If you have dreamed of becoming a lawyer since childhood, it's understandable that you might be willing to invest a lot of money in a J.D. degree to pursue that goal.
But if you must incur debt in pursuing a legal education, it's prudent to keep your student loan balance as small as possible, law school financial aid experts say.
The Negative Implications of Heavy Debt Burdens
"Significant amounts of debt can mean that graduates must accept jobs that pay well but don't allow them to pursue the career they were seeking," Ben Cooper, the founder of PreLawPro.com, a law school admissions and career consulting firm, wrote in an email. "It can also mean significant delays in other life goals such as marriage, children, and homeownership."
A 2021 survey of early-career attorneys revealed that about 90% of them had taken out loans to pay for their J.D. degree or a prior degree, such as a bachelor's. The average amount of debt among newly minted lawyers who had borrowed money to pay for higher education was $130,000, the survey showed.
Recent law school graduates who carried high debt burdens often made personal sacrifices to fulfill their financial obligations, according to results from that survey, "Student Debt: The Holistic Impact on Today's Young Lawyer."
For example, slightly more than 30% of loan borrowers with J.D. debt reported that they could not afford to take an annual vacation because of their loan obligations, and nearly 25% of those borrowers reported that they were unable to contribute money to a retirement account, according to the survey, which was published by the American Bar Association Young Lawyers Division and the AccessLex Institute Center for Legal Education Excellence.
Tiffane Cochran, managing director of research at the AccessLex Institute, and a contributor to the "Student Debt" study, says young attorneys who had already hit certain key life milestones, such as buying a house or having children, often reported that they did so later than they would have preferred because of financial constraints.
"Debt isn't necessarily going to stop you from achieving these things," she says, but it often delays progress toward life goals.
Aspiring lawyers should examine the potential return on investment for attending a particular law school, Cochran suggests, when determining how much debt they are willing to carry to study at that institution.
She notes that her organization offers a free tool for prospective law students that allows them to estimate the size of their law school debt burden.
How to Avoid Significant Law School Debt
Experts on paying for law school suggest the following cost-saving techniques.
Save Money Before Attending Law School
The more money you can pay a law school upfront, without going into debt, the better, according to Patricia Roberts, chief operating officer of GiftofCollege.com, an online gift registry for education savings accounts, and author of the the book "Route 529," which provides advice on how to save money for a child's higher education.
"Any amount saved is that much less that will have to be borrowed and repaid with interest," Roberts wrote in an email. "529 college savings plans are one of the most effective ways to save for higher education expenses given their many tax advantages. Prospective students may want to defer attendance and work for a few years while saving up for the cost of law school."
Apply to In-State Public Law Schools
If you get into a local government-backed law school, you may qualify for hefty discounts based on your residency status, Cochran says.
Perform Well in College and on Your Law School Entrance Exam
Without a strong undergraduate GPA and an impressive score on either the LSAT or GRE, you're unlikely to impress the scholarship committees that decide which J.D. applicants receive merit scholarships, experts warn.
Cooper explains that thorough test prep is a must for J.D. hopefuls. "If they are in college, this means planning for a lighter semester," he says. "If they are working full time, this means carving out the time needed to study consistently."
Find an Employer Who Will Subsidize Your Legal Education
"A growing number of employers are recognizing the stress that employees are under and are willing to offer support in repayment of student loan debt as a financial wellness benefit," Roberts says.
Apply to Law School Only When You're Ready
Rushing through law school applications and submitting a sloppy personal statement or resume is a bad idea, experts say. Furthermore, there's no shame in taking a gap year or years to improve your credentials for law school.
"After all, there are no prizes for being the youngest person in your law school class, and taking your time can ultimately make you a stronger candidate," Cooper says.
Apply for Whatever Scholarship Programs You Qualify For
Don't limit your options by failing to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, since you may be surprised by the amount of need-based aid you can get, experts say. J.D. hopefuls should diligently research scholarships they may be eligible for based on their demographics and life story.
Jason White, an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice and author of "The Medical Loophole," graduated from law school with minimal debt by using medical-based financial aid.
"This program pays students to attend college or grad school if they have a medical condition that impedes, or has the potential to impede, their prospective employment," he explained in an email. "I suffer from asthma and allergies and these conditions qualified for aid under the program, saving me approximately $90,000 between (undergrad) and law school. Money dispersed through the program is not a loan and does not have to be paid back."
Prospective law students with disabilities may be eligible for disability-related scholarships offered by government agencies or private organizations.
Work Through Law School as a Part-Time Student
Paying as you go often reduces the cost of legal education, experts say.
Roberts, who graduated from a part-time J.D. program at Brooklyn Law School and stayed employed for the duration of her studies, says this approach saved her money.
"Not having to step out of the job market to pursue my degree was a tremendous financial benefit, and this approach had career development rewards as well," she says. "I was invited to stay on at my company to practice law once I obtained the degree."
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