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How to pay off law school debt

4 loan repayment assistance programs to tackle your $100K debt load.

Lawyers may not be struggling to pay back as much student debt as doctors, but it still ain’t cheap. Fortunately, there are a few loan repayment assistance programs that could help offset the costs. But you’ll likely need to work for a qualifying employer for at least three years to be eligible.

Average law school debt

In 2016, the average law student graduated from a public university with around $96,000 in student debt, according to a 2016 Law School Transparency report. Meanwhile, those that attended private universities graduated with nearly $134,500 in student loans. However, these figures don’t account for increasing tuition costs and capitalized interest. This means by the time you graduate, your debt will likely be higher.

What’s the average cost of law school?

The average cost of law school varies depending on whether you’re attending a public or private university as an in-state or out-of-state resident. Here’s how it breaks down in 2018:

  • In-state tuition at a public university: $27,160
  • Out-of-state tuition at a public university: $40,100
  • Tuition at a private university: $47,750

These figures are based off tuition costs collected by Law School Transparency and don’t include living expenses, books, supplies and other costs of attendance.

4 repayment assistance programs for law school

Although there are likely many repayment assistance programs for lawyers, these are the top four options you might want to look into.

1. John R. Justice Student Loan Repayment Program

AmountUp to $4,000 per year — for a total of $60,000
Eligibility requirements

To qualify, you need to meet the following criteria:

  • Hold an outstanding balance on eligible federal student loans, including Direct, FFELP and Perkins Loans
  • Full-time public defender or state prosecutor
  • Sign a service contract of at least three years
  • No defaults or refunds owed on government student loans, grants or scholarships
  • US citizen or eligible noncitizen

You may also need to meet additional requirements set by your state to qualify.

The John R. Justice Program was designed to encourage talented attorneys to accept lower-paying positions as state prosecutors and public defenders. While the specifics of the program vary by state, in general you need to accept a service contract of at least three years to qualify.

The award can be renewed without incurring additional service requirements during that three-year period, but you may need to agree to another term of service if you decide to renew after the initial three-year period is up.

2. Department of Justice Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program (DoJ ASLRP)

AmountUp to $6,000 per year — for a total of $60,000
Eligibility requirements

To qualify, you need to meet the following criteria:

  • Attorney or accepted an employment offer to hold an attorney position for the Department of Justice
  • Position is not a political appointment
  • Sign a service agreement for at least three years
  • Owe at least $10,000 in federal student debt
  • No defaults on federal student loans
  • No employment-based disciplinary action within last five years

You may need to meet other requirements, which can be found on the ASLRP Eligibility Worksheet provided by the Department of Justice.

The Department of Justice Attorney Student Loan Repayment Program (DoJ ASLRP) was developed to entice attorneys to take lower-paying positions at the DoJ.

After signing a three-year service commitment, you may qualify for up to $6,000 per year to help cover the cost of student loan repayments.

Total award amounts are based on how much you pay toward your student loans each year — though students making less than $84,000 automatically receive the full amount.

3. Herbert S. Garten Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP)

AmountUp to $5,600 per year — for up to three years
Eligibility requirements

To qualify, you need to meet the following criteria:

  • Full-time employee at a Legal Services Corp (LSC) grantee for less than five years
  • At least $75,000 in law school debt
  • Annual income of no more than $78,125, depending on your state of residence
  • Net worth of no more than $35,000
  • No previously received or defaulted LRAP loans

This lottery-based program is geared toward law school graduates with high debt loads working at a Legal Services Corp (LSC) grantee. Around 70 eligible attorneys are selected each year and given a no-interest LRAP loan. After working for the qualifying LSC grantee for at least a year, your LRAP loan is forgiven.

4. Judge Advocate General’s Corps Student Loan Repayment Program (JA-SLRP)

AmountUp to $65,000 over three years
Eligibility requirements

Although there are no strict eligibility requirements outlined on the Air Force website, you need to have completed one year as a Judge Advocate General (JAG) Officer to qualify for its student loan repayment program.

