Financing a Legal Education

Simply put, the number of people who are/were at some point interested in going to law school greatly outweighs the number of those who actually do. There are a number of reasons explaining this phenomenon. One explanation may be other job offers come first. There’s the possibility that one’s LSAT score and GPA were simply too low to get in anywhere. Laziness is another possibility. Also, there are horror stories circulating regarding the terrible legal job market and inability for graduates to get jobs. However, it’s my contention that the single most deterring factor is the high cost of attending law school. We’ll look at an example to get some numbers in our heads.

Let’s take DePaul College of Law, for example. DePaul is a private institution ranked right at the middle of the pack. Tuition for the 2010 entering class sits at roughly $37,000. Living expenses in Chicago (which are higher than most cities) come in at just over $22,000. So, with tuition and living expenses alone you’re looking at $60K per year. Do that for two additional years and you’re putting your debt somewhere in the realm of $180,000. That, my friends, is quite a scary number. And remember, this was before we figured in any additional fees, textbooks, entertainment, etc.

So, now that everyone’s shaking in their proverbial boots and thinking why anyone would go to law school and then thinking about the tens of thousands of lawyers who have already incurred similar amounts of debt, let’s look at this more realistically.

While most law students finance their education primarily by taking out loans (which we will talk about in a moment) there are other sources of financing.

For example, the vast majority of institutions offer merit-based scholarships to qualifying students. While you’re not likely to receive one if you barely make the cutoff to get in, if your numbers (LSAT and GPA) lie above the school’s expected mean then you may be looking at some financial assistance. While these merit-based scholarships are of course and honor to receive and will lighten the load of financing law school, they often complicate the decision of which school to attend.For example, someone may apply to Northwestern and DePaul and get into both places. However, they may get into Northwestern by a hair and have to pay full-tuition while at DePaul they are likely to boast the best numbers out of many applicants and thus could be granted big bucks to attend. This undoubtedly begs the questions, “Go to a better or school or get a law school education on someone else’s dime?” Nevertheless, this article is about financing you education not where to receive it so we’ll move on.

In addition to scholarships offered by the schools, there are a limited number of external scholarships offered to first year students and many more after completion of 1L. One of the most widely publicized and coveted 1L scholarships is provided by the American Bar Association (ABA).Their scholarship, The ABA Legal Opportunity Scholarship, to pull from their website is, “intended to provide resources to increase the flow of racial and ethnic minority students into the legal profession, these scholarships consist of $5000.” As stated in the quotation, this scholarship is offered to minority students looking to practice law (usually at top institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Columbia, University of Chicago, Michigan, Northwestern, etc.).

Another possible situation is that your parents help fund you education. While, for most, this is laughable to ask one’s parents to shell out six figures from their bank account to pay for law school, this is more common than one would think. In my best assumption this happens most frequently when daddy is successful lawyer and wants his son to follow in his footsteps and inherit the family practice. So,popping a percentage of his yearly earnings to be able to brag to his lawyer buddies seems a worthwhile investment. Meanwhile, his son is enveloped by his dad’s pressure to succeed in law school that he may lose sight of anything else that tickles his fancy in the ream of potential career paths. I understand that speaking so bluntly about this issue creates the implication that I personally am in this predicament, but I can assure you that this is not the case. The last sentence seems like an opportune transition into my next topic:LOANS.

Taking out loans is the most common way law school students pay the bills while they are consumed in legal literature (case files and LexisNexis). Taking out a loan, most of which comes from the government, allows students to defer their undergraduate student loans (if relevant) and continue to study for an advanced professional degree. Then, a few years down the road, when they earned their piece of paper to be framed proudly on their office wall they have to begin paying back the government with interest tacked on to the bill.

Step one in taking out loans is filling out your FAFSA, the financial aid for students application. This basically enumerates how much money you currently possess (or lack thereof) and how much external funding you are expecting to receive from parents, schools, etc. Then, FAFSA and any of the schools you are considering and have been accepted to tell you how much financial aid you are awarded. These awards come in the form of subsidized loans, unsubsidized loans and GradPLUS loans which are especially issued for graduate level students.

The myths inherent with financial aid come into play when 0Ls say, “Well, I’ll take out $160,000 in loans but then work for a year after school and make that $160,000 at my BigLaw firm job and be able to pay it all back.” The fact of the matter is that those jobs are far and few between AND even if you do somehow land one I guarantee your full salary (or even half) is going to pay back loans.

In summation, go to school wherever you please but I beg you, don’t get into too much debt because it’s going to be a heck of a time trying to crawl out.

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