How to pay for law school

Law school is a big investment. These options can help you foot the bill. (iStock)

Lawyers make a handsome average salary of $120,910 per year, according to 2018 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). But if you have aspirations of becoming an attorney, you’ll need to get a law degree first—and law school is a big financial investment.

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The average cost of attending law school, based on tuition and fees, is about $45,000 a year, according to U.S. News & World Report. But some law schools, especially private schools, cost significantly more money. For example, Columbia Law School charged its students $72,360 in tuition and fees for the 2019-2020 school year.

Factoring in undergraduate student loans, a typical law school student graduates with close to $150,000 in student debt.

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The upshot? There are a number of ways you can pay for law school. Here are four options.

1. Scholarships and grants

Many law schools offer scholarships and grants—essentially free money—to attract the best students. These are typically doled out on a case-by-case basis. Usually, all applicants are considered for these offerings.

In addition, you’ll want to look into scholarships and grants that are awarded by private organizations. For instance, the American Intellectual Property Law Education Foundation offers $10,000 annual scholarships to students who are interested in focusing on intellectual property law.

2. A part-time job

Having a source of income while you’re enrolled in law school can help defray your law school bills. Be selective when choosing your side hustle—clerking at a law firm, assisting a professor, or working as a paralegal can give you relevant work experience to add to your resume.

3. Federal student loans

If you have to borrow money to pay for law school, your first stop should be to apply for federal student aid, since federal loans typically offer lower interest rates than private loans and they offer repayment benefits, such as the ability to qualify for income-based repayment or loan forgiveness.

Federal aid includes Federal Direct Unsubsidized Loans (sometimes called "Stafford Loans"), Federal Direct Subsidized Loans, Graduate PLUS loans, Parent PLUS Loans, and Direct Consolidation Loans. To qualify for a federal loan, you must submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

4. Private student loans

There’s no shortage of private companies that lend money to law students, but private student loans often have higher interest rates than federal loans and, unlike federal student loans, private loans do not qualify for loan forgiveness or income-based repayment. Consequently, make sure to shop around to find the loan with the best interest rate and repayment terms for your needs. Forewarning: some private student loans require you to start making payments while you’re in school.

Paying for the bar exam

After you graduate from law school and receive your Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree, in order to practice law you’ll need to pass the bar exam in your state. The bar exam fee ranges from $150 to $1,500, depending on where you live. You can find the fee for your state on pages 32-33 of the Comprehensive Guide to Bar Admission Requirements from the National Conference of Bar Examiners.

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Many people take a prep course before sitting for the bar exam. These courses can cost as little as $500 to up to $4,000.

Jobs for J.D. degree holders

J.D. degree holders can pursue a number of jobs, not just as lawyers. Other popular career paths include becoming a law professor, law librarian, consultant, compliance manager, hearing officer, mediator, lobbyist, or politician.