For those interested in serving in the Air Force while using their law degree, the Judge Advocate General (JAG) provides a student loan repayment program for members. Awards can be used for student loans borrowed to pay for law school as well as an undergraduate or graduate degree. And on top of the other benefits provided to service members, you may also qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

5 tips to pay back law school debt

Worried about paying back that law degree? Here are a few ways to make repayments a bit more manageable:

  1. Know your employment prospects before you graduate. If you haven’t taken the bar exam, it may be worth relocating to a city with a greater job demand or higher starting salary to better handle your monthly repayments.
  2. Opt for an income-driven repayment plan. Fresh out of college and working at a low-paying job? Take advantage of the federal government’s income-driven repayment plans to make repayments more affordable while you’re just starting out.
  3. Enroll in Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). If you start toward a path of public service, you may qualify for PSLF after completing 10 years of repayments while working at a qualified employer.
  4. Put 15% of your income toward repayments — once you can. Finally score that six-figure job with a deluxe signing bonus? Try to commit at least 15% of your monthly income toward your repayments to cut down on interest and get out of debt sooner.
  5. Refinance with a private lender. If your credit score or income have increased since first taking out student loans, you could score a lower rate or better terms by refinancing your debt with a private lender. Just be aware you’ll lose deferment, forbearance and other repayment benefits by refinancing your federal loans.

Ask an expert

Kevin Ha
  • Kevin Ha
  • Attorney and personal finance expert
  • Financial Panther

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How long does it take to pay back law school debt?

It can take years to pay off student debt, and getting a law degree is no exception.

While federal loans come with standard terms of 10 years, they can go as high as 20 or 25 years depending on the repayment plan you choose. What you qualify for depends on your income, how much debt you owe and your other living expenses. Private student loans come with their own repayment terms that can last anywhere from five to 25 years.

If you pay everything on schedule and don’t go into forbearance, you should expect to have your law school debt paid off in a couple of decades.

Is law school worth the debt?

It depends on your financial goals and the type of law you choose to get into. Some lawyers, like patent attorneys, rank on the 2017 list of most lucrative careers. Others may find it takes time to pay off such a large amount of student debt, especially if they work in a field that doesn’t have a high base salary.

But if law is your passion, it may be worth it. Even law school graduates in the lowest-paying fields made an average of $83,000 a year in 2017, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Top 5 states for highest law salaries

The following five states had the highest mean income for lawyers in 2017, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics:

StateAnnual mean salary in 2017
Washington, DC$189,560
California$168,200
New York$165,260
Massachusetts$157,450
Connecticut$152,540

Bottom line

Law school may be expensive, but there are a few loan repayment assistance programs out there to help you get out of debt faster. But you’ll likely need to agree to a three-year service commitment in a lower-paying field to qualify.

New to law school and exploring your financing options? Check out our guide to student loans to learn more.

Already took out student loans? Get more tips for paying off debt from your professional degree.

Frequently asked questions

How can I avoid taking on law school debt?

Unless you’re in a good financial position, graduating with some law school debt is likely unavoidable. However, you can minimize your debt by looking into grants, scholarships and other free financial aid opportunities that may be available in your state.

Is the debt worth it if I don’t get into one of the top law schools?

It depends on your personal, financial and career goals. While some students who didn’t get into one of the top 14 law schools in the country complained they didn’t have decent job prospects, others disagreed.

Reach out to the law school you’re considering and ask about its career services and alumni network to see what types of support it offers graduates.

Where can I find more resources on paying off law school debt?

There are multiple online forums run by both students and lawyers that offer everything from tips on searching for jobs in your field to places to find repayment programs you might qualify for.

You might also want to reach out to your law school’s financial aid office to see what resources it offers graduates to help manage high debt loads.

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