Going into law has become an increasingly popular career path. The number of students enrolling in American law schools has grown fairly steadily for the last half century. While enrollment dropped after the 2008 recession, it has been back on the rise since 2015. Last fall, 37,400 students enrolled in law schools around the country.
The journey to becoming a lawyer is long, and law school is really just one component. In order to practice law, you first need to earn a bachelor’s degree and pass the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).
Next, you need to apply to law school and graduate with a Juris Doctor (JD) degree. Then you must study for and pass your state bar examination. Most students also complete clerkships, internships, or other positions in order to gain practical experience.
Your time invested can pay off once you’re on the job. Lawyers earned a median salary of $118,160 in 2016. Lawyers in Washington, D.C., California, and New York tend to earn the most. While becoming a lawyer can be a lucrative and rewarding career choice, before you start making the big bucks, you have to pay your way through law school. And it isn’t cheap.
The Rising Cost of Law School
The cost of law school has been rising for decades. In the 2016 to 2017 school year, average tuition and fees at a private law school totaled $43,020. At public law schools, that number was $39,612 for out-of-state students and $26,264 for in-state residents.
Law school costs have been rising faster than inflation. Private law school in 2017 cost nearly three times as much as it did in 1985, even after adjusting for inflation. (Curious about the most expensive school? Not surprisingly, it’s in New York City; Columbia Law School cost students $65,260 for the 2016 to 2017 academic year .)
Why have costs ballooned so much? Part of the reason is that law schools have added to the types of services they provide, now offering clinical education and career support. Law schools have also increased spending on non-educational costs, such as administration and other areas.
Financing Law School With Student Loans
A law degree may be a worthwhile investment in the long run, but high costs
make financing law school difficult in the short term. To keep up with rising tuition, law students have been taking on a larger debt burden. Our data shows the average SoFi member who is a law graduate finishes school with $140,900 in student loans.
At many institutions, that investment is worthwhile, since it pays off in terms of a higher salary. Schools like the University of Texas at Austin and Yale University, for example, have high ratios of average salary to average student loan debt. Other schools, such as Florida Coastal School of Law and Charlotte School of Law, have the lowest salary-to-debt ratios, making it harder for graduates to pay off loans.
Ways to Pay for Law School
Taking out loans to pay for law school may be unavoidable for most people, but they’re only one piece of the puzzle. Other options exist for easing your debt burden. Here are some tips for financing your law degree, the smart way:
1. Get a Part-Time Job
It can be challenging to make a side job jive 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, and the interest that piles up with it.
See if you can get a job that also boosts your résumé, such as working for a professor or as a paralegal. Remember that you don’t want to work so many hours that it takes away from your academic performance. (The ABA actually used to prevent law students from working more than 20 hours a week if they were in class for at least 12 hours a week.)
2. Pick up Temp Work
Even if you can’t commit to a consistent job, 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. Apply For Aid
Fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid to find out whether you qualify for federal and state loans, and how much you can borrow. Additional loans from private lenders can help fill in the gaps. Don’t forget to look for “free money,” as well.
Apply for scholarships and grants that you qualify for, whether through your school or external organizations. Check whether your school offers graduate student assistantships, which cover some of your tuition in exchange for helping with research or teaching. If you’re going into public interest law, research the many programs that offer tuition assistance or student loan forgiveness for working in eligible legal areas.
5. Think About Refinancing Your Law School Debt
If you have loans from your undergraduate education or your first year or two of law school, consider refinancing. Refinancing your student loans with a private lender often allows you to take advantage of lower interest rates, and depending on the loan terms you choose can sometimes help you lower your monthly payment or help you on the track to repay your loans faster.
Keep in mind that refinancing federal loans means you give up some federal loan protections, such as deferment and forbearance, as well as income-based repayment plans and loan forgiveness programs. However, some lenders who offer refinancing provide flexible options while you’re in school or experiencing economic hardship.
Law school loans can get complicated—SoFi is here to help. From helping you finance your education to helping you get out of your college debt, we’ve got you covered.
Notice: SoFi refinance loans are private loans and do not have the same repayment options that the federal loan program offers such as Income Based Repayment or Income Contingent Repayment or PAYE. SoFi always recommends that you consult a qualified financial advisor to discuss what is best for your unique situation.
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