“Law school” and “debt-free” may seem like an oxymoron these days. Main stream media and law school admissions blogs alike are filled with stories of newly-minted lawyers who are hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt and without an income adequate to pay off that debt. But I am here to tell you that it is not only possible—but entirely attainable—to graduate law school without any (or with only minimal) student loan debt.
To start, you need to know a few things about me to understand how and why I made it to my last year of law school without any student loan debt. I am a “non-traditional” law student; that is, I did not come to law school directly out of undergrad. I completed my undergraduate education, started my career, got married, and had a daughter. This path for me was part planning and part fate. I applied to law school for the first time just one year after I graduated from the University of Miami. I excitedly filled out applications, received acceptances (back when they only came via postal mail), and had to make a very tough decision. At the time, I weighed those acceptances (and scholarships) along with the prospect of a fantastic job offer—and I accepted the job. Before I signed on the dotted line and committed to the time and cost of three years of law school, I got out a piece of paper and figured out exactly how much those three years would cost me. For me, it just didn’t add up. Ironically enough, I was forced this year to calculate my “opportunity cost” of attending law school as part of my Law & Economics course. This would be a wise calculation for anyone thinking about law school.
Fast forward a few years and I found that I still wanted to get my law degree. This fact in and of itself was important—law school is a huge investment of time, energy, and money, and to get the full value out of it, you must really want to be here. The second time around, my application process was more focused and guided.
Step 1 – Pick a “best value” law school (hint—FSU is one!)
I looked very hard at the value of education I would be receiving at each school. I considered not only tuition costs and scholarships, but also things like job placement rates and expected starting salary. FSU College of Law had everything that I was looking for.
Step 2 – Savings
Consider student loans as your last option (at least for now), and start with other sources of funds such as savings. First, save early and save as much as you can. It may not seem intuitive to be saving money from your paycheck in your early twenties, but if that means not having to “live like you are a student” in your thirties, then it makes sense. For me, this was saving part of my paycheck from my career. But a little savings even from college and summer jobs can mean a world of difference if it means not paying interest on loans.
Step 3 – Scholarships, scholarships, scholarships … (and more scholarships)
Reach out to law schools first. FSU College of Law was exceptionally generous to me with institutional scholarship funds that came from generous donors (often from attorneys who were in exactly the same spot as you are in trying to fund your legal education). So if you are still in a position to increase your GPA or LSAT score, focus on those. Next, think about what makes yourself interesting and unique and why you would be valuable to a law school, to the legal market, and to society in general. Personally, I am the wife of a veteran, the mother of a 4-year-old daughter, and a former environmental consultant. All of these facts resulted in scholarships for me because I was able to find and connect with organizations that supported these things. I am immensely appreciative that these organizations believed in me and my promise as an attorney enough to help fund my legal education; they have been supportive not only in terms of finances but also networking and moral support (hearing from attorneys that were in exactly the same position that I’m in now). I hope that one day very soon I will be able to help another law student graduate debt-free by supporting these organizations when I am an attorney. But remember that you can’t get these scholarships unless you invest the time into applying for them; I have applied for far more scholarships than I have been awarded.
Step 4 – Get the full value of the legal education that you are paying for
Once you have been accepted to law school (congrats!), likely signed for your first student loans, and started classes, there is still more work to be done. Your 1L year should be laser-focused on getting the absolute most you possibly can out of this legal education you so desperately wanted. That means treating it like you would treat your paying job—because after all, you are foregoing income to be here (that’s the “opportunity cost” I mentioned before). Stay focused on studying, stay focused in class (that means coming to class and staying off Facebook), connect with your professors, and take exams very seriously. If you have done everything you possibly can during your 1L year to be successful, then you will likely be rewarded with good grades. These good grades translate to more scholarships. That’s right—the pursuit of graduating debt-free doesn’t end once you’ve started law school. This is your chance to show that you are dedicated to the law and maybe a particular area of the law. Good grades, pro bono work (after your 1L year), and involvement in organizations and the legal community all demonstrate your promise as a future lawyer (and worthy of scholarship funds).
Step 5 – Consider taking on a legal job during your 2L and 3L year
The value of this is two-fold. You will be paid for your work (and have to take out less student loans), and you will gain valuable experience in the field of law that you may be practicing one day. If all goes well, your part-time legal job may even turn into your full-time legal career.
Valerie Chartier-Hogancamp, 3L