6 Ways to Pay for Law School

 December 18, 2020
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Law school is notoriously expensive. And while the pay can be pretty good once you have that degree, you’ll still need to figure out how to pay for law school (and living expenses) before you start earning a salary.

Fortunately, there are programs that pay for law school (or at least, help pay for it), and there are also ways to get assistance repaying any student loans you might take to get through your legal education. Here’s a rundown of the options.

How to pay for law school and living expenses: 6 options to explore

Becoming a lawyer can easily cost six figures. A Student Loan Hero study in 2018 found the average law school debt right after graduation was a hefty $111,752 — not that surprising when you consider that tuition alone averages $25,421 per year.

Here are six ways you can defray that cost:

1. Law school grants
2. Scholarships for law school
3. Law school loans
4. Work study and side hustles for law students
5. Law school loan forgiveness
6. Loan repayment assistance programs

1. Law school grants

The great thing about grants is that you don’t have to pay them back (except for rare cases, such as dropping out mid-semester). Some law schools offer grants, typically awarded based on students’ financial need, so check with your school’s financial aid office to learn about what’s available and how to apply.

That said, not all grants can be used for law school. For example, you can’t use federal Pell Grants for law school — in the majority of cases, they’re reserved for undergraduate students.

2. Scholarships for law school

Scholarships for law school are more common than law school grants. And like with grants, you generally don’t have to pay back scholarship money. Most law school scholarships come from the law schools themselves, so here too, check with your school’s financial aid office for details about how to apply.

You should also search for scholarships from other organizations — some examples include:

3. Law school student loans

There are two main types of law school student loans: federal and private.

Federal student loans are accessed by filling out a FAFSA for law school financial aid (which is also how you get federal grants and work study). Federal loans are generally the best option because they’re eligible for government repayment perks like income-driven repayment plans and Public Service Loan Forgiveness — see section 5 below for more on this.

There are two kinds of federal student loans for law students:

  • Direct unsubsidized loans: You can borrow up to $20,500 per year. The total amount you can borrow over the course of your education is capped at $138,500 and includes undergraduate loans. For the 2019-2020 school year, the interest rate for direct unsubsidized loans was 6.08%. There’s also a one-time fee, which ran at 1.059% of the loan amount for funds borrowed after Oct. 1, 2019.
  • Direct PLUS loans: PLUS loans tend to be more expensive than direct unsubsidized loans, so it’s better to turn to them only after you hit your limit for the latter. For the 2019-2020 school year, the interest rate for direct PLUS loans was 7.08%. The one-time loan fee was 4.236% for loans disbursed after Oct. 1, 2019. There’s no set cap to PLUS loan borrowing — you can take out an amount up to your school’s cost of attendance, minus other financial aid you receive.

If you have good credit, meanwhile, private student loans may be a wise choice. You may be able to qualify for a lower interest rate than what federal loan programs offer.

But keep in mind that private loans aren’t eligible for income-driven repayment, Public Service Loan Forgiveness or other government loan programs (See “5. Law school loan forgiveness” below). For that reason, avoid private loans if you’re concerned about affording repayment on your school debt.

4. Work study and side hustles for law students

Work-study programs are a form of need-based financial aid. However, not all law schools participate in the program. And since being a full-time law student is demanding, some schools don’t allow work-study for first-year law students, or they limit work-study hours during the first year of study.

You must submit the FAFSA to be considered for a work-study job. If you get one, your school will set you up with a part-time job on or near campus. You can use the money you earn to pay for law school costs or living expenses.

If you don’t qualify for work-study but still want to work during law school, find your own part-time job or start a flexible side hustle like dog sitting or driving for a rideshare service.

5. Law school loan forgiveness

If you’re pursuing a career in government or public interest law, or if you end up in a relatively low-paying job, law school loan forgiveness may be an option.

Two common ways for law school graduates to get student loan forgiveness are:

  • Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF): This government program can wipe away your remaining federal loan balance after you make 120 on-time monthly payments while working for the government or a qualifying non-profit employer. However, note that the requirements for this program can be quite complicated, and few have received forgiveness through it so far, so make sure you do your homework on the rules surrounding PSLF.
  • Income-driven repayment plans: There are four income-driven plans that cap your monthly federal loan payments at 10% to 20% of your disposable income. All four plans also forgive your remaining loan balance after you make payments for 20 or 25 years, depending on the plan, though you may need to pay income tax on the forgiven amount.

6. Loan repayment assistance programs

Aside from student loan forgiveness programs, there are many loan repayment assistant programs, or LRAPs, that can pay off a chunk of your law school debt.

About half of U.S. states have at least one LRAP, and many law schools offer them as well. The federal government also provides LRAPs, such as the Department of Justice Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program.

Each LRAP has its own requirements, but you usually have to commit to a specific job for a certain period of time. LRAPs are typically designed for law school graduates working in government, public interest law or other lower-paying legal fields, according to the American Bar Association.

Can you take out student loans for living expenses in law school?

Yes, you can use student loans for living expenses. You can borrow up to the school’s cost of attendance, which includes tuition, fees, books and other law school expenses, as well as the estimated cost of housing, food, transportation and other living expenses.

When you take out student loans, the money first gets sent to your school to cover tuition and fees. Then, you’ll get whatever’s left.

Tips for saving money on law school

  • Consider a lower-cost school. Price is important, though you shouldn’t necessarily pass up a school that has a high sticker price listed on its website — the priciest schools can be affordable if you get lots of scholarships. Compare schools based on the net price, or your out-of-pocket cost after grants and scholarships. You won’t know your actual net price until you apply for financial aid and get your award letter, but you can estimate the amount using each school’s net price calculator.
  • Take full advantage of scholarships and grants before resorting to loans. You’ll almost never have to repay scholarships and grants, as opposed to loans, which you must pay back with interest. To minimize your loans, apply for as many scholarships as possible.
  • Take realistic living expenses into account. You can use student loans for living expenses, but do your own calculation to determine how much money you’ll actually need. Schools’ costs of attendance include housing, food, transportation and other living expenses, but you might not need as much as they estimate.
  • Only borrow what you need. You’re allowed to borrow up to your school’s cost of attendance, but you don’t have to take out all of the student loans you’re offered. Only borrow what you think you’ll actually need for law school and living expenses. If you find you borrowed too much, you can generally return unused student loans.
  • Refinance to save on interest. If you have good credit and enough income compared to your debt, student loan refinancing may be able to save you money on law school loans by lowering your interest rate. It’s a good option for private student loans, though note that if you refinance federal student loans, you’ll lose access to those government loan programs, such as income-driven repayment and Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

Miranda Marquit contributed to this report.

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