Earning a law degree is a useful step to a legal career, but it comes at a hefty price. You may receive less financial backing from family members than you did for your undergrad education, yet a law-school education still requires money for tuition, housing, books and other expenses, such as groceries, phone bills and transportation. Even if you work after college and save up for law school, it could still be a stretch to pay law school tuition yourself. The average single-year private law school tuition in 2018-2019 was over $48,000, so a three-year program could run you nearly $150,000. You'll probably need aid. Most law students — 90% or so — take out loans to finance their legal educations.
Financial aid for law school is different from undergraduate financial aid. Sure, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the starting point for both. But the law school financial aid process involves two aspects not often found in that of undergraduate aid: negotiation of aid amounts and post-graduation loan forgiveness or repayment-assistance programs.
Understanding Law School Cost of Attendance
Knowing a school's Cost of Attendance (COA) is the first step to understanding financial aid for law school. Every law school establishes its own COA, which is the total maximum amount you are allowed to receive from financial-aid sources. It includes tuition and fees — the fixed costs — as well as allowances for living expenses like rent, food and car insurance.
Where to Start Your Search for Law School Funding
As with financing your undergrad education, the FAFSA is the launching point to financial aid for law school. Filling out the FAFSA gives you access to, and eligibility for, all kinds of aid — grants and loans from law schools and from federal, state or local governments. For example, through the FAFSA you can apply for a federal Stafford Loan to pay for your legal education.
In addition to the FAFSA, you may find that your law school of choice requires you to complete a supplemental financial-aid application. Law students, like undergrads, also may turn to private student loans. But tread carefully: Their repayment plans are not as flexible as federal loans and their terms less favorable. In general, private loans should be used only as a last resort.
Law School Applications: Q&A With Michelle Kim Hall
Michelle Kim Hall earned her Juris Doctor degree from Harvard Law School and bachelor's degree (summa cum laude) from UCLA. She is currently the director of law school admissions at Stratus Prep.
In this Q&A, Hall talks about how students can incorporate financial-aid strategy into the application process.
With substantially lower law-school enrollment in the past six years, are schools becoming more competitive in attracting students?
According to Law School Admission Council data, overall enrollment numbers are down, but more applicants are competing for admission to top schools. This suggests that applicants may be more selective in which schools they are willing to consider and applying to fewer target and safety programs so that admission to top-tier programs could be more competitive. I'm starting to see evidence that increased competition among applicants is going to be the trend as top schools are waitlisting or rejecting prospective students who would have been strong contenders in past years. I'm also anticipating lower-ranked programs will have to do less to entice candidates who have been rejected from reach schools.
How early in the application process should students consider financial aid in their decisions?
I recommend applicants consider the cost of law school before even applying since financing will be an important part of their decision-making process. There are three major types of financial aid for law school: federal or state loans, scholarships awarded directly by law schools, and loans or scholarships from private lenders. The earliest a student can apply for FAFSA loans is the first of January for the year they anticipate enrolling. Merit-based scholarship decisions are usually folded into the law-school application itself. With a strong application, it is possible to receive merit-based scholarships at multiple schools. Applying early will both increase an applicant's chance of acceptance and make him or her more competitive for aid. Some schools have separate scholarship applications, and need-based awards also are available. Investigating options for private loans and scholarships also is worthwhile. Deadlines will vary, and applying earlier will make an applicant more competitive.
How should financial aid influence the application strategy?
A student looking to secure merit-based scholarships should apply to a broad spectrum of reach, target and safety programs. Reach programs — schools where the applicant's LSAT or GPA falls below the median range — are less likely to offer financial awards. However, admission to a higher-ranked program could work as leverage to entice a target or safety program to make or increase a scholarship offer.
What tips do you have for formulating a financial-aid negotiation strategy?
In addition to offering advice on need-based scholarships, at Stratus Prep, we partner with students to build strong applications, which increase chances of merit-based scholarships. We also work with applicants on scholarship applications that complement their general applications, and we've developed techniques for negotiation. One tip is not to bluff about offers during negotiation. Some schools ask applicants to provide proof they have indeed received funding awards from other programs.
What steps can applicants take to maximize aid offers?
