Law school applications: Scholarships
The posted tuition cost for any given school is just the starting place. All schools offer scholarships to some extent, and a significant portion of students are able to attend school with some kind of institutional grant aid. Think of the tuition number as your sticker price, and the scholarships as the discounts.
Law schools are significantly less likely to offer need-based scholarships than they once were. While the most selective schools still allocate most of their scholarship awards based on need, very few non-elite law schools do so. Most need-based aid comes in the form of loans. That said, to the extent that they are offering such aid, you should apply via the FAFSA and any other application forms/processes the school requests.
Law schools primarily rely on merit-based scholarships to attract students to their schools by, essentially, offering significant discounts. The lion’s share of such scholarships are offered to students whose LSAT scores are above the school’s 75th percentile (or even, in recent years, above their 50th percentile). For a number of reasons, law schools have a strong interest in maintaining or improving their LSAT profiles. Offering scholarships to attract relatively high scorers to their school is a primary method for achieving this goal. In most instances, a score that might gain you admission to a more selective school will earn you admission plus a substantial scholarship at a less selective school. This is one reason it makes sense to apply to a range of schools. To a lesser extent, this process also applies to students with strong undergraduate GPAs (but not often in the absence of strong LSAT scores).
Some schools attach automatic scholarship offers to their binding early admission programs — if you’re accepted, they’ll guarantee some significant level of scholarship, including full tuition scholarships. This is about the only situation in which it makes financial sense to apply to a binding early decision program (assuming that school at that discount is your first choice).
Law schools also usually offer a number of named competitive scholarships with specific criteria—for example, commitment to public interest, or residence/origin in a particular region, city or town. Most non-merit-based scholarships require that you submit additional application materials.
In a great many cases, scholarship offers are negotiable. If School A offers you a scholarship resulting in a much lower cost than School B, you should feel comfortable asking School B if they can offer more—the worst they can do is say no. It is extremely important that in any such discussions with the law schools officials you conduct yourself professionally. Do not act as though you’re entitled to more money, and don’t treat the admissions officers with anything but respect and courtesy. Do pay attention to the school’s procedures for scholarship negotiations: some schools have well-developed, standardized procedures, while others are more informal, and some are clear that they don’t negotiate (“reconsider”) scholarship offers at all. Follow the school’s stated procedure (or, if you can’t figure out what it is, call them and ask). Most schools will ask for documentation of the competing scholarship offer(s).
Make sure you have run your own numbers about cost of attendance before you talk to admissions officers about your scholarship. Are the tuition and other costs comparable? The costs of living? Make sure you’re comparing apples to apples as you try to determine what your actual overall cost is. A $10,000 discount off of a $35,000 tuition results in a lower out-of-pocket cost than a $20,000 discount at a $50,000 school. Keep a spreadsheet of your tuition and related costs, living expenses in different cities, and scholarship offers to keep yourself on track.
When you’re in the negotiation process, and/or have just completed it, refrain from posting about it on any of the many online forums for law school applicants. Admission officials read those message boards. You may think you’re anonymous, but it’s trivially easy to identify you from just a few biographical tidbits (remember, you’ve divulged a lot more information in your application to them). If you vent about an admissions official or an offer, in all likelihood they’re going to see it. Such behavior will almost certainly impact your success in the admission and/or scholarship process. And it’s utterly unprofessional in any case. (This is good advice for your whole career—law world is small, reports of unprofessional behavior travel fast, and lawyers have long and sometimes unforgiving memories.)
Scholarship conditions and requirements
It’s critical that you understand what conditions apply to the scholarships you’re being offered. Scholarships can sometimes be difficult to retain once you enroll in schools: do you need to maintain a certain GPA or class rank? Top 20% or top 80% or “good standing”—these are all very different requirements. For many applicants, these requirements appear relatively easy to meet, based on their undergraduate performance. But law school grades are different from undergraduate grades. In addition to the fact that in most first year law school classes, grades are based on a single exam at the end of the year, in many law schools, a strict grading curve is imposed. For example, the school may limit the percentage of any given class that can earn above a 3.5, or require that 60% of a the students enrolled in a given course earn a B (with correspondingly lower percentages for grades above and below that). Most students feel overly confident of their ability to attain these standards—after all, you probably did well as an undergrad, so how hard could it be to continue in a similar vein? Remember that the overwhelming majority of law students excelled as undergrads—the competition for a limited supply of good grades is simply much greater.
If you are offered a scholarship, before you accept, you should make sure you understand (1) what the specific conditions are, (2) what percentage of students each year meet those conditions, and (3) what percentage of first year students are able to maintain their scholarships the second and third years. Schools are required to provide this information.
Scholarships from other sources
Finally, the law schools are not the only sources of scholarship money. Bar associations (from the ABA down to your local county’s bar association) offer various competitive scholarships. Local community foundations, town and county governments, and special interest organizations (e.g., the Rotary Club, the local NAACP chapter) also often offer scholarships to students who fit specific criteria. Occasionally, law firms and large companies offer scholarships to their employees and/or their families. Research these sources, and then apply! Every $1,000 you take off the front end is upwards of $1,700 in debt you never have to repay. It’s worth an hour of your time to apply. Links to some scholarship resources can be found on our “financing school resources” page — the number one resource for law school scholarships is without question the AccessLex Scholarship Databank. Most law schools have additional lists of outside scholarship sources for their students.