In just a few short months, many of the roughly 35,000 Class of 2017 law school graduates will receive a likely unwelcome gift just in time for the holiday season: their first student loan due bill. Some 86% of students graduate already in debt, at an average of $116,500 for public schools and $144,000 for private, so it’s no surprise that climbing out of the red can be a daunting task.
Law School Debt: A Complex Case
The cost of tuition is only part of the problem. Complicating matters, job prospects aren’t quite what they used to be, nor is a six figure salary the norm. In fact, the median starting salary is less than $75,000 for the vast majority of graduates, and much lower for those going into government, public interest, and social services law.
That’s coupled with the fact that, unlike PhD programs, most law schools don’t offer graduate assistant or research assistant employment opportunities to help offset the cost of education, and even if they did, intensive program makes it nearly impossible to work at all while completing a degree. And, compared to M.D.s, who also face similar programmatic intensity and high debt upon graduation, the salary prospects for law school grads are much lower, making it difficult to manage debt repayment and living expenses.
It’s no wonder that nearly 75% of graduates feel stressed out about their personal finances and, it’s not only debt or the job market that keeps them up at night. A whopping 85% give themselves a B-minus or lower grade on their overall personal finance knowledge, indicating just how unprepared many are to take on the burden of those loan payments when they come due this November.
While there are a number of personal finance programs on the market, finding the right one can be a challenge for anyone, even more so for an uber-busy law school student or young lawyer dedicated to advancing his or her career. When evaluating an assistance program, here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Look for a program that’s law-school relevant. Due to the unique nature of law school debt, a one-size-fits-all consumer finance program may not be the best approach. Instead, the best programs are built around the law school experience, taking into account specific factors like bar exam prep and testing costs, managing living expenses with zero income, and more.
- It should be encouraging, not admonishing. The last thing you need is a program or app that berates you for being in the red, especially when you’re only in a position to borrow and not earn. Again, a program designed with law students in mind will provide appropriate strategies and tactics – in a gentler tone.
- A holistic program is a must. Managing law school debt is about more than just loan repayment. In order to make that payment, you’ll need a spending plan that works for your unique situation. At some point, you may also need to buy a car or a house, and you’ll probably need insurance—all of which are tied to your credit score. Focusing only on loan repayment can leave huge gaps in your overall financial picture—it may solve one problem, but create others.
- Be mindful of credentials. Not only is a law-school focused program important, it’s also critical to ensure the sources of assistance are credible and knowledgeable in your specific field. Look for a program that offers only Accredited Financial Counselors (AFC) with experience in law school financing.
- It must be realistic from a time-management perspective. As a student, or a new entrant to the job market, you certainly don’t have time to spend hours a week agonizing over every minor detail. Any financial assistance program must be quick, delivered on-demand and in consumable “bites” so as not to interfere with academic or professional performance. Thirty minutes a week is manageable, and just enough time to form a lifelong habit of checking-in on your financial health.
The Simple Verdict: Relevant, Timely Help is Available
Fortunately, you may not need to spend hours slogging through program descriptions and evaluating multiple options to find the program that’s just right for you. New resources are now available specifically designed to help both prospective and current law school students and recent grads navigate the sometimes-murky waters of financing a legal education.
For prospective students, MAX by AccessLex is a financial education program designed specifically to help law students understand and make smart decisions related to student loans and general personal finance. Available free of charge through American Bar Association-approved law schools, MAX combines in-person workshops, online and virtual programming with access to one-on-one counseling. Students are encouraged to enroll through their institution at 1L, and the program continues through graduation and beyond.
For recent grads and practicing attorneys, AccessConnex provides one-on-one access to an accredited financial counselor via phone, live chat or email. Through this nonprofit program, students and recent grads can get clear, unbiased information about student loan repayment and other financial strategies.
With the right tools and assistance, current law students and recent grads can pursue their educational and professional goals with confidence—and actually enjoy the upcoming holiday season, rather than dreading the arrival of that first student loan due bill.