Making Ends Meet in Law School

As a first-generation law student, you might face challenges financing your legal education– paying for things like tuition, books, rent, professional clothing, and, of course, food. It can seem overwhelming.

Just know that regardless of how the odds may stack against you, there is always a way to make ends meet if you are willing to take on the challenge. Already, by getting into law school, you are a prime candidate to taking on those challenges and knowing this information beforehand can help you recognize the financial burdens accompanying law school early on.

According to U.S. News, the average tuition for private law schools in 2018-2019 was roughly $49,000 annually, nearly $8,000 higher than the average tuition for a public law school. I can tell you from personal experience that those figures are reality– in fact, my annual tuition was in the upper $50,000s bracket. Try multiplying that by the three years of law school, and it’s not an easy pill to swallow. 

How did all these lawyers manage to pay for law school? There are three major options to finance law school:
(1) Scholarships (full or partial)
(2) Loans (federal or private)
(3) Work while in school

(P.S. Also check out this U.S. News article on “How to go to law school for Free.”) 

1. Full or Partial Scholarships

There are several ways to finance law school and to begin your career with as little debt as possible; one major way is scholarships. A full-scholarship is obviously the most desirable but partial scholarships also relief of the financial burdens of law school. Financial considerations are a large part of the choice in law school, and many students choose schools based on which is able to offer the closest to a full-tuition scholarship.  

Most law school scholarships tend to be merit-based, but there are other scholarships based on other factors such as diversity, socioeconomic background, and many others. Check out the LSAC site for more information.  

Where can I find scholarships?

  • Scholarships.com 
  • FastWeb, GoGrad, UniGo, etc… 
  • You should also consider applying for scholarships during law school as well. Depending on your law school, you may have internal opportunities to receive scholarships via Bar Associations, student organizations, etc.

How can I maximize my scholarship amounts? 

Pre-law school, attempt to negotiate your scholarship offer amounts if you have that luxury, essentially advocate for your self-worth. Some law schools will match scholarship offers when brought to their attention.  For instance, my school allows students to submit a form before committing to the school pretty much saying, “here are all the offers I got, could you please increase my scholarship amount to incentivize me to attend your school.”  If compelling and approved by the school, you can increase your scholarships by simply asking.  That was the route I took, and it truly was a deciding factor in attending as I am financially independent at the time. 

2. Federal or Private Loans 

For those students who have out-of-pocket expenses, many choose to take out federal or private loans. If you were to take loans, I highly recommend going with federal loans as they often have a lower interest rate than private loans. Part of being an attorney is being diligent, so do your research on the difference between loans by looking for which loan best suits your needs and long-term goals post law school. Don’t get trapped into thinking “I’ll take whatever now and deal with the rest later.” Some great sites with clear information about federal and private loans include: FederalStudentAidStudentLoanHero, and LSAC.org.  

Paying off loans should be part of your deliberation whether you should take out loans in the first place. Appreciate that finding a job soon after graduating and your ability to pay off your loans are closely correlated to one another. I met a lawyer that took out federal loans for most of his tuition and other costs (he was financially independent), and he regretted his decisions as the interest started accumulating shortly after graduation. He advises that if you aren’t attending one of the top-ranked law schools, you should consider the average salary for an attorney graduating from your law school and plan accordingly. The median public sector salary for 2017 law school graduates was $54,550 (U.S. News and NYCBar.org).

Consider also how much of your salary would have to be paid to keep up with the loan payments. This lawyer’s monthly interest alone was about $1,000 7-years post-law school. Paying $1,000 each month for just interest and not the principle— to keep the debt from increasing— can be challenging.

So keep your “how I will pay off my loans” plan in mind early on and remember that deferring your loan payments is an option but not a great one. Payment deferment is essentially pushing off your payment to a later date allowing you to temporarily stop making your federal student loan payments. There are pros and cons to payment deferment which can be found here.  

Another method to paying off loans is to qualify for loan forgiveness, but keep in mind loan forgiveness can have a huge tax bill later.  When one’s loan is excused, for purposes of federal income tax, it is considered income to the taxpayer, hence the tax bill will follow the amount forgiven. This article explains why opting in to loan forgiveness is not such a good idea at times. 

After you’ve done your research and decided to go with loan, how much do you take? Do you take loans for tuition only? How about books, room and board/rent, health insurance, food, bar exam courses and the bar exam expenses? Both private and federal government lenders will likely offer the maximum, which can be more than you need. However, don’t go for the immediate easy money. Normally, estimated totals of tuition calculations done by your school or found online are fairly accurate and will include total cost of living, books, etc on an annual basis. So, when taking loans out and after accounting for your total cost, consider taking the least amount possible to minimize your total debt overall. 

For instance, you might want to budget for things like books, health insurance, or costs for buying business suits.

Books can cost between $1,000-2,000 annually depending on your course work and whether you want to buy the supplements. I tried to buy used books, but there aren’t many available and textbooks are updated frequently. First consider buying used books from other students; talk to others before the semester ends and they sell the books back to the bookstore. Of course, you can also buy or rent books online (e.g., Amazon, Chegg, etc.). When buying books online, try to buy them early enough to account for mistakes or for returning the books in inadequate conditions (although generally, online sellers do a decent job of describing the condition of the books). If all else fails, you may have to check out course books placed on reserve from your law library. In my experience, leave borrowing books from your law library as a last option because you won’t have time to read at your leisure or highlight in the book; the inconvenience of not having the book is not worth it. 

Health insurance is important, and some schools require health insurance coverage for each student.  Some schools offer health insurance plans for the otherwise-uninsured for $800-$1,500 per semester.  Additionally, depending on where you reside, consider if your state offers healthcare programs that aid students in providing free or low-cost basic health insurance.  For instance, in New Jersey, a single student attending a full-time graduate program with little or no source of income are eligible to apply for a NJFamilyCare plan, which is a free health insurance plan that must be renewed on an annual basis. 

Paying for suits and professional attire can add up. Nonetheless, it is an investment worth making because first impressions are lasting impressions. You have to dress for the job you want and looking the part is important. While people should not judge you for what you wear, the profession has already set rules that decision-makers look at the “whole package” when evaluating a candidate. And your attire can be a door-opener to networking opportunities—i.e., making some talk about the color of your tie or the patterns on your dress.  Essentially, this means both men and women will have to invest on some attire for interviews, networking events, or internships. When buying a suit and cutting on some other expenses, consider this article on Dressing Like a Lawyer on a Student’s Budget.  

3. Working Full or Part-Time

You may also have the option of working while attending law school to earn some money. But you should think about that option twice—especially during your first year as the course load may be overwhelming. During my first year, I worked for about 14-20 hours weekly and used the money for rent. The pro was that I was able to make a little extra cash, but the con was that I had to put in extra hours to keep up with my courses. Although I started working out of necessity, I do not recommend working during your first year of law school because I often found myself missing meetings with my study groups, organizational meetings, and speaker engagement events (which were great for much needed networking).

For other students, quitting their 9-5 and running off to be full-time law students is not an option. The silver-lining, though is that plenty of students attend law school while maintaining a job or even another career, and law schools are increasingly cognizant of this dynamic and working to create specialized programs for part-time students. So consider factors like your proximity to your job, the number of hours you work, the part-time program offered at the school, and the demands of your job. Either way, only you will know the load you can carry, so consider it carefully.  

In Conclusion

Financing your law school education can feel like a daunting task, but when planned out with a few considerations in mind, it is doable. The burden of paying for school, books, rent, and other living expenses is manageable with the proper knowledge. And hopefully these tips will help you finance your law school journey.

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