How I’m Going to Law School for Free

I think it’s obvious by now that if the recession has taught us anything, it’s that student loans should be avoided like the plague. I doubt that anyone in 2006 would have foreseen that in 2013 there would be a massive, grassroots campaign to prevent an increase of 3.4% in student loan rates (most students probably didn’t even know what their loan rate was). The fantasy of a four-year degree being good enough to pay back large amounts of student loans is long gone and most college students are much more informed.

Yet, when it comes to law school, college students who previously fought for scholarships and protested tuition hikes suddenly decide to pony up hundreds of thousands of dollars for the chance to become a lawyer. Numerous mainstream publications, including the Billfold, have detailed the plight of the naïve law student who applied to law school wanting to change the world or establish a solidly middle class life and is now saddled with unspeakable amounts of debt. What’s most frustrating about these stories is that law school is one of the few places where it’s possible to greatly reduce your student loans with minimal effort.

I’m a law student entering my second year of law school and I am attending on a full scholarship, which is saving me from accumulating about $110,000 in debt.

I didn’t have stellar grades or an LSAT score that would have gotten me into a top school. I didn’t jump through the hoops of submitting scholarship essays, or interviewing with the leadership of my school like most undergraduate students attending college on full rides. A month after I turned in my application, an admissions rep called me to say I was being offered a 100% scholarship, a full three months before the priority application deadline. The game of law school scholarships is played fast and loose, and it’s only getting worse.

While college grads flocked to law school in the early years of the Great Recession, the last three years have seen precipitous drops in the number of students applying to law school. Applications to law schools this year alone have decreased 13%. Faced with this kind of drop, the rational thing to do would be to offer fewer scholarships to make up for the lower student enrollment. However, the small number and relative similarities between law schools force them to compete with each other in order to maintain their ranking. Schools that wouldn’t have offered some students admission in previous years are now accepting and even giving out generous scholarships. The practice of elite students negotiating with law schools to offer more scholarship money or risk having them jump ship to a higher ranked school has now trickled down to average students.

Despite this ability to negotiate for higher scholarships, some students have used this opportunity to trade up to a more nationally recognized school instead of less debt. The general strategy for a large number of law students is to apply to a ton of schools and just pick the one with the highest rank, even if it is just up a few spots from some other schools you may have been offered scholarships. It is true that a few schools (some say top 14, top 6, or even just the top three, Harvard, Yale and Stanford) do offer unparalleled recognition and job prospects, but beyond that, rankings are generally meaningless. You may have a 10% or 20% better chance of getting a job as a lawyer, but is paying an extra $50,000 or $100,000 worth that chance?

Focusing simply on getting into the best school may seem like a smart decision because of the emphasis that the legal profession puts on credentials. I suggest that the smarter decision is one of restraint, refusing to allow yourself to believe that you will DEFINTELY graduate in the top 10% of your top school and get your dream job. The more prudent option is to look at something you know right now: how much debt you’re going to have when you graduate.

I chose to attend a law school not based on my chances of landing a $100,000-plus large law firm job, but based on where I wanted to live and settle after graduation. It’s not very well known outside of the Midwest, but establishing myself in a community that I value is worth much more than the prestige that comes with working at a “global” law firm. With a relatively small amount of debt, I can choose an area of law that is interesting and meaningful to me instead of being forced to take any job that will cover my loans. I may have a harder time finding a job starting out, but the freedom of not having so much debt hanging over me will make it that much less painless.

Although this change in the landscape has been a boon for me, I feel an odd sense of guilt for sidestepping the burden of debt. Even though I won’t graduate without tuition debt (assuming I don’t flunk out), there are still others that will. The only reason I can go for free is that other people have decided that it’s worth the risk. However, I’m really not sure if law school admissions can afford to throw things at the wall and see what sticks forever. If newly graduated liberal arts majors continue to decide that law school isn’t the best fallback option, eventually law schools are going to run out of money like everyone else.

In the meantime, things don’t have to be so doom and gloom for potential law students. I’m proof that it is possible to go to law school without being shackled to a lifetime of debt. No one really knows what the future of the legal profession will look like in the coming years, but at least some of us will be able to navigate it without having to worry about making huge monthly loan payments or dealing with confusing loan repayment programs.


Brian Smith is a law student from the twin cities, currently living it up as an (unpaid) summer intern in D.C.


