Financial Aid and Scholarships for Law School

In this lesson, we’re going to answer some basic questions about law school financial aid:

  1. How much does law school cost?
  2. What’s the difference between merit aid and need-based aid?
  3. How and when do you get or increase your merit aid?
  4. How and when do you apply for need-based aid?
  5. How else can you fund your legal education?
  6. Once you’ve graduated, how do you repay your loans?

How Much Law School Costs

A school’s “sticker price,” or its full tuition rate, is available on its website. Annual full-time tuition rates vary from less than twenty thousand dollars (usually public schools of lower rank) to more than sixty thousand dollars per year. Make sure that you distinguish between in-state tuition rates and out-of-state rates when applicable. (Only public institutions offer in-state tuition rates; private institutions have a single nominal tuition rate for all students.)

In addition to tuition, the cost of your education will include administrative and student fees, textbooks (which can cost over $100 each), academic supplies, legal study guides, and possibly printer costs. Finally, you will have to pay for your living costs, which will include room and board, health insurance, utilities, transportation costs, and probably a professional wardrobe for internships and interviews. Multiply all of that by three years and you’ll have an idea of what you’ll have to pay!

Most law school websites offer information about the cost of attendance—try Googling “[Law School X] Cost of Attendance.” Yale Law School, for example, estimates that a student will pay about $89,000 in the 2019–2020 academic year. The Maurer School of Law at The University of Indiana, Bloomington estimates that a student will pay between $68,000 and $78,000 per year.

See also this student loan calculator from AccessLex and various resources from

Merit Aid vs. Need-Based Aid

There are two kinds of financial aid: merit and need-based aid. Merit aid is awarded by an admissions office on the basis of an applicant’s strength; need-based aid is usually awarded by an office of student finance on the basis of—you guessed-it—an applicant’s need. Schools use merit aid to convince students to matriculate, especially diverse or highly qualified students who might go somewhere else; schools use need-based aid to allow students to matriculate, particularly students who cannot afford law school on their own. Merit aid, meant to make a school more attractive, usually comes in the form of tuition remission or grants which don’t need to be paid back (aka “gift aid”). Need-based aid, meant to make a school more feasible, usually (but not always) comes in the form of loans, both federal and institutional, which do of course need to be paid back.

Most schools will automatically consider you for merit aid when you apply. On the other hand, you will have to apply for need-based aid by filling out a FAFSA and possibly a CSS or another form. (Skip right to the FAFSA section.)

To summarize:

Merit Aid Need-Based Aid
Awarded by... Admissions Office Office of Student Finance
In order to... Convince you to come Allow you to come
You're considered... Automatically After applying
On the basis of... Your application's strength Financial need
Usually in form of... Gift aid Loans

Merit Aid

We’ve broken this section into several subsections:

When can you expect to receive merit aid?

Some schools may offer you a scholarship when they accept you; others might tell you when you can expect to hear from them; many, of course, won’t offer you aid at all. If you’re not offered merit aid initially, you can always ask for it later. If you are offered merit aid, you can always ask for more.

You can only ask for a merit scholarship after you’re accepted.

When should you request more financial aid?

In a nutshell, March and April are great times to request scholarship reconsiderations, but of course it depends. Ideally, you would wait until you have as many competitive scholarship offers as you are likely to get. A competitive offer, from a given school’s point of view, is an offer that comes from a peer school.

Requesting a scholarship reconsideration before March is almost certainly too early—admissions officers will still be reading files. On the other hand, requesting a scholarship reconsideration after a school’s first deposit deadline is a bit late for your first request. See also “Should you make a seat deposit at a law school before you request a scholarship reconsideration?

If a school denies your initial reconsideration request, you can and should request a reconsideration for a second time after the school’s deposit deadline, and after you’ve deposited at another school. Let the admissions office know that you’ve deposited elsewhere and simply won’t be able to attend unless they increase your merit aid. After all, you have nothing to lose.

Whether or not you make your initial deposit at the school in question is up to you. We recommend that you do, but if you fail to deposit, you demonstrate that you’re serious about attending another school.

How do you ask a law school for more merit aid?

Step 1: Research and Connect

Begin your process with some online research. Some law schools have a formal reconsideration process or a set of guidelines; other schools are less rigid.

If a school doesn’t lay out a formal reconsideration procedure—and sometimes, even if they do—we recommend that you call the admissions office. Simply introduce yourself, tell them that you’re very interested in attending, and ask how you can request a scholarship reconsideration. Be polite, earnest, and honest. For example:

Thanks so much for talking to me. My name is David, and I was admitted to the 2020 first-year class. I’m just calling to ask if there’s a procedure for requesting a scholarship reconsideration. I love your school—when I visited in March, I really felt at home—but I’m worried about the cost of my legal education, and I’ve had some competitive offers from other schools.

