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Law school can be a springboard for a lucrative career in the legal field—but getting through it can be expensive. Roughly 95% of law school students take out student loans, according to a report by the American Bar Association (ABA), and six-figure debt is the norm.
While a career in law can more than make up for the upfront costs to obtain the necessary knowledge, it's important to understand what to expect before you apply for law school and to think about how to mitigate some of the expenses you'll incur.
How Much Does It Cost to Attend Law School?
The cost of attending law school will differ greatly from your undergraduate degree expenses. While attending law school full time only requires three years of study, it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars over that time.
While it's easy to fixate on tuition expenses, you'll also need to consider the cost of textbooks, room and board, supplies, equipment and other living expenses.
According to Law School Transparency, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, here's how the tuition cost alone broke down in 2019 (the most recent data available):
|Typical Law School Costs|
|Type of School||Annual Tuition Cost|
Source: Law School Transparency
If you want to limit your costs, attending a public law school in your home state is your best bet—even better if you can live with parents or a relative. If you want to attend school in a different state, it may be worth it to move there first and establish residency while you work as a paralegal or legal assistant.
This strategy can help you save money on tuition, give you the chance to earn some money to help pay for your expenses and give you some experience that can help improve your application.
To get a more specific idea of costs you'll incur going to law school, start by looking up the total cost of attendance for the schools you're considering. You can also research average rent, transportation, groceries and other living expenses in your area of choice.
How Many Students Take Out Student Loans for Law School?
A whopping 95% of law school students take out student loans to help pay their way, according to the ABA. That's high, even compared with medical school, where 73% of students borrow to pay for school—despite higher program costs.
The ABA reports that on average, law school graduates completed their degree with $164,742 in student loan debt in 2020, only $17,512 of which came from their undergraduate program. While it's not typical for law school students to need to take out more than $200,000, 7.9% of women and 5.5% of men graduated with that amount or more, according to the Law School Survey of Student Engagement.
How to Pay Off Law School Student Loans
As a law school graduate, you'll have plenty of options for a high-paying career. Among all legal occupations, the average salary is $112,320, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and that average can climb upwards of $200,000, depending on your field.
But it can take you some time to achieve that level of pay, so it's important to pursue other options to help pay down your student loan debt. Here are some options to consider.
Apply for Forgiveness or Loan Repayment Assistance
If you work for a government agency or eligible nonprofit organization, you may be eligible for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which offers complete forgiveness after roughly 10 years of income-driven payments.
Additionally, there are repayment assistance programs available for those who enter the Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps program in one of the branches of the military or work as a public defender. The American Bar Association also provides a resource for state-based loan repayment assistance programs.
Take some time to research these programs to see whether you're eligible and what you need to do to qualify.
Consider Income-Driven Repayment
Even if you're not working toward student loan forgiveness, you can take advantage of four federal student loan income-driven repayment plans. These plans allow you to reduce your monthly payment to 10% to 20% of your discretionary income, which is based on your income and the poverty guidelines for your family size and state of residence.
They also extend your repayment term to 20 or 25 years, after which your remaining balance will be forgiven.
This option can be good when you're starting out in your career, but note that your payments will increase along with your salary. You may also consider a graduated payment program, which starts out with lower monthly payments that increase over time.
Pay More Every Month
If you have a comfortable enough salary and there's room in your budget, adding extra payments to your loans every month can help you become debt-free faster and also save you money on interest charges.
If you're thinking about this approach, consider the debt snowball or debt avalanche method to accelerate your payments over time.
Refinance Your Student Loans
To qualify for the best student loan refinance interest rates, you typically need a higher salary, making it a solid option for law school graduates. You'll also need good credit, so you may need to take some time to build your credit history before you apply.
With refinancing, you may be able to qualify for a lower interest rate than what you're currently paying, and you can get a little more flexibility with your repayment plan, including the option to pay off your debt faster. If you choose to refinance your federal student loans, you must do so through a private lender.
Note that if you refinance federal student loans, you will lose access to certain benefits, including forgiveness and loan repayment assistance programs, income-driven repayment plans, and generous forbearance and deferment options. Think carefully about your situation and your goals before you make a decision that you can't reverse.
How to Borrow Less for Law School
While focusing on paying off student loans is important for law school graduates, you can give your future self a hand by taking steps to limit your reliance on student loans, to begin with. Here are some steps you can take.
Take a Gap Year
As previously mentioned, a gap year between your undergraduate program and law school can give you some time to make some money that you can use to cover some of your law school costs.
And if you can find a job in the legal field, it can also give you an advantage over other candidates during the admissions process and help you establish residency if you plan to attend a school in another state.
You don't need to attend a private school to get a quality law education, but it's still a good idea to cast a wide net when you're applying for law schools. Some law schools offer financial aid in the form of grants and scholarships, often based on merit or financial need, that can help defray some of your costs and make some expensive schools more affordable.
Apply for Other Financial Aid
There aren't any federal grants available for law school students, but it's still a good idea to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) so you can get federal loans. Additionally, check out scholarship search engines like Scholarships.com, Fastweb, Unigo, Chegg and Scholly to find financial aid opportunities funded by private organizations.
Join the Military
The military can offer up to 100% of your tuition costs in assistance if you become a member of the armed forces. There's typically a caveat that you need to commit to a certain number of years of service, but it can be worth it, even if you don't plan to stay in the military for your entire career.
Build Credit During Law School to Create More Opportunities
Having great credit may not be necessary right now, but once you graduate from law school, financial opportunities, such as buying a house or a car, may be limited if you haven't taken the time to establish your credit history.
Additionally, student loan refinancing typically requires an established credit history with positive marks.
With Experian Go™, a free program, you can get help creating an Experian credit report and track your progress with your FICO® Score☉ as it becomes available. The sooner you start taking steps to build your credit history, the better your financial position will be when you start your career in law.