How to Pay for Law School: A Complete Guide
Getting a law degree can provide you with a wide variety of job and career opportunities. And many follow the law degree path in hopes of substantially increasing their earning potential. But you, along with many prospective lawyers, may be worried about paying for law school. Choosing to go to law school is a big commitment and you want to review your options and make informed decisions before you dive in. We’ve put together useful information to help you in your law school journey.
- Average Law School Debt
- How to Earn Your JD
- Choosing a Law School
- Law School Loans
- Law School Internship and Fellowship Programs
- Paying Your Law School Loan Debt
- Loan Consolidation and Refinance Options
- Law School Loan Repayment Calculators
Average Law School Debt
According to AccessLex Institute® (AccessLex), the 2017 law school graduating class had an average law school debt (among those who borrowed) of $108,000, including undergraduate debt. This amount even slightly decreased from the 2016 law school graduating class. Although this is a high amount of debt, AccessLex also found that “Lawyers have the highest 10-year job projection amount positions requiring a graduate or professional degree.”
Taking on debt to obtain a higher education is sometimes necessary, but may not be an option for everyone. It’s always important to keep your career goals in mind when you start exploring ways to get your Juris Doctor (JD) to become a lawyer. If you are looking to obtain a corporate or other high paying legal position, then you may be able to handle repaying your student loan debt. However, if you’re planning on taking a career in public service (working as a public defender or a non-profit institution) you may want to make sure you only take on the amount of debt you can manage to repay.
How to Earn Your JD
If your goal is to earn a JD degree, there are a variety of ways you can go about it.
- Traditional JD Degree Program
A traditional JD degree program will usually require you to have already earned a bachelor’s degree and will take at least three years for you to complete. To be admitted, most law schools will require you to complete a graduate admissions test like the LSAT.
- Accelerated JD Program
This type of program will allow you to complete law school in two years, instead of three. With this type of program, you are completing the same program as a traditional three-year JD student, just at a faster pace. Law school is already known to be challenging and accelerating your pace may require you to make some sacrifices to focus on successfully earning your degree. If you are able to make those sacrifices to complete your program at a faster pace, there could be financial benefits just by reducing the amount of time you are in school (and potentially the number of years you need to borrow money) and allowing you to enter the workforce earlier.
- Accelerated Bachelors of Arts or Science and J.D. Programs (also known as 3+3 BA/BS-JD Programs)
This type of program will allow you to graduate with both a Bachelors of Arts (or Science) and a JD in six years. This option is geared towards an undergraduate student who has already decided to become a lawyer. The main advantage of this program is the reduced total number of years you are in school which will allow you to enter the workforce faster. Any reduced time in school can help you reduce the total amount of money you need to borrow. One thing to keep in mind, if you’re reliant on financial aid, the way you receive your financial aid may be different from others who are not enrolled in a dual undergraduate/graduate degree program. But we’ll go over that a little bit later.
- Dual Master Degree Programs (ex. MBA/JD)
Another option to consider, if you have already completed your undergraduate degree, is to earn dual graduate degrees. Colleges which offer this type of program will allow you to earn both degrees concurrently. A dual degree program may not accelerate how quickly you earn your JD, but earning more than one graduate degree may be beneficial for you.
Choosing a Law School
Not all law schools will offer the same JD degree program options, and not all law schools come with the same price, so it’s worth it to do some research when you pick a school. Another consideration when choosing a law school is law school accreditation. An important question: is your prospective law school accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA)? Most states require you to attend an ABA accredited school in order to sit for the bar exam. A handful of states (such as Alabama, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, West Virginia, and Tennessee) will allow to take the state bar exam even if you didn’t attend an ABA accredited school. However, you need to research your state’s bar exam requirements before you enroll in a school. You don’t want to jeopardize your career before you even get started.
Top 10 Law Schools
(according to U.S. News and Report 2021)
|#1 Yale University||$66,128|
|#2 Stanford University||$64,554|
|#3 Harvard University||$67,081|
|#4 Columbia University||$72,465|
|#4 University of Chicago||$66,651|
|#6 New York University||$68,934|
|#7 University of Pennsylvania (Carey)||$67,998|
|#8 University of Virginia||$63,200 (in-state); $66,200 (out-of-state)|
|#9 Northwestern University (Pritzker)||$66,806|
|#9 University of California--Berkeley||$52,017 (in-state); $55,346 (out-of-state)|
|#9 University of Michigan – Ann Arbor||$61,944 (in-state); $64,944 (out-of-state)
Financing Law School
Finding the money you need to pay for law school can be challenging, but there are resources available to help you.
Note for Undergraduate and Law School Dual Degree Students: Your financial aid office will determine your annual financial aid package based on your classification as either an undergraduate or graduate student. As an undergraduate student, you will be eligible for financial aid offered to undergraduate students. If you have questions about the methodology used for your financial aid package, be sure to set up some time with you financial aid advisor. You will want to ask about how the process works for your entire program.