In all likelihood, an admissions officer will ask you to request a reconsideration in writing (see below), but the call still serves a purpose. Throughout this process, your goal is to connect with someone, and a phone call can help you set the right tone. Although market forces do affect the outcome of your request, you shouldn’t act like a hotshot driving a hard bargain. You should act like a hopeful student who’s looking for a way to afford an expensive education.

Step 2: Make Your Request

You generally have two levers when you request more aid:

  1. Scholarship offers from other schools, especially peer schools or schools of higher ranking.
  2. Offers of admission from schools of considerably higher rank.

You can always ask for more merit aid if you don’t have either of the above, but you may not succeed.

Whether you’re asking for more merit aid on the phone or via email, you want to cover a few points, at least briefly:

  1. Why you want to go to their school
  2. What’s stopping you
  3. What other offers you’re considering
  4. What kind of aid you’re looking for

1. Why you want to go to their school

You don’t have to write a whole essay—a couple sentences may be enough—but you do have to convince your readers that you are prepared to enroll, and that you’re not just building ammunition to ask another school for more aid.

2. What’s stopping you

Tell a school if, e.g., your parents won’t contribute to your education, or if your family’s finances have come under strain.

3. What other offers you’re considering

Be specific. Note what school offered you how much, and attach PDFs of the offers. (If a school didn’t give you a PDF, you should either request one or attach a screenshot). If you’ve received multiple offers, choose your two or three most compelling offers. (You’ll decide what’s compelling by thinking about both the school’s ranking and the amount of the scholarship they offered you.)

4. What kind of aid you’re looking for

You can ask for a specific amount (“If you could increase my total award to $90,000”), ask for a school to match a peer school’s offer, or simply ask if they can increase their award. We usually recommend that you ask for a specific amount or a match.

If you ask a school to match another offer, you should consider what you’ll actually pay to attend each school, not just the amount of the scholarship. For example, if Northwestern offered you a scholarship of $45,000 per year and you’re thinking of asking Berkeley to match, you should consider that, on the one hand, Northwestern’s tuition is higher, while on the other hand, Berkeley’s living costs are higher:

Berkeley Northwestern
Info from: Here Here
Tuition* $49,325.00 $64,102.00
Total Annual COA** $85,315.00 $91,716.00
Scholarship/Potential $ $40,000.00 $45,000.00
Annual Cost $45,315.00 $46,716.00

*In-state for Berkeley

**“COA” means “cost of attendance.”

In this example, you might ask for a $40,000 scholarship per year from Berkeley in order to match Northwestern’s $45,0000 scholarship.

“But wait,” you might be thinking. “Can’t I ask Berkeley for more if I just leave out the cost of attendance?” Theoretically, you could, but you need to remember an important fact: admissions officers aren’t dumb. They can see just as easily as you can that Northwestern’s tuition is more expensive. Your request is more plausible if you are thorough and transparent.

If you find yourself discussing your award with an admissions officer on the phone, just remember to be polite and earnest. Don’t feel bad about asking for more! They know that law school is expensive, and they want you to attend. It is, in fact, their job to get you to attend, and it’s your job to advocate for yourself.

A Sample Template

If you write an email, here’s a sample template:

  1. The butter-up: I love your school so much. (Say, briefly, why you're excited about your offer.)
  2. The catch: However, financial concerns play a large role in my decision. (Explain your financial circumstances if you don’t have a lot of dough.)
  3. The polite pressure: Recently, school X offered me a scholarship in the amount of P, and school Y offered me a scholarship in the amount of Q. (You can also note that a much more highly ranked school gave you a place in the class.)
  4. The ask: I am writing to ask if you can match school X’s offer. [OR] Given school X’s tuition of B and my scholarship of P, I would pay Z per year. I am writing to ask if you can offer me a scholarship of H, which would make my cost of attendance approximately equal.
  5. The pledge (optional): If you were able to offer me a scholarship in the amount of H, I would be able to commit immediately. (Don’t write this unless you mean it. You can also say something like “Such a scholarship would make my decision much easier.)
  6. The sign off: Thank you so much for your time. (Briefly reiterate your gratitude.)

Attach PDFs of the offer letters you mention.

That template is only meant to show you one possibility. We strongly encourage you to find your own words: your letter will be more earnest and persuasive if you do.

