How to Afford Law School: 9 Bold Strategies
Young lawyers face unprecedented levels of debt. In some cases, this debt prevents graduates from pursuing the jobs they desire and even delays major life milestones like homeownership or starting a family. Young lawyers regularly report deep anxiety related to their debt.
The student debt crisis is complex. I took a stab at solving the problem here, but this piece is about how YOU as an individual can reduce your expenses before, during and after law school and vanquish the Debt Beast.
Here Be Dragons:
First things first, there are some law schools that are almost never worth the debt required to attend. In researching your own legal education, consider your career goals and what region of the country you’d like to practice in. Use the ABA Employment Summary reports to determine what happens to graduates of a given school, and assume you would achieve the average outcome of grads at that school.
Many people think they are a special snowflake who will beat the odds (see, e.g., this informal Reddit poll where a plurality of respondents said they planned to be in the top 25% of their class). But only 25% can be in the top 25%, only 10% in the top 10% and so on. Don’t go somewhere where you’ll have to beat the odds; go to a school where you’ll be happy with the average outcome.
Many aspiring lawyers hope to work in “Biglaw,” where salaries tend to start around $190,000 plus bonus. Many students are also attracted to competitive federal clerkships. These two metrics, while imperfect, are often combined to yield a percentage of graduates at a given school who are landing the most desired jobs.
Let’s look at an obvious blue-chipper, Harvard. In 2019 Harvard produced 599 graduates. A whopping 339 took positions with firms of 100 or more attorneys, and another 106 took federal clerkships. This means 445 of Harvard’s 599 graduates, or 74%, took traditionally coveted positions. The remaining 26% probably aren’t dealing drugs out of an RV; they likely took desirable positions elsewhere in business, government, boutique firms or public interest work, but we can’t say for sure based solely on the ABA report.
Harvard has a soul-crushing cost of attendance of over $100,000 for each 9-month increment of your time in Cambridge. Once interest starts accruing on the loan, the cost soars well beyond $300,000 to earn a Harvard degree. That’s a lot of money to be sitting on anyone’s shoulders, but with a strong chance of earning almost 200k at graduation and a shiny pedigree that will always attract interest from employers, a JD from Harvard might make financial sense for some.
All law degrees are not created equal. I won’t name and shame, but I’ll take a random law school from the #148–194 tier of the rankings (the bottom quartile or so of schools). In its class of 2019, zero grads secured federal clerkships. Five landed jobs in firms of 100+ attorneys, but none in firms larger than 250+. Thirteen were unemployed and seeking work out of a class of 129 (that’s 10% unemployment!). Further, dozens of their grads did not pass the bar.
Therefore, you are orders of magnitude more likely to be unemployed or fail the bar than to secure the most coveted employment outcomes. If you are on a large scholarship and don’t have Biglaw ambitions, this arrangement might make sense. But if your plan is to pay off your debt with your six-figure salary out of #148–194 Law, prepare to be sorely disappointed.
Now that I’ve saved you from the most ruinous outcomes, I will assume you have settled on a school that makes sense for your career goals and location. The price tag of your dream school might seem insurmountable. But if you are able to apply several of the following tips, that scary number might start shrinking faster than you think.
1. LSAT+GPA. Rinse and Repeat.
There is no better way to save money during law school than to earn a hefty scholarship in the first place. One of the single best value returns on your time that you will ever find in your LIFE is to invest in earning a few more points on the LSAT. Admission and scholarship are largely a function of how you compare to a school’s target medians for the LSAT and undergraduate GPA. These numbers for the previous year can be found on a school’s ABA 509 report.
For example, suppose you have your sights set on going to law school in Nashville. Your undergraduate GPA is an impressive 3.82 and your LSAT a 160, a respectable score in the 80th percentile. This puts you above both 75ths for Belmont Law; congratulations, you are a very strong applicant and likely to earn a scholarship. However, you notice Belmont didn’t place any federal clerks in their class of 2019 and only a handful of lawyers in large firms. You wonder if there is anywhere nearby with stronger prospects.
