While many attorneys enjoy financial success, students considering law school should be aware that the proverbial road to riches is punctuated with toll booths. Your legal education will be one of the most important investments you will ever make, but if you plan your financial route in advance, you are less likely to veer off track.
Most potential law students understand that they must plan for the costs of at least three years of tuition, books, and living expenses (four for part-time students), whether via savings, parental support, scholarships, loans, or some combination thereof. What they may not know is that pursuing a legal career comes with all sorts of extra costs before, during, and after they attend law school.
Students who want to make the most of their investment are best served by creating a five-year financial plan, outlining their potential costs and developing strategies for meeting them. Listed below are tips to get you started, but you should also plan to speak with a financial aid professional at both your undergraduate institution and your potential law schools, to get a fuller picture.
Year 1: Getting the Ball Rolling
“What?” you may be asking. “I have to pay for law school before I’ve even started?” The truth of the matter is that the costs of preparing for and taking the LSAT, applying to multiple law schools, and visiting law school campuses can run in the hundreds and even thousands of dollars.
So what’s a pre-law student to do?
- Plan, save, pay off debt, and plan some more.
- Create a spending plan for cost-of-living expenses while in law school, budgeting for basics like housing, food, clothes, limited entertainment, and, of course, that law school staple – coffee!
- Consider investing in a laptop computer and sturdy backpack for trudging your huge casebooks from class to class.
- Research funding opportunities such as student loans, merit- and need-based scholarships and grants, and work-study assistance. Be sure to ask law schools about scholarship opportunities when choosing where to apply.
Year 2: The First Year They Scare You to Death…
In addition to tuition, books, and living expenses, the first year of law school comes with a number of hidden costs. Bar examiners in your intended state of practice may ask you to pay a registration fee. Many law students also rely on commercial outlines – thick paperback books that outline black letter law – to supplement their casebook and classroom studies. If you are attending a law school far from home, do not forget to factor in travel expenses for holiday visits.
- Plan in advance for how you will pay for your summer living expenses.
- Consider applying for fellowships, and/or participating in activities that will qualify you for a summer grant from your law school if it has such a program.
- Consider taking out an additional student loan if you are able to get credits for your summer fellowship.
- Budget for work attire, a resume portfolio, travel expenses for job interviews, and association fees.
- Expect to pay up to $400 as a deposit for a bar exam preparation course.
This all might seem overwhelming, but don’t even think about taking a summer gig as a waitress; 90 percent of law students work in a legal position during their first year summer, and if you are not among them, you will be at a significant disadvantage when it comes time to secure employment later.
Year 3: In the Trenches
Tuition? Check. Books? Check. Living expenses? Check. Professional wardrobe? Check. What else can there be?
The Multistate Professional Responsibility Examination (MPRE) that’s what. This exam, which tests your understanding of ethics in the legal profession, is a pre-requisite or co-requisite for taking the bar and being admitted as an attorney in 47 of the 50 states.
- Set aside funds to pay for the MPRE.
- Plan for your summer as if you will once again be working for free.
- If you anticipate getting a paid position, expect to spend more on office attire.
Year 4: They Charge Me to Take a Test?
By now, you’ve learned to plan for recurring expenses like tuition and books. You’ve invested in a great wardrobe, and, if you haven’t already secured post-graduate employment, you’ve got stacks of resume paper just waiting for that perfect opening.
Unfortunately, some major costs are just beginning.
- Expect to pay a few thousand dollars on the balance of your bar exam preparation course.
- Budget for the MPRE exam if you have not yet taken it or failed to pass the first time around.
- Plan for other hefty fees associated with registering for the bar exam and the moral character application.
- Don’t forget graduation expenses such as cap and gown rental feels and graduation announcements.
- If you are planning to practice in a state other than the one in which you attended law school, count on moving expenses as well.
Year 5: The Most Important Year of Your Legal Career
You have taken your last law school exam, thrown (or politely waved) your cap at graduation, and maybe even had a whole week’s vacation for the first time since you started law school. Now the real work begins.
Don’t kid yourself: Studying for the bar exam is a full-time job with lots of overtime and no benefits. (That is, until you pass!) You will spend the first two months after graduation and then some mired in virtually everything you have learned in law school.
- Expect to spend at least two months without a steady income, studying for the bar full-time.
- Consider a bar exam loan to get you though this rough patch.
- Be prepared for more time unemployed while you search for your first job after passing the bar.
Remember, investing in a legal career means more than just tuition and books. The legal profession is an important and worthy one which offers great potential for financial security, intellectual stimulation, high social standing, and the opportunity to make a difference in the world. But just as you wouldn’t drive at night on a highway with your headlights off, don’t begin your journey into the legal profession in the dark.