Law school scholarships
The posted tuition cost for any given school is just the starting place. All schools offer scholarships to some extent, and an increasing percentage of students are able to attend school with some kind of institutional grant aid. Think of the tuition number as your sticker price, and the scholarships as the discounts.
Law schools are significantly less likely to offer need-based scholarships than they once were. Most need-based aid comes in the form of loans. That said, to the extent that they are offering such aid, you should apply via the FAFSA and any other application forms/processes the school requests.
Increasingly, law schools rely on merit-based scholarships to attract students to their schools by, essentially, offering significant discounts. The lion’s share of such scholarships are offered to students whose LSAT scores are above the school’s 75th percentile (or even, in recent years, above their 50th percentile). For a number of reasons, law schools have a strong interest in maintaining or improving their median LSAT ranges. Offering scholarships to attract high scorers to their school is a primary method for achieving this goal. In most instances, a score that might gain you admission to a more selective school will earn you admission plus a substantial scholarship at a less selective school. This is one reason it makes sense to apply to a range of schools. To a lesser extent, this process also applies to students with strong undergraduate GPAs (but not often in the absence of strong LSAT scores).
Law schools also offer scholarships to increase the diversity of their student bodies, in particular the racial or ethnic diversity. And finally, law schools usually offer a number of named competitive scholarships with specific criteria—for example, commitment to public interest, or residence/origin in a particular region, city or town. The latter often require that you submit additional application materials.
In almost all cases, scholarship offers are negotiable. If Second Choice School offers you $20,000, but First Choice School offers only $10,000, you should feel comfortable asking First Choice if they can offer more—the worst they can do is say no. It is extremely important that in any such discussions with the law schools officials you conduct yourself professionally. Do not act as though you’re entitled to more money, and don’t treat the admissions officers with anything but respect and courtesy. Do pay attention to the school’s procedures for scholarship negotiations: some schools have well-developed, standardized procedures, while others are more informal. Follow the school’s stated procedure (or, if you can’t figure out what it is, call them and ask). Most schools will ask for documentation of the competing scholarship offer.
Make sure you have run your own numbers about cost of attendance before you talk to admissions officers about your scholarship. Are the tuition and other costs comparable? The costs of living? Make sure you’re comparing apples to apples as you try to determine what your actual overall cost is. A $10,000 discount off of a $35,000 tuition results in a lower out-of-pocket cost as a $20,000 discount at a $50,000 school. Keep a spreadsheet of your tuition and related costs, living expenses in different cities, and scholarship offers to keep yourself on track.
When you’re in the negotiation process, and/or have just completed it, refrain from posting about it on any of the many online fora for law school applicants. Admission officials read those message boards. You may think you’re anonymous, but it’s trivially easy to identify you from just a few biographical tidbits (remember, you’ve divulged a lot more information in your application to them). If you vent about an admission official, in all likelihood s/he’s going to see it. Such behavior will almost certainly impact your success in the admission and/or scholarship process. And it’s utterly unprofessional in any case. (This is good advice for your whole career—law world is small, reports of unprofessional behavior travel fast, and lawyers have long and sometimes unforgiving memories.)
Scholarship conditions and requirements
It’s critical that you understand what conditions apply to the scholarships you’re being offered. Scholarships can be difficult to maintain once you enroll in schools: do you need to maintain a certain GPA or class rank? Top 20% or top 80% or “good standing”—these are all very different requirements. For many applicants, these requirements appear relatively easy to meet, based on their undergraduate performance. But law school grades are different from undergraduate grades. In addition to the fact that in most first year law school classes, grades are based on a single exam at the end of the year, in many law schools, a strict grading curve is imposed. For example, the school may limit the percentage of any given class that can earn above a 3.5, or that 60% of a the students enrolled in a given course must earn a B (with correspondingly lower percentages for grades above and below that). Many students feel overly confident of their ability to attain these standards—after all, you probably did well as an undergrad, so how hard could it be to continue in a similar vein? Remember that the overwhelming majority of law students excelled as undergrads—the competition for a limited supply of good grades is simply much greater.
If you are offered a scholarship, before you accept, you should make sure you understand (1) what the specific conditions are, (2) what percentage of students each year meets those conditions, and (3) what percentage of first year students are able to maintain their scholarships the second and third years. If a school is not willing to provide that information to you, that should tell you something about the integrity of the school’s scholarship program.
Scholarships from other sources
Finally, the law schools are not the only sources of scholarship money. Bar associations (from the ABA down to your local county’s bar association) offer various competitive scholarships. Local community foundations, town and county governments, and special interest organizations (e.g., the Rotary Club, the local NAACP chapter) also often offer scholarships to students who fit specific criteria. Occasionally, law firms and large companies offer scholarships to their employees and/or their families. Research these sources, and then apply! Every $1,000 you take off the front end is upwards of of $1,700 you never have to repay. It’s worth an hour of your time to apply. Links to some scholarship resources can be found on the links page here.