Law School Loans
Federal Direct Unsubsidized Stafford Loan (Direct Unsubsidized Loan)
Borrow up to $20,500 annually for a graduate or professional program, including law school. The aggregate borrowing limit is $138,500. Interest rates are fixed, and both the interest rate and loan fees are set by Congress every year. For 2020-2021 the interest rate for loans first disbursed on or after July 1, 2020 through June 30, 2021 is 4.30%. The loan fees for loans first disbursed on or after Oct. 1, 2020 through Sept. 30, 2021 is 1.057%.
Borrow up to the cost of attendance minus other aid. Interest rates are fixed, and both the interest rate and loan fees are set by Congress every year. A credit check is performed to ensure you do not have adverse credit history, as defined by the U.S. Department of Education. In some circumstances, a cosigner may be required. For 2020-2021 the interest rate for loans first disbursed on or after July 1, 2020 through June 30, 2021 is 5.30%. The loan fees for loans first disbursed on or after Oct. 1, 2020 through Sept. 30, 2021 is 4.228%.
Private Student Loans
Borrow up to the cost of attendance less other aid while enrolled in-school. Some private loan terms may be more favorable than those found in federal programs. For example, many lenders offer zero origination fees and more competitive (i.e., lower) interest rates. There is an exhaustive credit review which includes a debt-to-income analysis to determine eligibility. Cosigners may be used.
FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION:When it comes to borrowing private vs. federal loans, you will want to keep repayment and loan forgiveness programs in mind. If you plan to pursue Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) through the federal government after law school, take note that private student loans are not factored into the equation. In other words, only federal Direct Loans may be included and are eligible for that forgiveness option.
Availability and options will vary between schools. Check with your school to see if a campus-based loan program is available.
State Based Loan Programs
Depending on the state in which you are located and attending school, there may be specific, state-based loans available that offer savings over traditional private loan programs. Examples would include non-profit, state based lenders who offer financing to students who are either permanent residents of, or attending school in, a particular state. Check with your financial aid office for more details.
Income Share Agreements (ISAs)
An ISA is a contract between the student and either a private investor or the school (if it offers an ISA program). It can be used in place of a traditional loan to fund your education in exchange for a percentage of your post-graduate earnings for a fixed amount of time.
Employer Funded Law School
Talk to your employer (or sometimes even prospective employer) to see if this is a benefit they could offer. Some employers offer a tuition assistance program which they offer to all employees. However, some employers may offer to pay for your law school, but chances are this type of arrangement comes with strings attached. Just be sure to understand the strings and your commitment.
Bar Study Loans (aka Bar Loans)
If you’re studying for the bar exam, there are private loans available to help cover the costs of bar study courses, bar fees, as well as living expenses. Grants and Scholarships for Law School
Here are some places to turn to find some additional grants and scholarships to help you pay for law school. Listed in no particular order. If you would like to find additional opportunities, it is always best to have a conversation with your financial aid office.
- American Bar Association Legal Opportunity Scholarship: Annually the ABA awards 10-20 law students with a $15,000 grant they can use over their three years in law school.
- American Intellectual Property Law Education Foundation: Awards a $10,000 scholarship to a law student for up to three years.
- Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund: Awards $5,000 to a law student who seek to further their mission by advancing the civil rights of the Latino community. Up to 15 students can be selected per year.
- Minority Corporate Counsel Association: Lloyd M. Johnson Scholarship Program: Awards $10,000 scholarships to women and diverse students for their first year of law school. Multiple students may be selected.
- NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.: Two opportunities are offered by the NAACP. The Herbert Lehman Education Fund Scholarship which provides an annual $2,000 scholarship (up to four years). The Earl Warren Scholarship awards $10,000 per year for three years.
Federal Student Aid Grants for Law School
Unfortunately this is the biggest difference between graduate federal student aid and undergraduate federal student aid. There are no federal student aid grants available for graduate students.
Law School Internship and Fellowship Programs
Internship and fellowship programs are great ways to get real life experience. These types of positions may come paid or unpaid. Our team worked to find great opportunities which are made available to law students. Listed in no particular order.
- American Bar Association Fellowship and Internship/Externship Opportunities
- Skadden Foundation Fellowship
- Sponsor for Educational Opportunity Fellowship and Internship Program
- National Asian Pacific American Bar Association Internship Program
Paying Your Law School Debt
LRAP (Loan Repayment Assistance Programs)
The ABA has developed resources to help students identify different LRAPs available to law students who are managing their student loan debt. Resources include information on how to repay student loans, as well as information regarding statewide LRAPs. Also, keep in mind that several law schools have LRAP programs, but they may not all be the same. Make sure you do your research as this is another important consideration when choosing a law school.
Loan Consolidation and Refinance Options
We have partnered with the industry’s leading lenders to offer you competitive rates and programs that help you simplify your repayment and potentially save money by lowering your interest rate. Review our refinance lenders to start your search. If you would like to learn more about the difference between the federal consolidation program and private student loan refinancing, which is the only way to combine both your federal and private loans together, or release a parent cosigner, we recommend reading, Should I consolidate my student loans?