19 Comments / Post A Comment

KingCash (#2,095)

This is so relevant to my current interests and extremely helpful. Thanks so much for writing it. Out of curiosity, what type of law are you planning on doing after you graduate?

aetataureate (#1,310)

Law school: Still a completely crazy-seeming option for all the reasons, now bolstered by “irrational giving of full scholarships.”

cjm (#3,397)

“refusing to allow yourself to believe that you will DEFINTELY graduate in the top 10% of your top school and get your dream job.” Also, by going to a slightly lower ranked school (that gave you a scholarship) you probably increase your chances of being in the top 10%. I think it would be better to be in the top 10% at a school ranked 45 than in the top 50% at a school ranked 30 because there really isn’t much of a prestige difference.

Also, assuming you are going to law school full time, as a single person, you will probably still have debt because working enough to support yourself is much more challenging than in undergrad (and would greatly reduce your “Top 10%” chances.)

@cjm The top guy in my class is booksmart only. Not to be mean, just to be honest: He is utterly stupid when it comes to street smarts. We prank him everyday… (LOL) [seriously]

A good friend of mine went to law school at the University of Florida, which is incredibly cheap and pretty well-respected in Florida. He’s had a rough time finding full-time paying work in his field of interest but the lack of crushing loans has allowed him all sorts of freedom to do minimally compensated work for experience without ending up in debtor’s prison.

UrbanGarlic (#4,303)

So you got a scholarship by going to a lower-ranked school? That’s well documented. None of this information is very useful without knowing which school you’re attending. (I see you’re from the Twin Cities – if you’re at U of M, it’s respected worldwide.)

Sorry if any of this sounds snarky, the article heading just made it seem like you’d discovered a law school funding hack.

@UrbanGarlic It is definitely a well documented trend among lawyers and law students, yet for some reason almost every article written in the last few years about law schools has pointed out that all law students are drowning in debt, which is just not true. Where someone goes to law school is also important, there are a bunch of schools not worth going even with a full scholarship.

I go to William Mitchell, which is ranked in the third tier nationally, but is generally considered the #2 school in the twin cities. Another point of the piece is to get potential law students to reevaluate their priorities. If you know that you want to live in a certain place after law school, there is nothing wrong with attending a regional law school if you attend at a greatly reduced price.

@UrbanGarlic Yeah I was surprised the answer to the title was “I was offered a scholarship.” Well, good for you?

The author’s larger point about establishing your priorities is a good one, but I’d make a larger priority that goes beyond where you want to live: Do you want to practice law? Yes, okay go to law school and read Brian’s article. Do you not know what you want to do but law school seems like a good idea? It’s not, do not pass go, do not attend a first, second or third tier school, do not collect debt (whether it’s 10K or 200K).

vanderlyn (#2,954)

@polka dots vs stripes Spot on. This is a good time to restate a fairly simple but often overlooked fact: Leaving a paying job for three years represents significant lost income, a situation that often leads to two kinds of debt. The first is debt owed to a lender, on top of tuition, for those student loans you took out to rent an apartment and buy food. The second is a debt owed to yourself, for the lack of (compounded) savings over those three years of law school.

UrbanGarlic (#4,303)

@Brian Smith@facebook Thanks for the reply! Definitely sounds like you figured out what you wanted and went for it. I agree a lot depends on where you want to practice/what you want to do, and regional schools can work really nicely. If you want to work at a small law office in a small town, for example, T-30 tuition isn’t worth it, nor is the likely geographical displacement. National reach is a big factor in a lot of ranking systems.

My goal is also not to be drowning in debt. It can be tough but doable, again, depending on where you are. I’m also glad more information is coming out on the crazily conditional scholarships, like ones demanding you maintain a certain GPA when everything is bellcurved. It’s times like this I’m thankful I’m Canadian.

rabbitrabbit (#3,404)

