How to Pay for Law School
The average cost for a law degree can be over $200,000. And while earning a law degree may lead to a lucrative career, figuring out how to pay for law school can be challenging.
Fortunately, certain programs can pay for part or all of law school, such as scholarships, grants and loans. Here’s a rundown on how to fund your legal education.
How much is law school exactly? Depending on your school’s cost of attendance, you could end up owing $45,000 or more per year for law school tuition. Living expenses can add another $20,000 to your annual budget. It’s essential to construct a plan to handle this financial burden.
Here are six ways to help combat law school debt:
- Law school grants
- Scholarships for law school
- Law school student loans
- Work-study and side hustles for law students
- Law school loan forgiveness
- Loan repayment assistance programs
Paying for grad school versus undergrad differs because you’re now considered an independent student. If you didn’t receive a large financial aid package as an undergrad because your parents were considered high income earners, you might be eligible for need-based assistance for law school (however, some schools may still require you to provide your parents’ financial info).
Law school grants don’t need to be repaid (except for rare cases, such as dropping out mid-semester). Some law schools offer institutional grants based on financial need, so check with your financial aid office to learn more.
That said, not all grants can be used for law school. For example, Pell Grants are typically reserved for undergraduate students.
Just like grants, scholarships for law school can provide free money you don’t need to pay back. Start your search with your school since many institutions offer merit-based scholarships for law students.
Improving your credentials before applying for scholarships and grants may help you stand out. Aim to earn a high score on your LSAT and GRE tests, boost your current GPA score and create a stellar resume. Your goal is to try to impress the scholarship committee.
You can also utilize scholarship search tools to secure funding from other organizations. Here are some law school scholarships to consider:
- American Bar Association Legal Opportunity Scholarship: Awards $15,000 to 10 to 20 incoming diverse first-year law students every year.
- Attorney Ken Nugent Legal Scholarship: Awards $5,000 to an annual winner. To be eligible, applicants must have a 3.0 GPA and write a 500-word essay.
- BARBRI Law Preview One Lawyer Can Change the World Scholarship: Awards $10,000 to one first-place winner, $5,000 to one second-place winner and $1,000 to eight runners-up each year. Applicants must be incoming first-year law students.
- Legal Defense and Educational Fund Earl Warren Scholarship: Awards $15,000 annually to law students who demonstrate a commitment to racial justice. Renewable for up to three years for a total of $45,000.
- Minority Corporate Counsel Association LMJ Scholarship: Awards $10,000 to women and diverse first-year law students who have an interest in corporate law, as well as diversity, inclusion and equity.
There are two main types of law school loans: federal and private.
You can access federal student loans by filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for grad school (which will also show you federal grants and work-study options). Federal loans are generally better than private loans since they’re eligible for government repayment perks like income-driven repayment plans and Public Service Loan Forgiveness (more on this later).
Here are your options for federal student loans for law students:
- Direct unsubsidized loans: You can borrow up to $20,500 per year. The total amount you can borrow throughout your education is capped at $138,500 and includes undergraduate loans. The fixed interest rate for direct unsubsidized loans for the 2022-2023 school year is 6.54%. There’s also a one-time fee of 1.057% of the loan amount for funds borrowed after Oct. 1, 2020.
- Grad PLUS loans: PLUS loans tend to be more expensive than direct unsubsidized loans, so turn to them after you’ve hit your limit for the latter. For the 2022-2023 school year, the interest rate for direct PLUS loans is 7.54%, with a one-time fee of 4.228% for loans disbursed after Oct. 1, 2021. There’s no cap to a PLUS loan — you can borrow up to your school’s cost of attendance, minus other financial aid you’ve received.
Private student loans are worth exploring if you need additional funds and you have good credit. You may qualify for a lower interest rate than what federal loan programs offer.
But remember, private loans aren’t eligible for income-driven repayment, Public Service Loan Forgiveness or other government loan programs. For that reason, avoid private loans if you’re concerned about affording repayment on your school debt.