Surprise! You learn that within walking distance of Belmont is Vanderbilt Law, a top twenty school that places almost 2/3 of the class into strong jobs. Your 3.82 GPA is right at the median for Vandy, so it’s the LSAT that will need your attention. Just two more points will earn you a 162, Vandy’s 25th, which may allow you to sneak in off the waitlist. If you really buckle down and move your score into the high 160s, your chances of admission improve dramatically. Just a few points on the LSAT can be the difference between a roughly 5% chance of elite job prospects versus a 65% chance.
Not everyone needs to go to a top twenty school to achieve their goals, but this principle is true further down the rankings as well: score higher, earn more scholarship. Schools are ranked in part by the LSAT scores of the class they bring in, so you add value to a law school by matriculating with a stellar LSAT. The school is therefore prepared to attract you with more scholarship dollars. Understand the economics of law school and profit!
2. Farm the Free Stuff
Pre-COVID, most law schools had a litany of events on campus, whether that’s a visit from a judge, a roundtable with employers or the local rep from LexisNexis. These events will almost always come with free food. These are golden opportunities to land a free lunch while also learning more about the profession you are about to enter; don’t waste them! Speaking of Lexis, be sure to opt in to the daily points. You can earn 10 points per day for running searches, plus hundreds more for attending trainings or completing virtual quizzes. These points can have a serious return for doing the research you would have done anyway: 350 points earns you $5.00 in gift card credit at places like Amazon.
Pro Tip: save up your Lexis points and buy Amazon gift cards. Then, use those Amazon gift cards to buy groceries from Whole Foods online.
Seriously. If you do it right, you will rarely have to pay for food throughout your time as a law student.
3. Rent Those Textbooks
And I mean from the library if at all possible. During the pandemic, many schools have made some resources available online. This might even include some course books depending on your curriculum. Check the library first, then see if there are any upperclassmen willing to part with a used textbook cheaply. Failing that, rent your textbook from Amazon (perhaps with those Lexis points you’ve been farming) or Chegg. You won’t be using these textbooks again other than as heavy bookshelf ornaments. Don’t buy them, but if you must, don’t buy them new. And remember to offload them to the next generation of lawyers when you’re done to recoup some of your investment.
4. Work for the School
I received a generous scholarship to law school, but hardly enough to cover my expenses without significant debt. The first thing I did was politely reiterate my strong interest in the school, and ask if there was any way they could find more money to make the transition to law school more manageable.
“No,” the admissions rep said, “but I will keep you in mind if any research assistant positions open up.” A friendly but meaningless gesture, or so I thought. Sure enough, shortly after I arrived on campus, the email came that the school needed a JD student to take notes on behalf of LLM students (typically foreign students on a one-year program who might not speak English as well as a native). The admissions rep had sent along my name for the position — it was mine if I wanted it! I would attend my classes and take notes as usual, but spend some time distilling the notes into a summary for the LLMs after class (sounds a lot like outlining doesn’t it!). In other words, I would be paid to do what I should have been doing all along. Amazing!
Later in my law school career, I responded to a call for research assistants at the library, a job where I would put together a newsletter about faculty publications or comb through some archive to help a professor find information for her research. Research assistant positions are common in law school, whether with individual professors or more general-purpose roles such as my job with the library. Want one of these jobs to earn money and boost your resume? REACH OUT to a professor you enjoy learning from and see if they need any help.
5. Summer Work
I was uniquely blessed with paid summer work both summers of my law school career, but I didn’t stumble into these positions on accident. Summer associate positions with law firms are highly desired, especially during the 2L summer, because they can lead to long-term employment with the firm after graduation. They are also lucrative: summer associates are often paid at the same rate as a first-year associate. Naturally, these positions are highly competitive and tend to be awarded based on school rank, grades and, in some cases, regional ties or connections. If you can land a summer associate position during one or both of your summers, this can go a long way toward reducing your debt. Much has been said about how to obtain these positions, and I’ll sum it up in a word: HUSTLE.
