Paying for Law School
The following information was originally compiled by Ava Preacher,
Assistant Dean and Principal Pre-Law Advisor, University of Notre
Dame. I have edited it and added my own sections about loan
forgiveness and debt burden. For more specific information, be sure
to read the remaining documents in this section of the CD.
The cost of a three-year law school education could run well over
$100,000 (even at a public law school!). Tuition alone can range
from a few thousand dollars to more than $25,000 a year. When
calculating the total cost of attending law school, you also have to
include the cost of housing, food, books, travel, and personal
expenses. During the first year of law school, full-time students
are discouraged from obtaining any but the most limited part-time
employment. Therefore, approximately 75 percent of law school
students rely on educational loans as their primary source of
Money for law school is available in the form of scholarships,
grants, work-study and loans, but most students finance
their education through loans, either from the government
or private sources. Before deciding to take on significant student
loan debt to attend law school, take a good, hard look at
THE UGLY STATISTICS, reprinted at the end of this handout.
Some law schools offer their own scholarship programs, but the
amount available varies greatly from school to school. Some offer
their best candidates full scholarships based on merit. Others give
financial aid primarily on the basis of need.
Loans from governmental and private sources at low and moderate
interest rates are available to qualified students. Some of these
loans consider the applicant’s financial need in determining
eligibility; other have limitations based on the law school budget.
Many states offer guaranteed student loans. To determine your
eligibility for these you should consult lending institutions in
your area. Private loans are also increasingly available. Typically,
the lowest interest rates are associated with federal loans that
require demonstrated need; private bank loans are typically
available at higher rates.
The following is a list of steps you must take to apply
for financial aid.
To Apply for Federal Aid:
- Start the financial aid process in December, well in advance
of the school’s particular filing deadline. You cannot
wait until after you receive admissions offers to begin the
- Obtain the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)
from your college or university financial aid office or from the
law school to which you are applying. FAFSA is a need analysis
tool developed by the U.S. Department of Education. Note: When
completing the FAFSA form, you will designate the names of all
law schools that are to receive the report. It asks for
information about your income, assets, and other financial
resources. Be sure to answer “yes” to the questions, “Will you
be a graduate or professional student for the upcoming year?
ALL GRADUATE/PROFESSIONAL STUDENTS ARE CONSIDERED
INDEPENDENT FOR THE FEDERAL LOAN PROGRAMS. However,
some law schools will request parents’ financial information in
determining their in-house institutional aid.
- Prepare your federal income tax returns as early as possible
after the first of the year. Some schools will want to see a
copy of your actual return, so be sure to keep a photocopy for
your files. The FAFSA requires information that is derived
directly from your tax return. While information packets
(including the FAFSA) may be available from some law school
financial aid offices in the fall, applications cannot
be filed until after January 1. (They will be returned
to you if received before the first of the year.) However, you
can file any time after the first of the year—the earlier the
- The law schools to which you apply will determine your
eligibility for federal financial aid. The amount offered by
each law school will vary, and each student’s individually
because the cost of attending each law school varies.
- Once you determine the school that you will attend, you may
begin the federal loan application process.
- Most of the private education loan programs will make credit
decisions on the telephone. Contact them for details.
To Apply for Aid From Your Chosen Law School:
- Call or write the financial aid office of the law schools
you plan to attend. Some schools may require you to submit
information in addition to the FAFSA, such as an institutional
application or an additional form from a central processor.
Many schools have very early filing deadlines.
- You should arrange for financial aid transcript to be sent
from any undergraduate or graduate school you attended to any
law school to which you apply. This may or may not be required
by the law school for institutional aid.
- Complete the loan applications. Note: You will benefit by
planning a financial strategy before you even enter law school.
Save as much money as you can, and try to rid yourself of any
outstanding consumer debt. It is important to have a good credit
history. Clear up errors or discrepancies in your credit before
you apply for loans. Establish and maintain good credit early.
Loan Repayment Assistance or Forgiveness
Some law schools participate in loan
assistance and forgiveness programs. Generally, these programs are
set up to help students who want to take low-paying public interest
legal jobs upon graduation. You should check with each law school to
find out the details of and requirements for its program.
Student Loan Debt
You should ask each school what its average
student loan debt is for its students at graduation. Often, this
information is available right on the school’s web site. If it
isn’t, call the financial aid office and ask.
It may be shocking, but the student loan debt
for an average law student upon graduation can easily exceed
$60,000. Six-figure debt loads are not uncommon when one factors in
undergraduate student loan debt and credit card debt.
Why the massive debt? Most students can't
afford law school on their own, so they borrow. Their student loans
cover tuition and books and school-based expenses, but do not leave
enough money to pay for living. Costs of living are paid for by
savings, by earnings, and increasingly by credit cards. Credit cards
are used for everything from social activities to utilities to
interview suits—all of the things that financial aid does not pay
for. This is an oft-repeated scenario among graduate and law school
Unfortunately, the starting salaries upon
graduation generally are not high enough to pay for the debt that
has accumulated. Law school grads may find themselves unable to
afford a house because their debt to income ratio is too high to
qualify for a mortgage. They may also be disappointed in their
standard of living, given the high amount of their monthly student
loan payments. Students who are interested in public interest work
often find that it is simply not an option, because they cannot
afford to make payments on their student loan debt. (In fact, as the
LSAC points out, a total debt of $80,000 translates to a monthly
payment of nearly $1,000. Some families pay more in student loans
each month than they do for their home mortgages.)
Is there a solution to this dilemma? Many
people blame students for being irresponsible. Some are, I'm sure.
But personally I believe that law schools should assume some
responsibility for this mounting student debt. They collect their
tuition money from your student loans, and they make little effort
to reduce the size of their classes or to make law school more
affordable and less loan-based. That means that, for most of us, the
only way we can attend law school and join the legal profession is
to borrow for the education. What's a middle-class student to do? I
for one do not want a legal education to be a privilege of the rich.
Something must happen systemically, or else a generation of students
will collapse under a mountain of debt.
Some pre-law advisors are lobbying for
changes. But until change comes, the question of whether to assume
debt to pay for law school remains a highly personal one. The best
thing to do is inform yourself of the costs of school and the risks
associated with borrowing to pay for it. Do your homework, and make
the best, most informed decision you can.