As someone who’s also made the decision to go to law school, albeit for a LOT more $$, I’ve read the doom-and-gloom reports on law school debt and employment data for years. I’m glad this author is so content in his choice, and wish him well! But the fact that attending a regional law school for free may not be a bad idea doesn’t necessarily mean that paying some money for a great law school is misguided. Also, the contention that attending a top school will increase your employment prospects in law by only about “10 or 20%” is WAY off the mark. Employment rates at the highest ranked schools (although of course I too think the ‘prestige’ thing is bullshit) are much, much, much higher than at the lower ranked schools — even after accounting for all of the lying and fudging most schools are engaging in. Also, I’ve worked in the public and private sectors with a number of lawyers, and the ones who had substantive law jobs all went to fancy schools. Those with less fancy degrees were processing contracts and working in HR. This divide almost certainly breaks down in smaller cities, away from the biggest NGOs, most competitive government jobs and huge firms, etc. — but it seems clear that certain schools will absolutely give you more options than others, and ‘the big firm job’ isn’t the only job at stake. This said, maybe I’m totally deluded and about to ruin my financial future!! I don’t know. It’s obvious that law school is f*d and basically a Ponzi scheme… but I don’t think easy answers abound for those of us who know we want to be lawyers, and need to find some way through the thicket regardless of how ill-advised this seems.

@rabbitrabbit the change in percentage does vary. This chart on Law School Transparency explains employment outcomes best

From the lowest American law school, North Carolina Central State at 20% of its graduates had full-time, long-term bar required jobs, which is 75% lower than the 95% of U chicago and other highly ranked schools. But you’ll also notice a large grouping around the middle from 40-60%.

My personal comparison and decision I had to make was between William Mitchell, ranked 135 and the University of Minnesota, ranked 19. You would think that there would be a massive gap between the two, but William Mitchell places 49% of its graduates in good jobs and the U of M places 63.5% when you exclude school funded jobs, a difference of only about 14%.

Going by anecdotes and lawyers you know isn’t the best barometer, you might not end up as high in the class as they did. Making a decision based on employment outcome statistics allows for some variance in how you will do in the class compared to your peers.

rabbitrabbit (#3,404)

@Brian Smith@facebook Yeah, this is interesting! I think your choice was really smart, and am a bit envious I wasn’t in a position to make a similar one. I’m going to a great school, but it ain’t cheap, and I didn’t have family/a life established in a mid-sized city that enabled me to pull the trigger on a school that would limit my geographic options after graduation. I did apply for the very few available named, competitive scholarships offered by law schools, but in the end think the offer I accepted (a mix of financial aid plus anticipating relying on LRAP) was my best option. We’ll see!

steponitvelma (#914)

Congratulations. How wonderful.

sophia_h (#3,049)

Some scholarships have strings. I was offered one in 2005 which required me to stay in the top 10% of my class, which I knew wouldn’t happen — and paying for 2 years of private tuition at a lower-ranked school was going to cost me as much as 3 at a higher-ranked public one.

I have a hard time endorsing anyone going to law school under any conditions these days unless there’s a job waiting for them on the other side. The industry is just too saturated and broken, and the schools haven’t adapted yet.

Although it won’t work for law school (unless you want to practice international law), the easiest way to stay student-debt free is to study in another country. Not only do most countries charge little or no tuition, but you will gain intercultural experience, and learn a new language. In Europe, they are starting to offer more and more degrees in English if you don’t have foreign language skills.
This is what I did and I got a BA, MA, and PhD without debt.

@Holly Oberle@facebook Hi Holly if someone wanted to practice international law without debt, how would one go about it? This is what I want to do but I’m having a tough time finding mentors that I can meet with that currently have careers in international law in my area. (I’m kind of in the middle of nowhere) Furthermore, do you talk about getting an international law degree in your book? Do the same rules apply with obtaining any Master’s abroad? I’m trying to get my hands on your book, which takes some time since it is not locally available to me

David P (#4,434)

Just read this and I have to agree, no debt is the way to go. I am about to start my 1L year at Villanova on full tuition, contingent on staying in good academic standing (2.0 GPA). Brian is right about the difference in employment rates, it is mostly negligible outside the T-14. So many tier one schools inflate their employment stats with short-term school-funded positions. And even T-14 schools do it; UVA ‘s 94.5% employed number is 15% school jobs. Check out sites like and you’d be surprised.

crb123 (#4,987)

This article is just what I’ve been looking for, I’ve got the same mentality as you do concerning law school attendance. On top of this, I also live in MN and want to attend a smaller school. I’m curious what your GPA/LSAT was, so that I can compare them to my scores to determine my odds of receiving a big scholarship at somewhere like WM or St. T. If you don’t want to post those scores online feel free to private message me.

Post a Comment