The best way to secure merit-based aid is to start with a strong application. Most schools make scholarship decisions based on the application itself. Stratus Prep counseling teams work with students to develop application strategies that present the most compelling, cohesive story of why they should be considered for enrollment. Once admissions results are released, applicants can engage in dialogue with schools they are considering and present their cases for additional funding. I worked with a client who was offered a small scholarship award that was presented as non-negotiable. However, he made a positive impression on the dean of admissions in sharing why the school was his top choice, even though his financial situation meant he had to consider higher scholarships from other schools. He was ultimately offered three times as much as his original award, plus more in need-based aid.
How open to negotiation are top-tier law schools?
The top three schools — Yale, Harvard, and Stanford — generally do not negotiate merit-based funding, though they do offer need-based aid. When a program like NYU or Vanderbilt has an extensive scholarship-application process separate from the general application, students should not rely on negotiating. But on the whole, I've found that when applicants are willing to approach schools and be transparent about how finances will impact their enrollment decisions, most admissions officers are willing to listen, regardless of [the school's] rank.
If You Need a Loan to Attend Law School
Although most law-school students turn to several funding sources, student loans are invariably the principal source. Repayment on student-loan debt begins upon graduation, and these days, the average law school debt is daunting: $130,900 for private law-school students and $89,962 for public law-school students. The larger the loan amounts, the longer the repayment periods — and the greater the stress on graduates, who are just beginning their careers.
Making Decisions About the Type of Student Loan and Loan Amount
You must repay any loan amount you receive, which will influence the type of student loan you pursue. In most cases, your best bet is to stick with federal student loans because they open the way to the most flexible repayment options, avenues to payment relief, and, in some cases, loan cancellation. Private and institutional loans, on the other hand, are inflexible and have limited repayment options.
How are your student-loan type and amount determined? Your law school of choice determines your eligibility for student loans and their amounts. The school's financial-aid office calculates loan amounts based on the school's cost of attendance and policies, as well as federal regulations.
Consider these tips in seeking out financial aid:
- Minimize loan amounts: Don't borrow more than you need.
- Choose federal student loans over other options: Take advantage of more flexible repayment terms and lower interest rates.
- Avoid private student loans, if possible: International students are not eligible for federal student loans and may need to turn to private loans.
- Seek out scholarships, grants and fellowships: Such awards exist for law-school students and they don't require repayment, though they are limited in number and amounts.
- Stay updated: Law-school policies and financial-aid rules and regulations change frequently. Staying current puts you in the position to make the right decision.
Available Types of Loans for Law School
Two federal student loans are available to fund your legal education. With both loan types, interest accrues while you are attending school, and you will be held responsible for paying all interest, even though you are not required to begin repayment until after graduation. Some experts recommend exhausting unsubsidized Direct Stafford loans before turning to Graduate PLUS loans. The following table shows how the two federal loans for law students compare.
Federal Student Loans for Law Students
|Direct Stafford (unsubsidized)||Graduate PLUS|
|Maximum loan amount (annual)||$20,500||School's COA (subtracting all other financial-aid amounts received)|
|Fixed interest rate||6.6%||7.08%|
|When interest begins accruing||Upon disbursement||Upon disbursement|
|Repayment Begins||6 months after graduation||6 months after graduation|
|Borrower Qualification||Must be at least a part-time student at a participating institution.||
|Forbearance and Deferment||Available||Available|
|Public Service Loan-Forgiveness Program||Eligible||Eligible|
You may need to turn to private loan source if you're an international student, if your federal student loan doesn't cover the full amount you owe or if you are otherwise ineligible for a federal student loan. Private lenders will check your credit before approving a student loan. In all cases, carefully review and consider the terms of a private loan; some private lenders don't offer deferment options, requiring you to begin repayment while still in school.
Working While Attending Law School
If you hope to defray the costs of your education by working during law school, you'll encounter roadblocks. Many law schools restrict your ability to work, particularly as a first-year, full-time student. They typically follow the precedent once set by the American Bar Association (ABA) which limited weekly work hours to no more than 20. Second- and third-year law students have more flexibility to seek part-time opportunities through the Federal Work-Study Program. Jobs through this program relate to your course of study and focus on public interest.
Negotiate Your Aid Package
The financial aid offer for your undergraduate education was probably a straightforward process. A school earmarked a certain amount for you and notified you about it, and you accepted or declined. With law-school financial aid offers, however, you have more room to negotiate. Law schools have seen enrollments decrease in recent years, motivating them to compete for students to meet revenue targets. They need tuition money, and they only get it if you enroll. Sometimes, schools revise their original aid offers to beat out competing schools' offers. To benefit from this situation, however, you must proactively reach out to schools that have accepted you, express your desire to enroll, and place your cards on the table by pointing out a competing school's more attractive financial-aid offer.
