Paying for Law School: A Quick Guide
The following information was originally compiled by Ava Preacher,
Assistant Dean and Principal Pre-Law Advisor, University of Notre
Dame. We have edited it and added my own sections about
loan forgiveness and debt burden. For more specific information,
be sure to read the remaining documents in this section of the
The cost of a three-year law school education could run well
over $80,000 (even at a public law school!). Tuition alone
can range from a few thousand dollars to more than $25,000
a year. When calculating the total cost of attending law school,
you also have to include the cost of housing, food, books,
travel, and personal expenses. During the first year of law
school, full-time students are discouraged from obtaining any
but the most limited part-time employment. Therefore, approximately
75 percent of law school students rely on educational loans
as their primary source of financial aid.
Money for law school is available in the form of scholarships,
grants, work-study and loans, but most students finance
their education through loans, either from the government or private
sources. Before deciding to take on significant student loan
debt to attend law school, take a good, hard look at THE
UGLY STATISTICS, reprinted at the end of this handout.
Some law schools offer their own scholarship programs, but
the amount available varies greatly from school to school.
Some offer their best candidates full scholarships based on
merit. Others give financial aid primarily on the basis of
Loans from governmental and private sources at low and moderate
interest rates are available to qualified students. Some of
these loans consider the applicant’s financial need in
determining eligibility; other have limitations based on the
law school budget. Many states offer guaranteed student loans.
To determine your eligibility for these you should consult
lending institutions in your area. Private loans are also increasingly
available. Typically, the lowest interest rates are associated
with federal loans that require demonstrated need; private
bank loans are typically available at higher rates.
The following is a list of steps you must take to apply for
To Apply for Federal Aid:
Start the financial aid process in December, well in advance
of the school’s particular filing deadline. You cannot
wait until after you receive admissions offers to begin
the planning process.
Obtain the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
from your college or university financial aid office or
from the law school to which you are applying. FAFSA is a
analysis tool developed by the U.S. Department of Education.
completing the FAFSA form, you will designate the names
of all law schools that are to receive the report. It asks
information about your income, assets, and other financial
resources. Be sure to answer “yes” to the questions, “Will
you be a graduate or professional student for the upcoming
year? ALL GRADUATE/PROFESSIONAL STUDENTS ARE CONSIDERED
INDEPENDENT FOR THE FEDERAL LOAN PROGRAMS. However, some law schools will
request parents’ financial information in determining
their in-house institutional aid.
Prepare your federal income
tax returns as early as possible after the first of the
year. Some schools will want to see
a copy of your actual return, so be sure to keep a photocopy
for your files. The FAFSA requires information that is
derived directly from your tax return. While information
(including the FAFSA) may be available from some law school
aid offices in the fall, applications cannot be
filed until after January 1. (They will be returned to you if received
before the first of the year.) However, you can file any
time after the first of the year—the earlier the better.
law schools to which you apply will determine your eligibility
for federal financial aid. The amount offered by
each law school will vary, and each student’s individually
because the cost of attending each law school varies.
you determine the school that you will attend, you may
begin the federal loan application process.
Most of the private
education loan programs will make credit decisions on the
telephone. Contact them for details.
To Apply for Aid From Your Chosen Law School:
Call or write the financial aid office of the law schools
you plan to attend. Some schools may require you to submit
information in addition to the FAFSA, such as an institutional
or an additional form from a central processor. Many schools
have very early filing deadlines.
You should arrange for financial aid transcript
to be sent from any undergraduate or graduate school you attended
law school to which you apply. This may or may not be required
by the law school for institutional aid.
Complete the loan
applications. Note: You will benefit by planning a financial
strategy before you
even enter law
school. Save as much money as you can, and try to rid yourself
of any outstanding consumer debt. It is important to have
a good credit history. Clear up errors or discrepancies in
credit before you apply for loans. Establish and maintain
good credit early.
Loan Repayment Assistance or Forgiveness
Some law schools participate in loan assistance and forgiveness
programs. Generally, these programs are set up to help students
who want to take low-paying public interest legal jobs upon graduation.
You should check with each law school to find out the details
of and requirements for its program.
In Minnesota, the University of Minnesota, William Mitchell,
and Hamline participate in the Loan Repayment Assistance Program
(LRAP). Under this program, grants are given to qualifying
law school graduates of these schools who have high debt and
have taken low-paying public interest jobs. The money is considered
reimbursement for student loan payments. The grants are awarded
yearly and are renewable for up to fifteen years. The new University
of St. Thomas School of Law offers its own loan forgiveness
program, which is endowed, and which includes a public interest
law clinic that is staffed by St. Thomas law graduates who
are paid by a combination of salary and loan forgiveness.
Student Loan Debt
You should ask each school to
which you apply what its
average student loan debt for its students at graduation. Often,
this information is available right on the school’s web
site. If it isn’t, call the financial aid office and
It may be shocking, but the student loan debt for an average
law student upon graduation can easily exceed $60,000. Six-figure
debt loads are not uncommon when one factors in undergraduate
student loan debt and credit card debt.
Why the massive debt? Most students
can't afford law school on their own, so they borrow. Their
student loans cover tuition
and books and school-based expenses, but do not leave enough
money to pay for living. Costs of living are paid for by savings,
by earnings, and increasingly by credit cards. Credit cards
are used for everything from social activities to utilities
to interview suits—all of the things that financial aid
does not pay for. This is an oft-repeated scenario among graduate
and law school students.
Unfortunately, the starting salaries upon graduation generally
are not high enough to pay for the debt that has accumulated.
Law school grads may find themselves unable to afford a house
because their debt to income ratio is too high to qualify for
a mortgage. They may also be disappointed in their standard
of living, given the high amount of their monthly student loan
payments. Students who are interested in public interest work
often find that it is simply not an option, because they cannot
afford to make payments on their student loan debt. (In fact,
as the LSAC points out, a total debt of $80,000 translates
to a monthly payment of nearly $1,000. Some families pay more
in student loans each month than they do for their home mortgages.)
Is there a solution to this dilemma? Many people blame students
for being irresponsible. Some are, I'm sure. But personally
I believe that law schools should assume some responsibility
for this mounting student debt. They collect their tuition
money from your student loans, and they make little effort
to reduce the size of their classes or to make law school more
affordable and less loan-based. That means that, for most of
us, the only way we can attend law school and join the legal
profession is to borrow for the education. What's a middle-class
student to do? I for one do not want a legal education to be
a privilege of the rich. Something must happen systemically,
or else a generation of students will collapse under a mountain
Some pre-law advisors are lobbying for changes. But until
change comes, the question of whether to assume debt to pay
for law school remains a highly personal one. The best thing
to do is inform yourself of the costs of school and the risks
associated with borrowing to pay for it. Do your homework,
and make the best, most informed decision you can.