for refinancing. Be sure to carefully research lenders before you decide to refinance your student loans.
Working During Law School
Many law schools recommend that students in a full-time J.D. program not work during their first year or, at most, work only 10 hours a week.
The Federal Work-Study Program is another potential income source. Work-Study provides eligibility for on-campus part-time employment for students in their second and third years of study. However, keep in mind that work-study funds don't come in a lump sum - so they won't do much to cover up-front costs like tuition.
Law schools often limit how many hours a student can dedicate to work-study. In most cases, second and third-year students are limited to 20 hours a week. And some law schools don't offer work-study at all.
Paying for law school can be nearly as challenging as the classes and exams you'll tackle. Law school debt will, in all likelihood, dramatically impact your financial life for decades after you finish school. Since most students will need to obtain financial aid from various sources, early preparation and careful consideration of the different forms of aid available can help ensure you go in with a solid plan. FindLaw for Law Students can help you choose the right law school for your budget and help you transition into life as a law student.