Don't hesitate to contact your preferred school's financial-aid office to negotiate the details of your aid package — courteously and professionally, of course. Inform the financial-aid officer that you've received a scholarship or financial aid offer from a peer school. You'll be better positioned if you're forthcoming with the school's name and the amount offered. Ask the officer if his or her school can offer a better deal, and be clear that you will enroll if it can. This may increase the chance of the school responding with a more attractive package.
Consider these tips as you prepare to negotiate:
Personally rank your schools. Decide which school is your top choice, second choice, third choice and so on. You must know yourself and your preferences.
Wait for competing schools to make offers. Leverage your negotiating position by waiting to hear back from schools you've applied to and the financial-aid packages they offer, including scholarships.
Compare your schools. Look at how schools on your list rank against each other. If School A offers you $20,000, and School B offers you $5,000, you might not be able to convince School B to match School A's offer if School B is much more highly ranked than School A, for example, or if the schools are located on opposite coasts. You'll be more successful in convincing a school to increase its offer if you position it against a peer school with a similar ranking.
Merit-Based vs. Need-Based Scholarships
The type of scholarship you receive affects your negotiating power. You can usually use merit-based scholarships to leverage your position between peer schools. With need-based scholarships, however, schools generally refuse to negotiate. These schools are typically highly ranked— think Harvard, Yale and Stanford — and attract the best of the best students.
How to Negotiate Your Law School Package: Q&A with Kyle McEntee
Law-school attendance has been dropping steadily over the last decade. What does this mean for students?
Law schools are significantly more transparent about graduates' outcomes, and we've seen the market react to this. The number of applications sent per student has decreased substantially. This might indicate that people are more assertive in their decisions about which schools they apply to. For a long time, schools advertised [graduate] employment rates of 98 or 99 percent, which included employment at Starbucks or large law firms. [Prospective] students had no mechanism for distinguishing the difference. Now, with more transparency, we see that less than two-thirds, and less than 60 percent in some years, end up in real lawyer jobs.
How does this downward enrollment trend affect negotiation of financial-aid packages with law schools?
I dislike the phrase "financial-aid" packages because it implies that schools are acting benevolently. This is a [financial] transaction between schools and students. Once consumers — the students — realize they are engaging in a transaction, they are more empowered to negotiate the prices and all the terms of the agreement, including non-price stipulations.
What are the non-price stipulations students can negotiate?
A lot of schools [preface] their scholarships with conditions. Those conditions may include finishing the first year in the top 30 percent or maintaining a GPA of 3.3. Whatever it is, you must meet this condition, or you don't get to keep the money. But you can negotiate these conditions. Another stipulation you might negotiate is for the scholarship amount to increase in proportion to any tuition increase. Suppose, in your first year, the tuition is $10,000, and you receive a $5,000 discount. In the second year, tuition increases by $1,000. You can negotiate to have the scholarship match the increase so that the second year you receive a $5,500 discount. Even better, you could negotiate the stipulation away entirely. If the school conditions the discount on your ranking within the top third of the class, you can refuse and say you want to keep the scholarship no matter what.
What can students do to best prepare for negotiation?
There are a lot of free resources, [including] websites where people discuss negotiation, whether it's Reddit or Top-Law-Schools.com. Also, there are people out there who help with negotiations behind the scenes. My number-one advice is to have a clear understanding of the cost of a real education at a certain school. Figure out exactly how much debt you will have when you graduate from a school. Schools are much more responsive if you've done the homework; that includes homework about real price differences. The biggest [mistake] is to approach a school and tell them another school offered you more. The school can respond by saying it's offering less money because it's cheaper than the other school.
Would you recommend waiting to negotiate until after you hear back from all schools?
You don't need a complete picture. Once you have enough information and enough leverage, that's when you can start. That's a very person-specific decision. It doesn't make sense to hold off negotiating if you got into School X but are still waiting to hear from School Y and School Z, who aren't School X's competitors.
How is applying to competing schools important for financial-aid negotiation?
Competing, or peer, schools make a difference in your leverage. Identify the peer schools on your list. Law schools operate locally and regionally, not nationally. You won't have success pitting Pepperdine, in California, against Syracuse, in upstate New York. These schools don't care about each other. It all starts with making smart choices about where to apply to law school, how your choices are geared to your goals and how schools can meet those goals.