Law School Loan Repayment Calculator
- Student Loan Refinancing Calculator –This straightforward calculator is a quick and easy way to estimate payments and total interest to be repaid using a refinanced loan. You can add your individual loans and their associated interest rates for more accurate results.
- AccessLex Student Loan Calculator – This calculator has been made available to aspiring law students, current law students, and law school graduates. It allow you to help you understand what you need to borrow for law school, and upon graduation, a complete picture of your student loan commitment.
- Federal Student Aid Repayment Estimator – The official, federal website you can use to estimate payments under each repayment plan for which you may be eligible, including income-driven repayment plans and PSLF.
Student Loan Forgiveness for Lawyers
It may be possible to have a portion of your federal student loans forgiven. And this may include both your undergraduate debt (if you have any), as well as law school debt. That said, there are a number of considerations to learn about, in addition to different programs you may choose to pursue.
Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF)– You may be in for some “aha” moments when it comes to the PSLF Program. Essentially, this forgiveness option is available to Federal Direct student loan borrowers which forgives the remaining balance on your direct loans after making 120-qualifying monthly payments. However, there are several steps you need to take to make sure you qualify.
- Ensure you have an eligible federal student loan. The types of loans that qualify for PSLF are Direct Loans only. Not Perkins Loans. Not loans under the former Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) Program. Not private loans. (Private loans are never eligible for forgiveness under the federal program.)
If you have federal loans that are not Direct Loans (like Perkins or FFEL loans), you CAN consolidate them and then qualify for PSLF under the newly consolidated loan (Direct Consolidation).
- To qualify as a lawyer, you need to be employed full-time by a qualifying employer. Qualifying employers include, a government organization (including the military), a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization, or another eligible not-for-profit (determined by the U.S. Department of Education) that provides certain qualifying public services.
- Make 120 qualifying monthly payments. Qualifying payments are payments made:
- After Oct. 1, 2007
- Under an eligible repayment plan
- For the full amount due as shown on your bill
- No later than 15 days after your due date
- While employed full-time by a qualifying employer (note, you must still be employed full-time at the time you apply for forgiveness)
This could mean the clock starts from the time you begin your residency (following your grace period) and enter your loan repayment term.
- Repay your loans under an eligible repayment plan, which includes:
- 10-year standard repayment
- Income-driven repayment plans
Important note: The 10-year standard repayment plan can be a bit misleading when it comes to PSLF. If you were to successfully repay your loans within 10-years (120 monthly payments), you would have nothing left to forgive. We know, it is confusing and we’re just the messenger here. The way PSLF works is forgiveness applies to a remaining balance after 120 qualifying monthly payments have been made. Therefore, if PSLF is your repayment strategy, it is recommended that you repay under an income-driven repayment plan instead.
Note for Parent PLUS loan borrowers: Due to the restrictions of the eligible repayment plans, Federal Direct Parent PLUS loans are only eligible for PSLF if they are consolidated and repaid under an income-contingent repayment plan. This is only an issue for Parent PLUS loans, not for Grad PLUS loans.
- Complete an annual Employment Certification Form (ECF). Okay, so this isn’t required but it is highly recommended. The ECF is submitted to the U.S. Department of Education and they will verify that you are on the right track to forgiveness and let you know how many qualifying payments you have made. Therefore, you can take the guess work out and fix any issues if needed. The U.S. Department of Education’s PSLF Help Tool will help you generate an ECF to print and have your employer certify.
- When it’s time, submit your application for forgiveness to the U.S. Department of Education. The PSLF Help Tool will help you partially complete your forgiveness application.
Let’s talk about the impact of student loan consolidation for just a minute because it’s important. Federal loan consolidation can be used to make an ineligible federal student loan eligible for PSLF (see PSLF Step 1), however, consolidation can restart the clock. Meaning the countdown for the 120 qualifying monthly payments—10 years’ worth of effort—would start over once your new consolidation loan enters repayment. And if you had been in repayment for any period of time prior to consolidating, none of those payments would count toward your PSLF eligibility. Therefore, it would be best to consolidate sooner than later.
PSLF is a loan-based forgiveness program. Meaning, you could have loans become eligible at different times. Keep that in mind, it can help you strategize your repayment.
Creative Ways to Pay Off Student Loans
Employer Student Loan Repayment Assistance
While this is certainly not universal, some employers are offering benefits that include a student loan repayment assistance component. Based on (fairly recent) IRS guidance, employers may have an easier time of offering a voluntary student loan benefit by tying 401(k) contributions to student loan repayment. Do note that there could be tax implications. In essence, student loan repayment benefits will not necessary share the same tax benefits as 401(k) contributions. This is something you may want to discuss with your HR office. At a minimum, explore whether or not such a benefit exists or could be coming down the pike.
What to do next?
Paying for Graduate School
Private Student Loans vs Direct Loans