Congratulations! You got into law school. But if you are like most people who are starting law school, you are faced with a real problem - how to pay for the next three years. You may already have a student loan from your undergraduate degree, and now you face possible tens of thousands more in debt. One great way to find money for law school is by checking out The Scholarship&Grant Guide - you'll learn everything from which foundations offer scholarships to individual students, to how to approach these foundations and grantors with an effective application packet.
Here are some ways to either reduce the amount of debt you'll have later or even pay for law school up-front through student loans or scholarships:
- See if your school has a consolidated degree. Some schools have degree programs in which you can obtain your undergraduate degree and your Juris Doctor (J.D.) in five years as opposed to a collective seven. This has several economic advantages. First of all, you are paying for fewer semesters, which will be less of an overall cost. Additionally, you may be charged undergraduate tuition for certain classes, which will be less expensive. You may also be able to get financial aid from the government at an undergraduate rate - so your overall loan will be at one rate. If you consolidate your loans at a low interest rate, you will save money in the long run.
- Take first-year law classes as an undergraduate senior. Most schools that offer professional degrees allow seniors (sometimes even juniors) to take classes from the professional schools. The number of acceptable classes varies; it might be just one as a senior, or it might be one a semester for both your junior and senior years, which could take a whole semester off of your law school tenure. These classes will be charged at the undergraduate rate, not the law school rate. Just make sure your school accepts these units as "transfer" units to your J.D.
- Apply for government student loans. Much like financial aid in your undergraduate days, be sure to apply for financial aid via the FAFSA form. In addition to whatever grants and loans you may get, most schools and external scholarship programs require your current FAFSA to be on file. And remember, file early!
- Check out your law school's scholarships. Most schools offer free or reduced college tuition fees to qualified students. If you got into law school in the first place, you obviously have great credentials, so be sure to apply for any scholarship for which you remotely fit the profile; the worst that can happen is that you don't get it. And at best, you might get a free ride. Don't worry about your financial situation - most of these programs are based on merit or specific qualification, not income.
- Look into other Scholarships. Fastweb.com has an incredible database of scholarships. You input various facts about yourself, your background, your interests, accomplishments, facts about your parents, etc., they will come up with a long list of programs for which you are likely to qualify.
- Look into private lenders. When it comes to getting money for school, Sallie Mae is the best known private lender. Additionally, they will fund your education if you are going to a non-accredited law school, which are not qualified programs for most Federal-based and scholarship programs. The interest will be nominal or waived for a few years after you graduate, which will allow you to get on your feet. Also, if you become completely disabled (meaning you cannot do any substantive work) at any point while paying off your loan, the government will cover the rest of the repayment. Other private lenders that specialize in higher education include Fleet and Citibank.
Also, be sure to check out programs that your local or regional bank may offer. If you or your family are known to a smaller bank, you may get a better rate or more aid as from a non-education-specific loan; never underestimate the power of a good financial reputation.
- Take a teaching assistant position. If you are a first-year student, consider finding a position in an undergraduate class you enjoyed or did well in. If you are a second- or third-year student, consider coming a TA for a first-year law school class. The pay might not be great, but it will offset a lot of costs. If you are interested in staying in academia or if a specific professor has connections in the area of law in which you are interested, definitely consider this option - it will pay for itself in more than just immediate finances.
- Try to save on books. Most of the books on the curriculum stay consistent semester to semester. Yes, there will be books your professor will tell you to go run out and buy right then, but the main (and likely most expensive) books will stay the same. Check eBay, Half.com, and Amazon. Ebay is likely to have entire sets of books that law school grads are looking to offload after graduation. Amazon, in addition to having discounted prices on textbooks, has used textbooks at a steep discount from individual sellers. Another option along this line is to make friends with a student a year or two ahead of you - even just borrowing a book for the semester will likely save you a lot. Students who are graduating may not care to keep (or pack) all the books they used over the years, and will be happy to give you the ones they aren't taking with them. I always liked having nice, new, crisp textbooks, but for the price differential, you won't mind a little light underlining - it might even give you a leg up on what is important to the professor.
Regardless of whether you are planning a pro-bono legal career or want to become a six-figure-a-year corporate attorney, law school is going to be an intense and enjoyable period in your education. Ideally, you wouldn't have to worry about financing the next three years. If you still have loans from your undergraduate degree, one way of managing student loan debt in law school is to consolidate. However, know that law school is a major financial undertaking, so by following the steps above, hopefully you'll be able to focus on your new career, not your debt, when you have that impressive (and expensive!) Juris Doctorate!