Are top-tier law schools open to negotiation?
Stanford, Yale and Harvard — the top-tier law schools — are not open to negotiation, but all other law schools are. The top-tier schools only offer need-based aid. If you premise your package [negotiation] based on need, then you'd be making an argument for why you have more need. This is not the same type of negotiation happening at other schools, even at NYU, Columbia and University of Chicago.
The Rise of Repayment Assistance Programs
Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAPs) encourage graduates to work in public interest and government, which are traditionally lower-paying fields for attorneys, by offering repayment assistance with student loans. These programs can ease the financial stress you face as a new attorney by providing funds, usually as grants, to apply to monthly loan payments. Unlike other types of repayment plans, in which your loan balance is forgiven or canceled after completing a certain period of service, LRAPs focus on the now — the monthly payment due next week, next month or the month after.
Law schools establish many of these LRAP programs. Each school determines eligibility requirements. Some law schools are more flexible with eligibility and permit graduates in private-sector jobs, such as in small law firms or as in-house counsel in small businesses, to participate. If you know the type of law you want to practice, you may want to compare schools' LRAPs to see whether you will meet their eligibility requirements and plan accordingly. For example, Harvard Law School's Low Income Protection Plan applies to all nonprofit, government and academic jobs. Graduates who work in law-related private-sector jobs may also be eligible.
Aside from law schools, some public-interest employers have established LRAPs to encourage attorneys to work for them. State bar foundations and other government entities, federal and state, also offer LRAPs. You can learn specifics on MoneyGeek.com's Loan Forgiveness page. In some cases, private employers offer repayment assistance.
Essential Questions for LRAPs
Here is a list of questions to ask about any LRAP you are considering:
- What are the payment amounts, and do I receive them monthly or annually?
- What is the maximum total amount I can receive?
- What types of student loans — government, private or both — are eligible?
- Do I need to pass the bar exam to be eligible?
- What are the employment conditions that are eligible for the LRAP? Do I need to practice law to be eligible? What is the service obligation?
- What factors would cause me to lose eligibility? Would salary increases or increased income trigger a loss in eligibility?
- How is the LRAP funded? In other words, do funds come from the organization's general funds, or are funds limited by donations?
- For tax purposes, are LRAP payments considered grants or forgivable loans? (Employer-based LRAPs typically are considered grants, which make them taxable income.)
LRAPs by the Numbers
In 2017 (latest data available from opm.gov), federal student-loan repayment programs handed out nearly $75 million to 10,000-plus federal employees.
$7,341 is the average amount of a student loan repayment benefit.
100-plus law schools offer LRAPs for graduates in public interest, government or other high-need legal fields.
For law graduates or those nearing graduation, fellowships present opportunities to engage in research, teaching and writing projects. Usually merit-based, fellowships allow students to complete projects without having to worry about supporting themselves. Many law schools have fellowships and typically give preference to alumni and students. Other organizations, such as government agencies or private companies, also offer fellowships.
For example, the Equal Justice Works AmeriCorps Legal Fellowship Program is a well-known national program that facilitates pro bono work and promotes accessibility to legal resources in low-income and underserved communities. The organization funds numerous legal fellowships, including those benefitting low-income and homeless veterans, unemployed and underemployed individuals and natural-disaster victims. These fellowships cover living expenses in addition to awarding each recipient a monetary amount per year of service. Recipients also benefit from loan deferment and participation in loan-repayment programs.
Learn More About Law School Financial Aid
Nonprofit organization assisting individuals who wish to enter the legal profession by pushing for transparency, affordability and fairness in the field. You'll find meaningful information about the legal profession, law schools and state bar associations on the website, and prospective law students can use it to uncover information about specific schools, the legal job market and reforms. LST provides data and research tools and other law-related resources.
Free resources that help evaluate and compare law schools across the country. The site also provides a list of law-school-related forums.
Find details about the sources of funding for graduate students over a 16-year period in the report "Trends in Graduate Student Financing (1995-96 to 2011-12).
The Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program (ASLRP) provides funds directly to a law graduate's student loan holder. The graduate commits to a three-year service obligation and must repay funds if he or she does not complete the obligation. Find additional information at the Dept. of Justice's ASLRP Q&A page.
Refer to this source for relevant debt management resources.
Law School Numbers is a publicly accessible database of user-supplied law school application information with the intent of helping applicants judge their chances in the next law school admissions cycle.