Top Four Ways to Avoid Getting Ripped off by Law School

If you've ever listened to my podcast—and you should!—you know I spend a lot of time ranting about the exorbitant prices law schools charge these days. On a recent episode, we proposed a "rebuttable presumption": Don't Pay for Law School. If you've got a trust fund, or if you're going to work in Big Law and make $200,000 per year, you can rebut this presumption. But the vast majority of law school applicants aren't independently wealthy, and won't work in Big Law. For this majority, paying full price for law school is an enormous financial blunder. The good news is, you don't have to pay—if you're smart about the way you apply. This post will offer four keys to making sure you get a great deal on your J.D.

1) Get the best LSAT score you can.

Google "ABA 509 [name of law school that interests you]" and you'll find a wealth of data on scholarships. Using UCLA Law as a representative example, you'll see that 79% of the school is receiving some sort of merit-based aid. 28% of the school is getting somewhere between 50 and 100% of their education for free. And a lucky handful are actually getting more than full tuition. Consider what this means for the 21% who aren't getting any scholarship at all. Not only are they funding the education for the 79% who are on scholarship, they're also buying pizza and beer for the few who are getting more than 100% of their tuition covered. Don't buy pizza and beer for your fellow law students unless you're doing it in person! 

Now, the LSAT isn't the only factor in your law school application. Your undergraduate grades, your personal statement, your letters of recommendation, your resume—all of these will play a role. But the LSAT is the one factor that all applicants have in common, and law schools use it as the primary determinant of who they will admit. Even more importantly, they use the LSAT as the primary determinant of how much they will charge students to attend. When law schools give "merit-based aid," they use the LSAT as their first definition of "merit." If you want a scholarship—and you should—you need the very best LSAT score you can get. I hope you'll let me help.

2) Apply early.

Law schools use "rolling admissions," which means that they open the admissions window roughly one full year in advance and they hold that window open until March or April—sometimes longer. Naive applicants will look only at the application deadline, and think they can apply in the spring and start law school that same year. The truth is that they can—if they want to get ripped off.

Here's the way the cycle goes down: In September and October, the best-prepared applicants apply. They've got great LSAT scores, polished personal statements, everything ready to go at the beginning of the cycle. That's quite lawyerly of them, and they will be well-rewarded for their proactivity. Law schools are desperate for applicants at the beginning of the cycle; they've got giant, empty classrooms to fill each year. At the beginning of the cycle, schools claw desperately to fill seats with the best available talent. They are generous with offers, both in terms of admission and in terms of money. Later in the cycle, seats have already been filled, and scholarships have already been offered. As the months pass into December and January, more and more people apply. It starts to turn from a buyer's market into a seller's market. When you apply in February or March, you're signaling to the schools that you are desperate for a seat, and that you'd like to pay full price for it. It's a sucker's play. Please don't be a sucker.

3) Apply broadly.

With the exception of the Harvards, Stanford, and Yales of the world—and there are precious few of those—law schools are all basically the same. Most schools teach the exact same 1L classes, in the exact same way, using the exact same textbooks. In your 2L and 3L years, you'll take many of the same electives, and have basically the same clinic and externship opportunities. Glossy brochures and slick admissions salesfolk will try to convince you there's some unique opportunity that's available only at this school or that. But every law school gives you a J.D., and every law school qualifies you to sit for the bar exam. Of course employment opportunities are different when you graduate from Stanford instead of, say, Golden Gate. But the differences between UC Davis and UC Berkeley, for example, aren't nearly as big as you might think. If your choice comes down to Berkeley at full sticker price vs. Davis with a full ride, I think it's a no-brainer to take the money and go to Davis.

Even if you're stuck within one geographical location (by a family, mortgage, or whatever) you have more options than you think. Students in the Bay Area should apply to Stanford and Berkeley, of course, but also to Davis, Santa Clara, Hastings, USF, Golden Gate, even McGeorge. Students in LA should apply to UCLA and USC, obviously—but also to Irvine, Loyola, Pepperdine, Southwestern, and more. No matter your geographical area, you should expand your list of applications. Do not apply to just one or two schools. Applying to one law school is like walking onto one car dealership lot and buying the first car you see. You'd be nuts to do this when buying a car, but people do it all the time when buying a far more expensive J.D.

Expand your list to five schools, or ten, or fifteen. One recent student of mine applied to 30 schools! It was a lot of work, but she ended up with a full ride to UCLA, her first choice school. Give yourself multiple chances to get great offers. You should even consider applying to schools that you have no real intention of attending. Maybe some school in Nowhere, Indiana will offer you a full ride, and you'll reconsider your plans. Or, at the very least, a great offer will put you in a better position to negotiate a deal someplace you do want to attend. Which brings me to...

4) Negotiate!

Many applicants have no clue that this is even possible, but you can negotiate the price of your J.D. by asking for a scholarship. If you've already been offered a scholarship, you can ask for more. If you don't, you're a sucker—it's as simple as that. Schools will frequently lowball you, offering you zero scholarship dollars if they think you've only applied to one school, or don't know that you can ask for more. Accepting the first offer from a school, whether it includes a scholarship or not, is like paying sticker price at a car dealership. You'd be an idiot to do that, right? Well you'd be an even bigger idiot not to ask law schools for more money. The worst they can say is no!

I've regularly seen applicants get tens of thousands of dollars in additional scholarship help simply because they've asked for it. I once saw a student get zero dollars in her initial offer from Berkeley Law, only to have Berkeley later match her full-ride offer from Columbia. That's $100,000-plus.

It doesn't matter so much how you negotiate—but it definitely matters is that you ask. Put yourself in a great negotiating position to begin with by following steps 1-3 above. 1) Law schools compete desperately for the best applicants, and they use LSAT score as a proxy for "best applicant." Make sure you've got the best score you're capable of before you apply. 2) Law schools give the best initial offers to students who apply earlier in the cycle, rather than later. And students who apply early give themselves the most time to negotiate themselves a better deal. 3) Applicants with multiple competing offers have the best leverage with which to negotiate. If you're willing to walk away, because you have a better offer in hand, law schools are left with no choice but to up their offer, or lose you to a competing school.

Don't get ripped off! Start with the best LSAT score you can get. Get in touch, and we'll talk about how I can help.

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