If you have dreamed of becoming a lawyer since childhood, it is understandable that you would want to invest a lot of money in a JD degree to pursue this goal.
But if you must incur debt to pursue a legal education, it’s prudent to keep your student loan balance as low as possible, law school financial aid experts say.
The negative implications of heavy debt
“Heavy debts can mean graduates have to take high-paying jobs but don’t allow them to pursue the careers they were looking for,” wrote Ben Cooper, founder of PreLawPro.com, an admissions and admissions consulting firm. career in law school. in an email. “It can also mean significant delays in other life goals such as marriage, children and home ownership.”
A Survey 2021 of early-career lawyers revealed that about 90% of them had taken out loans to pay for their JD degree or an earlier degree, such as a bachelor’s degree. The average amount of debt for newly appointed attorneys who had borrowed money to pay for college was $130,000, according to the survey.
According to the results of this survey, “Student Debt: The Holistic Impact on Today’s Young Lawyer”, recent law school graduates who had heavy debt burdens often made personal sacrifices to meet their financial obligations.
For example, just over 30% of borrowers with JD debt said they could not afford to take annual vacations due to their loan obligations, and nearly 25% of those borrowers said that they were unable to contribute money to a retirement account. , according to the survey released 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 contributor to the “Student Debt” study, explains that young lawyers who had already reached certain milestones in their lives, such as buying a house or having children, often said they had. later than they would have liked due to financial constraints.
“Debt won’t necessarily stop you from accomplishing these things,” she says, but it often delays progress toward life’s goals.
Aspiring lawyers should consider the potential return on investment of attending a particular law school, suggests Cochran, when determining how much debt they are willing to take on to study at that institution.
She notes that her organization offers a free tool for prospective law students that allows them to estimate the extent of their law school’s debt burden.
How to Avoid Big Law School Debt
Save money before going to law school
According to Patricia Roberts, COO of GiftofCollege.com, an online gift registry for college savings accounts, and author of the book “Route 529,” which provides tips on how to save money. money for a child’s higher education.
“Any amount saved is so much less that it 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 college expenses given their many tax advantages. Prospective students may want to defer school attendance and work for a few years while saving for the cost of law school.”
Apply to state public law schools
If you enter a law school supported by the local government, you can receive significant discounts depending on your residency status, Cochran says.
Perform well in college and in your law school entrance exam
Without a strong undergraduate GPA and an impressive LSAT or GRE score, you’re unlikely to impress the scholarship committees that decide which JD applicants receive merit scholarships, experts warn.
Cooper explains that extensive test prep is a must for JD’s hopefuls. “If they’re in college, that means planning a lighter semester,” he says. “If they’re working full time, that means making time for themselves to study consistently.”
Find an employer who will subsidize your legal education
“A growing number of employers are recognizing the stress employees are under and are willing to offer student loan debt repayment support as a financial wellness benefit,” Roberts said.
Apply to law school only when you are ready
Rushing through law school applications and submitting a botched personal statement or resume is a bad idea, experts say. Plus, there’s no shame in taking a gap year or years to upgrade your law degrees.
“After all, there’s no price for being the youngest person in your law class, and taking your time can ultimately make you a stronger candidate,” Cooper said.
Apply for all scholarship programs for which you are eligible
Don’t limit your options by failing to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, because you may be surprised at how much need-based aid you can get, experts say. JD applicants should diligently research scholarships for which they may be eligible based on their demographics and life history.
Jason White, attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice and author of “The Medical Loophole,” graduated from law school with minimal debt using medical financial assistance.
“This program pays students to attend college or graduate school if they have a medical condition that interferes or has the potential to interfere with their potential employment,” he explained in an email. “I have asthma and allergies and those conditions were eligible for assistance through the program, which saved me about $90,000 between (undergraduate) and law school. Money distributed under the program is not a loan and does not have to be repaid.
Work at law school as a part-time student
Pay-as-you-go often lowers the cost of legal education, experts say.
Roberts, who graduated from a part-time JD program at Brooklyn Law School and remained employed throughout her studies, says this approach saved her money.
“Not having to leave the workforce to further my education has been a huge financial benefit, and this approach has also had career development benefits,” she says. “I was invited to stay in my company to practice law once I graduated.”