One more note: the applicant community often refers to “scholarship negotiations.” We use the term ourselves as it acknowledges that legal education exists in a market, and that candidates should shop around. That said, the term “negotiation” may sound confrontational to an admissions or financial aid officer. Remember that you are working with law schools to make your dream of attendance possible, and use the term “scholarship reconsideration” if you must refer to the process at all with them.

Is there any risk or downside of requesting more financial aid?

As long as you are honest, polite, and forthcoming, there is absolutely no downside to requesting a scholarship reconsideration. A school will not rescind your offer of admission or decrease your scholarship out of pique. If they admitted you, they want you to attend!

Can you ask for a scholarship reconsideration in person?

We recommend that you call and email first so that admissions officers have a chance to consider your request on their own schedule. If you’ve already been declined on the phone or via email and you’re planning on visiting a school anyway, you don’t have much to lose by petitioning an admissions officer one more time in person. Don’t play hardball, put the admissions officer on the spot, or ask for a specific number. Just remind her how eager you are to attend and ask politely if there’s any possibility of a reconsideration.

How can you maximize your aid?

It’s sometimes possible to walk up the ladder by, e.g., using a scholarship offer from WashU Law to bid up UCLA Law to ask for more money from Cornell Law. See our post Law School Success Story: The International Applicant for an example.

Do you ever need to apply for merit aid?

Some schools, including NYU and UCLA, offer named scholarships to which you can apply. You’ll see these scholarships on the schools’ web pages and on their applications. See also our Application Requirements for Top Law Schools.

Need-Based Aid

Most people fund their law school education through some combination of federal loans, institutional grants (i.e., merit-based or need-based tuition remission), institutional loans, and, less commonly, state grants and outside scholarships. Unlike merit-based aid, need-based aid has no whiff of a beauty pageant. Schools want to help you maximize your need-based aid, and an office of student finance should be able to help you navigate the process. Nevertheless, you should understand your options.

We’ve broken this section into several subsections:

How do you apply for need-based aid?

You’ll apply for need-based aid by completing a FAFSA and, in some cases, a CSS or another form.


The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) was developed by the US Department of Education to help collect your data, process it, and deliver it to educational institutions. It is available for free online at Completion of the FAFSA is required to apply for federal and state financial aid (both loans and grants). Do not pay anyone to complete this form for you. If you have questions or issues, you should contact the Student Finance Office of one of the law schools to which you are applying.

As a law school applicant, you’ll be considered financially independent, and you don’t need to provide your parental information on the FAFSA to qualify for federal loans. However, some law schools may require parental information when evaluating you for institutional loans or grants. Requirements will vary from school to school.

The FAFSA for a given academic cycle becomes available in October of the prior year. For example, the FAFSA for the 2019–2020 academic cycle became available on October 1, 2018. You should fill out your FAFSA as soon as possible. This way, you will know your eligibility for financial aid early in the application process, and you’ll be able to make informed decisions about what law schools you should apply to and how much debt you are willing to incur. Do not wait until you have received admission to a program to think about how you’ll fund your education!

The FAFSA will let you designate ten schools as the recipients of your information. Each law school has its own FAFSA school code, and you can search for them at You can send your FAFSA to additional schools later in the cycle, so you don’t need a finalized list of law schools before you fill it out.

After a school receives your information and admits you, its office of student finance will put together a financial aid package comprised of institutional loans (if applicable), federal loans, and other need-based awards. (As we said, the admissions office and not the office of student finance typically determines any merit-based awards.) Because costs vary from school to school, financial packages also vary from school to school.

After you have decided which school you will attend, you can apply for federal loans. You should work closely with the office of student finance. You will not be able to borrow more from the federal government (via federal loans) than what the office of student finance has determined you will need. In order to minimize your interest payments, you should not borrow more than what you determine you will need.

You will always need to fill out a FAFSA to be eligible for federal financial aid. You may or may not need to fill out a FAFSA to be eligible for a school’s institutional need-based aid.


The CSS Profile is an online application administered by the CollegeBoard to collect financial information from applicants for participating colleges, graduate schools, and professional schools in order to determine non-federal, institutional financial aid and scholarships. (The FAFSA is the only form used to determine federal aid such as federal loans and Federal Work-Study.) Not all law schools require or use the CSS Profile, so you should review the financial aid page of your law school.

The CSS Profile application for a given academic year is available at on October first of the preceding year. For example, the CSS Profile for the 2019–2020 academic year became available on October 1, 2018.

In order to complete the application, you will need your most recently completed federal tax returns, your W-2 forms, bank statements, information about your other sources of income, and records of other assets. Unlike the FAFSA, there is a fee for filing the initial application and subsequent reports.

