When you realize that the average tab for law school tuition and fees approaches $50,000 a year and that most young lawyers report owing at least $150,000, your reaction might be as dramatic as a Perry Mason moment.
How to pay for the privilege of adding J.D. to your name and bellying up to the bar exam while keeping your wits about you?
Average Cost of Law School
The cost of law school has been rising for decades and has outpaced the inflation rate.
The average tab for tuition and fees for out-of-state students during the 2020-2021 school year was $47,300, according to a U.S. News survey of ranked law schools, which also found that the 10 most expensive law schools had an average cost of $69,600.
Columbia Law again topped the list. The cost of attendance , which forms the basis for financial aid and includes room and board, came to $107,625 for the 2021-22 school year.
The paper chase leaves most law school grads in deep debt. According to a 2020 American Bar Association survey of more than 1,000 new lawyers, more than 75% owed $100,000 or more at graduation, more than half owed at least $150,000, and a quarter owed more than $200,000.
The average student loan debt was $165,000, the survey found.
So here are ideas to squire students toward esquire, and beyond.
How to Pay for Law School
1. Apply for Federal Aid and Look for Merit Aid
Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) allows you to find out whether you qualify for federal and state loans, and how much you can borrow.
The FAFSA® may be a familiar presence since undergrad days, but now you’ll most likely be considered an independent student. You may be eligible for a Direct Unsubsidized Loan (current rate: 5.28%), Direct PLUS Loan (current rate: 6.28%), or the work-study program.
Keep in mind that the aggregate federal student loan limit, which includes federal loans for undergraduate study, is $138,500 for graduate or professional students.
Most law schools also offer some form of financial aid based on demonstrated financial need.
Then there are law school scholarships. You can apply for scholarships and grants through your school or external organizations.
If you’re going into public interest law, you can research the many programs that offer tuition assistance or student loan forgiveness for working in eligible legal areas.
Finally, you can check whether your school offers graduate student assistantships, which would cover some of your tuition in exchange for helping with research or teaching.
2. Consider a Part-Time Job or Temp Work
It can be challenging to make a side job jibe with your academic responsibilities, but if you can manage it, making some money while you’re still in school is the best way to reduce the debt you take on.
It might be a good idea to see if you can get a job that also boosts your résumé, such as working for a professor or as a paralegal.
Even if you can’t commit to a consistent job, you might consider temping during breaks or slow periods. A staffing agency can quickly set you up with work for a matter of weeks. Short-term work can include customer service, data entry, or serving as an executive assistant.
If you have additional skills, such as a background in accounting or IT, you can qualify for more specialized roles that demand higher pay. Some temp agencies even specialize in staffing for legal organizations.
3. Attend Law School Part Time
It’ll take longer to complete your degree, but working full time while you go to law school part-time is another way to support yourself as you go.
Part-time programs usually allow you to earn your J.D. in four years rather than three. The downside is that you might miss out on opportunities such as clinics, summer clerkships, and student organizations.
4. Look Into Military Aid
The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has many educational benefit programs. One of the most popular is the Post-9/11 GI Bill program (Chapter 33), which provides eligible veterans and members of the Reserves with funding for tuition, fees, books, and housing.
Harvard Law is one of the schools that participates in the Yellow Ribbon Program, part of the law that created the Post-911 GI Bill. The VA matches school aid contributions made to eligible veterans. At Harvard, the combination of grants is expected to cover the full cost of tuition and fees each year.
5. Think About Private Student Loans or Refinancing
After merit aid and federal student loans, you could consider a private student loan to fill any gaps.
If you have loans from your undergraduate education or your first year or two of law school, refinancing your student loans with a private lender may allow you to take advantage of a lower interest rate, and, depending on the loan term you choose, could lower your monthly payment or put you on track to repay your loans faster.
Keep in mind that refinancing federal student loans means you give up federal deferment, forbearance, income-based repayment plans, and loan forgiveness programs. However, some private refinance lenders provide flexible options while you’re in school or experiencing economic hardship.
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Paying for Bar Exam Expenses
Sitting for the bar exam, a two-day affair, entails prep, the exam itself, and possibly travel expenses.
Bar review courses, from BarMax to Quimbee, Crushendo, Kaplan, and Barbri, can cost thousands. Registration for the bar exam varies from state to state. For first-time takers, the cost can be several hundred dollars.
If you’re working for a law firm, your employer will usually cover the cost of the prep course. And many firms will pay review course fees for prospective employees.
Still, if you find yourself short, you could take out a “bar loan” in your final semester of law school or up to a year after graduating. A bar loan is a private loan.
A personal loan can be taken out any time, if you qualify, and could have a lower interest rate than a credit card.
How to pay for law school? It can be as difficult a challenge as earning a law degree. Funding school, and managing debt afterward, requires savvy, research, and probably several approaches.
Could a private student loan help fill in gaps? SoFi Private Student Loans come with competitive rates, four repayment options, and no fees.
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