Pro Tip: If you can’t land paid work during your 1L summer, see if you can intern with a judge. Although unpaid, this is valuable experience and a connection that you’ll appreciate later in your career.
6. Bonus Scholarships
There may be opportunities to earn additional monies even after you begin your law school career. For example, there was a small scholarship at my school for students who qualified for the traveling moot court team. Research similar opportunities at your own school of choice and, as always, REACH OUT and HUSTLE as applicable.
7. Side Hustle
Other than a low-key position like my note-taking job, it is highly inadvisable to work during the all-important 1L year because your grades have by far the highest return on investment during 1L year. This is because that’s what you’ll be judged on at On Campus Interviews (OCI). But after 1L, some students find opportunities as diverse as working as a rep for a bar prep service like Themis or Barbri, picking up weekend shifts at a local bakery or teaching a class at a nearby university. I was fortunate to have the relevant degrees and experience to take advantage of the latter opportunity to the tune of a few thousand dollars per semester. I taught because I enjoyed it (the last thing you need in law school is more stress), but every dollar is a warrior under your command in your battle against the Debt Beast.
Pro Tip: If you need inspiration, check out retired lawyer Kevin Ha’s website on building a side hustle or passive income stream.
8. Work and Save
Many lawyers will extoll the virtues of working in between college and law school for professional reasons, and they’re certainly right. But another benefit is that you can save up some cash to pay for school. Remember, every dollar you borrow for school is really $1.04-$1.07 depending on your interest rate (and that’s based on just a single year of borrowing!). Therefore, spending cash you already have is better than borrowing from your future self. In addition to valuable work experience and self reflection, taking some time to earn before law school can put a dent in the Debt Beast.
9. Reduce Expenses
It’s obvious that reducing your expenses will reduce your future debt load, but so many law students look at their debt as a number so incalculably big that adding more to it is without consequence. NOT SO!
Consider a student who chooses to live with roommates in a modest apartment for, say, $1,000/mo. Compare her to a student who chooses the fanciest, swankiest, bougiest apartment near campus for $2,500/mo. Over the course of a year, that is a $18,000 difference. Over the course of law school, that’s a $54,000 difference! With that money, you could pay for a year of tuition.
The same principle applies to the location of your school. Suppose you had equivalent scholarships at a handful of excellent schools and you need a tiebreaker. Pull up a cost-of-living comparison tool and run a showdown between, say, St. Louis (Wash U) and Los Angeles (UCLA), or Boston (BU) and Nashville (Vanderbilt), or DC (Georgetown) and Austin (UT). Choosing an affordable city can make a huge difference in the final calculus.
This rigorous eradication of unnecessary expenses should continue into your job search. Suppose you know you want to work at a big firm, but have no preference between, say, New York and Dallas. One city has a state tax, a city tax, and cost of living that will make you weep. The other has none of those things, most of the same opportunities, and you’ll pocket as much as 30 grand ANNUALLY by choosing the Lone Star State.
Another decision I made in law school was not to bring a car. I lived walking distance from campus, the university paid for unlimited bus fare, plus we live in a world of Uber and Lyft. Did I need to be shelling out for gas, maintenance, car insurance and a parking permit in this environment, or was that money that could be going towards other things? Some campuses won’t be workable without your own vehicle (and the pandemic has made public transit less palatable), so evaluate your own needs and make the best decision for you.
Anyone can reduce their final debt load if they hustle, either in some of the ways I’ve described, or in new and creative ways that have yet to be charted. Don’t resign yourself to being indebted forever, or worse, don’t give up on your dream of being a lawyer because the debt seems insurmountable. As you know, debt can snowball when your expenses and interest rates are left unchecked. But if you apply a frugal mindset and look for opportunities where other people aren’t, you will likely find that the snowball starts rolling in the other direction, and you are able to earn and save more than you expect. Best of luck on this incredible journey!