While the FAFSA asks the same questions of all applicants, an institution can tailor the questions it asks in its CSS Profile. You should expect to be asked questions in the CSS Profile about your parents’ income, your home equity, and your medical expenses. The CSS Profile generally weighs a student’s assets more heavily than the FAFSA does. While a student’s federal aid is set according to federal standards under FAFSA, an individual school has more discretion to determine an aid package with the information in the CSS Profile.

Who is eligible for what kind of federal loans?

All US citizens and green-card holders are eligible for Federal Direct Stafford Loans and Federal Graduate PLUS Loans.

Federal Direct Stafford Loans

  • These loans are funded by the US Department of Education.
  • You can borrow a maximum of $20,500 per year with a lifetime loan maximum of $138,500.
  • This is an unsubsidized loan, which means that the government starts charging interest once you receive the money.
  • You will need to start repaying the loan six months after you graduate.

Federal Graduate PLUS Loans

  • Once you have combined savings, merit awards, and other financial aid, you can borrow PLUS loans up to the remaining cost of your education.
  • The PLUS loan will require that you have a good credit history.
  • This is an unsubsidized loan, which means that the government starts charging interest once you receive the money.
  • You will need to start repaying the loan six months after you graduate.

If you aren’t a US citizen or a permanent resident, you aren’t eligible for federal loans.

Can you work during law school?

Law schools strongly discourage students from working during their 1L year. Why? First of all, your entire schedule is predetermined, so you’ll have little flexibility to accommodate a job. Second of all, your first-year grades are very important in setting you up for participation in law journals, moot court, summer associate positions, clerkships, and internships. You want to take every opportunity to adapt to your new learning environment and perform as well as possible in your 1L classes.

As a 2L and 3L, you will have more freedom to set your own class schedule and pursue a job. A part-time law-related job would be a great way to build your résumé and network during the school year. You could also look into working on campus in the law library or as a research assistant or teaching assistant.

If your law school participates in the Federal Work-Study Program, and you are a full-time law student, you may be eligible to work at a non-profit agency part-time during the school year and full-time during the summer.

How else can you fund your legal education?

Private Loans

If you reach your limit for federal loans or if you are not eligible for them, you can consider taking out a loan from a bank or credit union. Some students also use private loans to supplement their financial aid package or to cover expenses they incur while preparing for the bar exam.

The better your credit history, the better your chance of obtaining a private loan. If you have a history of delinquency in paying your rent, insurance, credit card bills, tuition, or utility bills, you may find it challenging to secure a private loan. Be aware of the fine print when dealing with private loans. Interest rates may be significantly higher than the rate for a federal loan. You may be required to make payments while you are still in law school. You may need a credit-worthy co-signor to obtain the loan.

Independent Scholarships

There are numerous independent law school scholarships from professional legal organizations, corporations, law firms, and other organizations. You may be eligible for these based on your legal interests, geographic location, ethnicity, or other diversity factors. See if your undergraduate career services office has any advice and look at lists of outside scholarships. AccessLex maintains a law school scholarship databank.


  • Maintain a good credit rating (pay your bills!)
  • Save now and consider investing in budgeting software
  • Start your FAFSA as soon as possible
  • Research schools’ LRAP programs and financial aid policies
  • Request scholarship reconsiderations to maximize your merit aid

Once you’ve graduated, how do you repay your loans?

If you took out private loans to finance your legal education, the terms of repayment will be set by your lender. If you took out federal loans, after you graduate, leave, or drop below half-time enrollment, you will have a six-month grace period before you need to begin repaying your loans.

Note that with unsubsidized federal loans, interest will accrue during school and during your grace period. While you do not need to begin loan repayment until after school, you may make payments to avoid interest being added to the balance of your loans.

The most up-to-date information on federal loan repayment can be found on Please note that this information may have errors or be out of date, so you should double-check with the Federal Student Aid website or your school’s financial aid office.

The Department of Education will use a loan servicer to handle the billing and services for your loans. This servicer will set you up under a Standard repayment plan unless you tell them otherwise (list of options below).

Federal loan repayment options:

Balance-based: Plans where payments are not based on income; they are calculated at amounts guaranteed to pay off the entire loan within a fixed period of time. There is no loan forgiveness under balanced based plans. These plans prevent interest from accruing.

  • Standard: 10 years
  • Graduated: 10 years, but payments are lower at first and then increase, usually every two years
  • Extended [if you have more than $30K in outstanding debt]: Payments can be fixed or graduated, paid off within 25 years. But this is not a qualifying payment plan for PSLF.

