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How to Pay for Law School

Take out federal student loans before private loans to pay for law school if free financial aid won’t cover all your costs.
June 27, 2019
Loans, Student Loans
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If you’re planning to go to law school, plan on going into debt: 75% of law students take out student loans, according to Law School Transparency, a nonprofit organization.

Borrowing may be necessary for law school, but your first choice should be financial aid you don’t have to repay. Here are the types of aid available to pay for law school and how you can receive each.

Law school financial aid you don’t repay

With tuition, fees and living expenses, law school can cost over $150,000 to complete, according to the Law School Admission Council. To help minimize these costs, exhaust financial aid you don’t have to repay:

Most law school scholarships and grants come from the schools themselves and are based on an applicant’s merit, e.g., LSAT scores. But schools may also offer awards to those with diverse backgrounds, such as racial minorities and LGBTQ students.

Private scholarships — from law firms, bar associations and community organizations, for example — may be available to underrepresented groups or to students studying specific types of law. Your school’s financial aid office is the best resource for information on all awards.

» MORE: Guide to grants and scholarships

Law students can earn federal work-study money by working part time. Since you must earn work-study funds, you can’t use this money for upfront tuition costs. But a work-study job could help pay for living expenses without going into debt — if you can balance your job and studies.

Because law school requires a great deal of focus, law schools typically don’t offer work-study to first-year students. For second- and third-year students, law schools often limit work-study employment to 20 hours a week. Work-study funding also isn’t available at every school.

The military can pay for law school in a couple of ways:

  • If you’ve finished your service. Law schools that participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program provide additional funding to veterans, or their children, who are eligible for the Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits. The Department of Veterans Affairs matches these schools’ contribution, potentially allowing you to attend at a fraction of the price.
  • If you’re still on active duty. Roughly two dozen active-duty officers are accepted each year into the Funded Legal Education Program, or FLEP. Program participants agree to serve multiple years as military attorneys in exchange for tuition and living expenses at a law school of the student’s choice.
  • Student loans for law school

    Most law students turn to student loans, and you can choose federal or private loans to pay for school. Law graduates with debt graduate owing an average of $145,000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, so borrow wisely.

    • Take out federal direct loans first. These have a lower interest rate than other federal loans law students may qualify for. Law students can borrow up to $20,500 per year in unsubsidized loans and no more than $138,500 overall in subsidized and unsubsidized loans (including undergraduate borrowing).
    • Cover remaining costs with federal PLUS loans. Once you reach your annual or overall borrowing maximum for unsubsidized loans, turn to PLUS loans for graduates. You can borrow up to the remaining cost of attendance at your law school, minus other aid you’ve received.

    Private lenders may advertise lower rates and offer savings on fees, especially compared with PLUS loans. But private loans lack programs like income-driven repayment and Public Service Loan Forgiveness that provide financial security.

    If your post-law school path leads to the private sector and a high salary — like by joining a Big Law firm, for example — you can refinance your loans then to save money.

    » MORE: Best law school loans for 2019

    If you’re studying for the bar exam, you may need extra cash for courses or living expenses. Look for bar preparation scholarships to cover these costs, or ask your employer, friends or family for support, if possible.

    If you need to borrow money, some private lenders offer loans for bar exam expenses. Bar exam loans typically have high interest rates, but they may still cost less than using a credit card or taking out a personal loan.

    How to get loans for law school

    Getting loans for law school takes only a few steps. If you applied for financial aid as an undergrad, you’ll likely know what to do — though there are a couple of differences.

    Step 1: Fill out the FAFSA

    You must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, to receive all types of federal financial aid, including work-study and student loans. Many private scholarships and grants require the FAFSA as well.

    When completing the FAFSA, indicate that you’re going to be or already are a graduate student. This means you don’t have to include your parents’ information on the form; it also increases your borrowing limits.

    When completing the FAFSA, indicate that you’re going to be or already are a graduate student.

    You don’t need to complete the FAFSA for private student loans. Apply directly with the lender.

    » MORE: NerdWallet’s FAFSA guide

    Step 2: Complete other required financial aid applications

    In addition to the FAFSA, some law schools may make you submit the CSS Profile to receive nonfederal financial aid. Alternatively, your school might require an aid application that’s unique to its program.

    Unlike on the FAFSA, you may need to provide your parents’ financial information on these forms to receive institutional scholarships or grants. Double-check the application process with the school’s financial aid office — including when its priority filing deadline is — so you don’t miss out on free money.

    » MORE: Law school loan forgiveness and repayment programs

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