TL;DR / Key Takeaways
- Research law school scholarships, grants, federal loans, federal work-study and— only if absolutely necessary—private loans to determine what is best for you financially.
- Fill out and submit the FAFSA as early as possible.
Best Ways to Pay for Law School
Before you begin researching loan options, establish how much money you think you will need until you graduate. Start the financial aid process by creating a budget. Every law school is required to establish its “Cost of Attendance.” The Cost of Attendance includes more than just the school’s tuition: it is the total amount a student will need in order to attend law school for an academic year. Along with tuition, it includes expenses like transportation, books and supplies, and room and board. The maximum amount of financial aid a student is permitted to receive from any source for an academic year is the school’s Cost of Attendance.
As you start to go through all of the different financial aid options available to you, keep in mind that the most helpful money will be the money that is not subject to repayment terms. Scholarships and grants do not have to be repaid, so you should research these options first. Law school scholarships can take on various forms. To begin with, look at scholarships offered by your law school. A student enrolling in the JDinteractive program at Syracuse University College of Law may be eligible for one of the school’s merit-based scholarships, which are awarded during the admission application process.2 At the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law, every admitted JD student (including those in admitted to the Hybrid Juris Doctor program) is automatically considered for the following scholarships:3
- Dean’s Scholarships: Merit-based and awarded to admitted students with strong academic credentials (i.e., LSAT score and GPA). It can be as much as $37,000 for New Hampshire residents and $45,000 for non-residents.
- Karl F. Jorda Scholarship: Awarded to highly qualified STEM students who plan to pursue patent law or other IP specialties.
In addition to merit-based law scholarships, a law school may also offer you a need-based scholarship. To determine if any law school you are considering offers need-based scholarships, call or email the financial aid office. Make sure to ask what additional forms, if any, are required beyond the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (or, as it is better known, FAFSA).
Scholarships are also offered by a range of institutions other than law schools. Here are a few examples:
- Minority Corporate Counsel Association: The Lloyd M. Johnson, Jr. Scholarship program awards scholarships to incoming first-year law students.
- Federal Circuit Bar Association: Offers two different categories of scholarships—Judicial Scholarships and The Association Scholarships.
- NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund: The Earl Warren Scholarship is available to full-time students at an accredited law school and awards “rising law students whose commitment to racial justice reveals outstanding potential for training as civil rights and public interest attorneys.”
Part of the challenge with scholarships is finding them. Fortunately, there are some helpful resources available online. Check out Fastweb.com, abaforlawstudents.com, ScholarshipOwl.com, and AdmissionsDean.com, among other sites.
After reviewing all financial options that are free from any repayment requirement, you should next determine if you are eligible for federal student aid. Start by filling out the FAFSA online. The FAFSA asks questions about an individual’s family, financial status, and marital status, among other things. A prospective student can file the FAFSA for the upcoming academic year, beginning on October 1 of the prior calendar year. In order to have a solid understanding of your financial situation, it is helpful to file the FAFSA as early as possible.
The U.S. Department of Education’s federal student loan program offers different types of Direct Loans:4
- Direct Unsubsidized Loans:
- A law student may currently borrow up to $20,500 through this federal loan program, each academic year.
- Repayment does not start until six months after a student graduates.
- Direct PLUS Loan for Graduate Students (Grad PLUS):
- Provided the student has no adverse credit that student may borrow an amount up to the school’s Cost of Attendance, less the aggregate amount of all other financial aid that the student is receiving (e.g., from scholarships, grants, and any private loans or other federal loans) for the academic year.
- If a student does have adverse credit, this loan option is still a possibility, so long as the student applies with an “endorser”—a U.S. citizen or permanent resident who does not have poor credit.
- Repayment is deferred while a student is in school and for six months after the student is no longer enrolled at least half-time in law school.
With each of these different federal loans, the U.S. Department of Education serves as the student’s lender. If you have multiple federal loans, you may be able to combine them into one loan—a Direct Consolidation Loan. With this new loan, you will have only one monthly payment, instead of multiple monthly payments on the federal loans you chose to consolidate.5
The repayment plans that come with federal loans tend to be more flexible than private loan repayment plans. For example, the Income-Based Repayment plan is a repayment plan that has monthly payments that are usually equal to 15 percent (10 percent if you are a new borrower) of your discretionary income, divided by 12.6
In addition to the repayment advantages federal loans provide over private loans, in general, private loans are ultimately more expensive than federal loans, due to interest rates.7 However, you may not have a choice but to take out private loans, if you are an international student (and therefore do not qualify for federal loans) or if you need a postgraduate loan to cover bar exam expenses. It is highly recommended that you take as little out in private loans as possible.8 In addition, make sure that you are comfortable with the monthly payments that are provided in the repayment plan.
Federal work-study is a program that provides part-time jobs to full-time and part-time students with financial need.9 If you are planning on being a full-time law student, you may want to take part in federal work-study after completing your first year. The first year of law school is not only academically challenging, but also significantly affects postgraduate employment prospects. You should make sure that your participation in federal work-study will not negatively affect your grades. Not all law schools participate in federal work-study programs, so contact your school’s financial aid office to learn more.