Income-based: Your monthly payments are based on a percentage of your discretionary income. The more income a borrower has, the higher the payments will be; less income brings lower payments. The unpaid loan balance is cancelled after payments are made for a period of time. You should pick the option that is best for you at the time.

Downsides: you will generally pay more over time than in a balance-based program, because your payments may be too low to pay off the interest accruing.

Discretionary income is an important figure with income-based plans.

Discretionary Income: Adjusted Gross Income - 150% of poverty line (or 100% of line, in income-contingent repayment). Income recertification is required yearly.

Financial Hardship Required (note - for new borrowers, these two options are very similar)

  • Pay As You Earn (PAYE)

    • To qualify, the payment you would be required to make (based on your income and family size) must be less than what you would pay under the Standard Repayment Plan with a 10-year repayment period. Generally, you'll meet this requirement if your federal student loan debt is higher than your annual discretionary income or represents a significant portion of your annual income.
    • Your monthly payments will be 10 percent of discretionary income, but never more than you would have paid under the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan. Payments are recalculated each year and are based on your updated income and family size. After 20 years, all outstanding loan balance is cancelled.
    • If you no longer have the hardship, your payments enter into the standard payment rate. Your repayment period may be longer than 10 years, because any interest that has accrued will be capitalized (added to the loan balance).
    • If you're married, your spouse’s income or loan debt is added to yours if taxes are filed jointly.
  • Income-Based Repayment (IBR)

    • To qualify, the payment you would be required to make (based on your income and family size) must be less than what you would pay under the Standard Repayment Plan with a 10-year repayment period. Generally, you'll meet this requirement if your federal student loan debt is higher than your annual discretionary income or represents a significant portion of your annual income.
    • The amount you pay monthly will be capped at 10 percent of your discretionary income, but never more than you would have paid under the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan.
    • Outstanding loans forgiven after 20 years.
    • If you no longer have the hardship, your payments enter into the standard payment. Your repayment period may be longer than 10 years, because any interest that has accrued will be capitalized (added to the loan balance).
    • If you're married, your spouse’s income or loan debt is added to yours if taxes are filed jointly.

Anyone eligible (no financial hardship req.)

  • Revised Pay as you Earn (REPAYE)

    • REPAYE caps your monthly payment amount at 10 percent of your monthly income. If you are enrolled in REPAYE, any outstanding balance is cancelled after 25 years of qualifying repayment.

      • Payments are recalculated each year and are based on your updated income and family size.
      • if your income increases over time, in some cases your payment may be higher than the amount you would have to pay under the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan.
    • The only qualification for entering into REPAYE is having eligible loans.

    • If you're married, both your and your spouse’s income or loan debt will be considered, whether taxes are filed jointly or separately.

  • Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR)

    • Payments are the lesser of the following:

      • 20 percent of your discretionary income or
      • what you would pay on a repayment plan with a fixed payment over the course of 12 years, adjusted according to your income
    • Outstanding loans forgiven after 25 years.

Forgiveness in the above scenarios (after 20 or 25 years) is a taxable event, but does not require eligible employment.

Public service loan forgiveness (PSLF): PSLF is a federal program that forgives the remaining balance on your Direct Loans after you have made 120 qualifying payments while working full-time for a qualifying employer (government entities or not for profit orgs). Your job doesn't need to be law-related for PSLF. Only payments made under income-driven repayment plans qualify for PSLF. While payments made under the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan are qualifying payments, you would have to change to an IDR plan to benefit from PSLF. Under the 10-year Standard Repayment Plan, generally your loans will be paid in full once you have made the 120 qualifying PSLF payments and there will be no balance to forgive.

Amounts forgiven under the PSLF Program are not considered income by the Internal Revenue Service.

This requires dedication to the field, frequent check-ins to make sure you’re on track, and paperwork.

What are Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAPS)?

If you are considering a career in public service or public interest law, you can expect a salary lower than what you would earn in the private sector. In order to incentivize students to work for the public, many law schools offer loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs) which forgive some or all of their graduates’ law school debt if the graduates meet certain conditions.

In many cases, law schools will encourage students to combine with PSLF so students’ outstanding loan balance can be cancelled after the conclusion of the LRAP program. Note that the requirements to participate in LRAP programs may be different than the requirements to achieve federal PSLF.

See our Comparison of LRAP Programs for T14 Schools.

Additional Resources:

Equal Justice Works’ Guide to Managing Your Student Debt (2018):

Berkeley Law financial aid’s presentation slides:

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