Law school no 'magic bullet' against recession, but financial aid can help

If law school tuition can cost more than $150,000 and the legal services profession lost 17,200 jobs between July 2009 and 2010, is investing in a law degree still worth the expense? Actually, yes, according to three legal education experts who spoke to Money College about law school financial aid.

Since a law degree prepares graduates for a variety of careers, experts argue that law school is still a solid investment -- but urge recession-era students to be more judicious than ever in planning law school financial aid.

"With the downturn in the economy and changes in the legal profession, graduates should not assume that they will waltz into a job that pays six-figures," said Susan Saab Fortney, interim dean and a professor at the Texas Tech University School of Law. Rather, Saab Fortney said, "people should see legal education as a solid graduate education that gives you a number of different options, as your job opportunities aren't limited to traditional law practice."

Weigh tuition costs and financial aid for law school against markers like bar passage rates, Saab Fortney advises, since students with lighter student loan burdens after graduation may have more options open to them.

According to a recent New York Times article, law schools are seeing a marked increase in applications and a record number of LSAT test-takers, despite the recession's pummeling job markets -- even though nearly 80% of law students have to rely at least partially on loans to pay for school, according to law school financial aid information from the nonprofit Law School Admission Council.

Aspiring students should start with a step for law school financial aid that is already familiar to most undergrads, says Beth Hall, associate dean of admissions at the Shepard Broad Law Center at Nova Southeastern University -- fill out your FAFSA. "The process for financial aid for law school and undergraduate is the same," said Hall, even though "[federal] Stafford loans do not cover all of the tuition and [students] may need to apply for loans for additional funding."

Working during the summers can help alleviate one's debt burden while building real-life experience at the same time, Saab Fortney said. Pick a school in your budget, she said, and know that public service legal jobs may offer loan forgiveness programs to attract graduates who might otherwise go into higher-paying private sector jobs. (Click here or here for resources on service loan forgiveness.) Hall also recommends students meet with law school financial aid counselors and borrow wisely by knowing their credit history and score before applying for a loan.

Like her peers, second-year Loyola University Chicago law student Betsy Piekarz is paying for school with loans and other law school financial aid. "I knew that law school was expensive," said Piekarz, 23. "But I know that there are people out there that will help you survive those three years and if you pay it back for the rest of your life, at least you're done what you've wanted to do."

Even though loans make up a lot of law school financial aid, "a law degree is still a very good investment," Nova Southeastern's Assistant Dean for Career Development Robert Levine told Money College in an e-mail. "Is it expensive? Yes, and, it should not be viewed as a magic bullet which automatically creates opportunity. But, used wisely, it can still be an excellent investment into one's future."

Still puzzling over paying for school? Learn more about law school financial aid from this LSAC video series.
Read Full Story