Everyone knows that law school graduates who opt to work in government or for a non-profit earn far less money than their peers who go into private practice do. With the latest rounds of raises for associates at the top national firms, a J.D. who goes to work in the private sector can wind up with a first-year salary three times higher than that of a classmate who goes into public service.

Logically, this would suggest that anyone aspiring to a public service law career should target the less-expensive schools, since their best hope of repaying law school loans on a public service salary will be to minimize the amount they have to borrow in the first place – right?

Not necessarily. One of the ironies that law students face is that the more expensive schools might turn out to be the more affordable option for future law clerks, prosecutors, defenders, and advocates.

That’s because the more expensive schools tend to be those with the richest endowments and the wealthiest alumni networks. They can afford to be more generous with scholarships and loan repayment assistance programs than less well-funded schools can.

For example, say someone has been accepted to Law Schools A and B. School A is the law school at the state university. It has a good regional reputation but no national reach. Its in-state tuition is a bargain by law school standards, setting a qualifying student back less than $30,000 per year. Our hypothetical applicant could get a law education for under $90,000, which seems like an amount of debt he could handle on a public service salary.

School B is one of the top law schools in the country. Our applicant is flattered to have been accepted there. But School B costs twice as much as School A does, and our applicant tells them he’ll have to decline their admissions offer on those grounds alone.

But then School B comes back with an offer of a scholarship that will cover half of the applicant’s tuition for all three years. In addition, it has a generous loan repayment assistance program (LRAP) that will pay off up to half of the applicant’s law school debt if he goes to work for the government or for a non-profit agency after graduating. Our applicant does the math and figures out that School B could wind up costing him about half what School A would.

Of course, applicants can’t count on getting a financial aid outcome like this. You have to be an outstanding applicant to get that kind of scholarship offer. And LRAPs vary enormously from one school to another. Some schools essentially have a program in name only, with little funding to give out. Others prefer to distribute their LRAP funds to the largest possible number of graduates, leaving any individual alum with only modest support. As with other aspects of law school selection, it’s important for applicants to research the actual financial aid history of the schools they’re thinking of applying to.

But the bottom line is that law school applicants should not automatically dismiss the top law schools because they assume they would not be able to afford them on a public service salary. The top schools are especially concerned about the dwindling number of J.D.s going into government and public service, and they are willing to use their financial resources to do something about it. Keep your options open. If you’re a strong applicant and present yourself well, you may find that one of the very top schools is your best bet, not only in career but in financial terms.

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