Work-study programs are a form of need-based financial aid. However, not all law schools participate in the program. And since being a full-time law student is demanding, some schools limit or don’t allow work-study for first-year law students.
You must submit the FAFSA to be considered for a work-study job. If accepted, your school will help you find a part-time job on or near campus. You can use the earned money to pay for law school costs or living expenses.
If you don’t qualify for work-study but still want to work during law school, you can find a part-time college job, become a research assistant or consider a flexible side hustle like dog sitting or driving for a rideshare service.
If you’re pursuing a career in government or public interest law, or if you end up in a relatively low-paying job, law school loan forgiveness may be an option.
Here are two common ways law school graduates can get student loan forgiveness:
- Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF): This government program can wipe away your remaining federal loan balance after you make 120 on-time monthly payments while working for the government or a qualifying nonprofit employer. However, the requirements for this program tend to be complicated, so make sure to research the rules in advance.
- Income-driven repayment plans: Four plans are available and can cap your monthly federal loan payments at 10% to 20% of your disposable income. All plans also forgive your remaining loan balance after you make payments for 20 or 25 years, depending on the plan, though you may need to pay income tax on the forgiven amount.
Many loan repayment assistant programs, or LRAPs, can pay off a chunk of your law school debt.
Currently, 24 states have at least one LRAP, and many law schools offer them as well. The federal government also provides LRAPs, such as the Department of Justice Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program.
Each LRAP has its own requirements, but you usually have to commit to a specific job for a certain period of time. LRAPs are typically designed for law school graduates working in government, public interest law or other lower-paying legal fields, according to the American Bar Association.
Besides paying for tuition, law school student loans can cover other costs of becoming an attorney or legal professional. Here are a couple of examples.
You can use student loans for living expenses. You can borrow up to the school’s cost of attendance, which includes tuition, fees, books and other law school expenses, as well as the estimated cost of housing, food, transportation and other living expenses.
When you take out graduate student loans, the money is sent to your school to cover tuition and fees. The school will then send you the remaining balance.
When it comes time to take your state bar exam, you may find yourself with little time for anything other than studying.
While living expenses can be funded with regular student loans, as noted above, you may want to look into special bar exam loans offered by a few select lenders.
Consider a lower-cost school
Price is important, though you shouldn’t necessarily pass up a school that has a high sticker price listed on its website — the priciest schools can be affordable if you receive adequate financial assistance. Compare schools based on the net price or your out-of-pocket cost after grants and scholarships. You won’t know your actual net price until you apply for financial aid and get your award letter, but you can estimate the amount using each school’s net price calculator. Also investigate programs that allow you to study part-time while holding down a job.
Consider a two-year program
In some cases, you may be able to complete a Juris Doctor degree program in two years rather than three. This might save you on tuition, though make sure to run the numbers first — some two-year programs are priced similarly to the three-year version.
Take full advantage of scholarships and grants before resorting to loans
Scholarships and grants rarely need to be repaid, whereas loans must be paid back with interest. To minimize your student loans for law school, apply for as many scholarships as possible.
Take realistic living expenses into account
You can use student loans for living expenses, but calculate how much you’ll need to borrow. Schools’ costs of attendance include housing, food, transportation and other living expenses, but you might not need as much as they estimate.
Only borrow what you need
You’re allowed to borrow up to your school’s cost of attendance, but you don’t have to accept the total amount offered. When looking at private loans, try our student loan comparison calculator to ensure you’re getting the best deal. Additionally, if you find you borrowed too much, you can generally return unused student loans.
Refinance to save on interest
If you have a good credit score and debt-to-income (DTI) ratio, you may save money with student loan refinancing. In general, refinancing your private student loans is worth it if you secure a lower rate, but it’s not recommended for federal loans since you’ll lose access to income-driven repayment and PSLF programs.