You’re In the Money: Negotiating Financial Aid with Law Schools

Law school is expensive. On average, law school—after including living expenses, your inability to hold full-time work for at least the first year of law school, and everything else—will cost well over $200,000 in the U.S. That’s a conservative number. The quality and reputation of a law school isn’t a significant factor—“top” law schools are not much more expensive than “bottom” law schools. There are exceptions—for residents, state law schools are generally less expensive. Outside of that, though, there is sticker shock.

But…law schools also have a fair amount of merit-based money for students they want. I am always surprised that Advise-In Solutions seems to be the only law school advisor that helps its clients negotiate financial aid with law schools. More important, I’m focused on financial aid from the start, which affects LSAT preparation and the care with which my clients and I assemble their admissions packages—personal statement, diversity statement, reference letters, resume, etc. It’s all designed to put clients in their best admissions position—and their best financial negotiation position. The claims on the internet (and by a lot of LSAT companies) that the LSAT is all that matters are demonstrably false. Every piece of paper or e-mail you send to law schools matters—some more than others but they all matter and you want to design all of them for maximum positive impact.

We also carefully stage applications so that there is a “ladder” to manage offers against each other. A significant financial aid offer at a given school is more likely to make a school in the same reputational neighborhood make a similar offer or move its offer up than is an offer at a school that is further distant on the reputational scale. But a careful laddering of applications opens the possibility of moving pretty far up the reputational ladder by progressively leveraging offers. It doesn’t always work, but it works enough of the time to make clients’ top law school choices a lot cheaper for them than they were originally.

All of that requires a careful and tactful approach. Although law schools have generally gotten much more open about explicitly negotiating competitive offers, still, no one likes to think that someone is trying to mug them. So when speaking to law schools, it’s important to not say certain things, to decide in each case whether a phone call would be better than an e-mail or letter (or vice versa), not to nag them, etc.—those communications, too, all should be designed for maximum positive impact, both in content and timing. These are negotiations, not ultimatums. And schools often really do want to be helpful, so making a friend matters.

There’s one important qualifier to all of this—the up-front money isn’t everything. Just last week, I had a client decline an extremely generous offer from a top 10 school for another school whose offer had become more attractive because of our negotiations—but was still far short of the declined offer. It was the right decision because of the particularities of my client’s career aspirations. The programs and job market for the kind of position my client wanted were simply better at the less generous school, so that the long-term advantage shifted to the less generous school—because they were more likely to be more “generous” to my client’s career, and the likely advantage there more than made up for the lesser upfront money. It’s a little wrenching to give up short-term money (especially if it’s a lot) for long-term opportunities but it can often be the right choice.

And that gets to another point—you can’t approach financial aid in a vacuum. You need to do due diligence on schools to determine their long-term value for what you want out of law school. That’s another area where admissions advisors generally don’t help much. But they should, because getting into law school is a lot less important than getting into the right law school for you.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on April 27, 2017.

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