Breaking Down the Numbers
According to Law School Transparency, as of 2018, the average law school graduate carries $115,000 in student loan debt. To break that down, public law school graduates carry about $92,000 in debt and private law school graduates carry $130,000 in debt. This would all be fine, of course, if you were virtually guaranteed a six-figure salary after graduation. You are not. According to the ABA, nine months after graduating, only 57% of law students had full-time jobs that required passing the bar. For those lucky enough to have a job, the median salary was $60,500. Yes, the starting salaries in the private sector are higher, but your loans will still take up a good portion of that income.
So How is it Worth $1,000,000?
As dire as this sounds, Seton Hall’s Michael Simkovic and Rutgers’s Frank McIntyre conclude that “for most law school graduates, the net present value of a law degree typically exceeds its cost by hundreds of thousands of dollars.” In other words, the amount of money law graduates make is, in most cases, far greater than the amount they would have made if they hadn’t gone to law school. According to Simkovic and McIntyre, “the mean pre-tax lifetime value of a law degree is approximately $1,000,000.”
Let’s say that again. One. Million. Dollars. So here’s an important question: can you get your $1M law degree for free?
Yes! It’s called merit-based aid. This is grant money schools offer to admitted applicants in the hopes that such applicants would forfeit offers of admission to other, generally more prestigious schools. Of course, there is a catch. Well, three catches.
- First, you need to get the money.
- Second, you need to decide whether it’s worth it.
- Third, you need to keep it.
How to Secure Merit-Based Aid
Let’s focus on the first question: how can you increase your chances of securing merit-based aid? Generally speaking, most schools, with the exception of Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, are likely to offer scholarship money to an applicant who meets all three of the following criteria.
- The applicant has numbers (LSAT/GPA) that exceed the school’s medians. Contrary to what most applicants believe, their numbers need not be off-the-charts high. Plenty of schools are offering merit-based aid to applicants whose numbers are just slightly higher than the schools’ medians. Many of these applicants would have been merely “competitive” a few years ago. Today, some of them are offered a full ride.
- The applicant has demonstrated willingness to enroll in that law school if admitted. We cannot overstate the importance of this point. Just because you have a 4.0/180 doesn’t mean that you’ll get a Levy Scholarship at Penn Law. You need to convince the admissions officers that you have a strong interest in attending their law school. In your personal statement, or a separate addendum, describe why XYZ law school would be a perfect fit. Is there a professor you’d like to work with? A student organization, a clinic, or a journal you can’t wait to join? Do your research, and show them that you have! Law schools seek to protect their yield. If they suspect you’re not into them, you’ll get no love in return. Who said this isn’t like dating?
- Apply early! Money has the unfortunate tendency to run out. If you’re applying for admission this Fall, but haven’t submitted your applications yet, you’re cutting it real close. Do it today!
As with all deals that seem too good to be true, a free ride at a top law school doesn’t come without caveats. This article examines more closely what those might be.