Lots of debt and no income? You’ve still got options.

May 21, 2012

Radhika Singh Miller serves as program manager of educational debt relief and outreach at Equal Justice Works

Graduation season is upon us, and it’s hard to ignore that, in this economy, more and more students are facing the possibility of being unemployed after graduation.  When your six month grace period on student loans ends and your monthly payments begin, what do you do if you are unable to afford the payments?  For those struggling to find employment: don’t fear; there are options available for you to avoid default.  Here are some tips for those entering repayment who aren’t able to shoulder the financial burden just yet.

First and foremost, grab the bull by the horns and figure out exactly what you’re facing.  Make a list of all your student loans and how much you owe.  Federal loans can be found in the National Student Loan Data System and private loans will show up on your credit report.  By law, you are entitled to a free copy of your credit report once a year.  Make sure your loan servicers have your current information and be sure to keep them informed of any name or address changes – payments are still due even if you don’t receive an invoice!

If you cannot afford to make payments on your loans, talk to your servicer now.  Do not miss your payments! If you are behind on payments, you are delinquent on your loans. If you are delinquent for a period of time, you will go into default. For federal loans, default is usually declared after nine months of delinquency. But for private loans, you could be in default as soon as you miss a payment.

If you default on your federal loans, the government can seize tax refunds, garnish your wages and take a portion of Social Security payments – without a court order. You are also in jeopardy of losing your professional license and eligibility for new loans and grants.  Private lenders’ collection powers are not as strong, but this is still debt you owe. If you default on either your private or federal loans, it affects your credit and could prevent you from securing a credit card, mortgage, apartment or job.

You may be able to postpone repayment on your federal loans through deferment or forbearance, but you will lose these rights if you default first, so be proactive about your situation. It doesn’t matter whether you borrowed your loans for undergrad or graduate or professional school, federal loans come with several options.

Deferments are temporary suspensions of payments that are available if you reenroll in school, are unemployed or facing economic hardship. Deferments also are available in instances of disability, certain military service and for a period following active military duty.

Forbearances are temporary postponements or reductions of payments because of financial hardship. You may be able to receive forbearance if you’re not eligible for deferment. The main distinction is that interest does not accrue on subsidized Stafford loans or Perkins loans (but will on any unsubsidized loans) during periods of deferment but accrues on all your loans during forbearance.

There are no standard entitlements on private loans, but you still need to call your servicer. You may be able to negotiate a short-term forbearance or lower your payment amount. Ignoring the problem will not help; you do not want to default.

Before you seek deferment or forbearance, however, figure out which repayment plans are available. If you can afford it, making some payments is better than making no payments. Federal loans have options that may reduce your monthly payment amounts and make them affordable. Income-Based Repayment (IBR) and Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR) can lower your payments based on your income. IBR generally will be better for most people, but do some calculations to make sure. These plans also extend your repayment period and will increase the total amount you will pay since you’ll accrue (and pay) interest over a longer period.

Consolidating your loans also may help because you’ll only have one payment on those loans. Avoid consolidating federal loans with private loans though, because you will lose the federal protections and repayment options. Your interest rate also may change so check to see if you actually are getting a better deal with consolidation.

Finally, consider switching plans if you find your payments are too expensive. Changing to an extended repayment plan or an income-based plan like IBR or ICR may help decrease your payments. You can always switch back or make additional payments (there is no prepayment penalty on federal loans but double-check the terms of your private loans) if your income increases.

Repaying loans is not fun, but it must be done. If you’re having difficulties making payments, be proactive about your situation and seek out options that can help. Visit the Educational Debt Relief section of the Equal Justice Works website and register for a free informational webinar to learn more.

Managing Educational Debt: Different Options for Loan Repayment

April 26, 2012

Today’s students are no strangers to debt.  With a collective debt of more than $1 trillion, the idea of repaying this debt can be daunting. Though calls for student debt relief abound and change may be just around the corner, there are programs that can help you right away.

Three different types of educational debt relief can ease the burden of repayment:

  • Income-driven repayment plans, such as Income-Based Repayment (IBR), which lower monthly loan payments based on your income.
  • Forgiveness programs, the broadest of which is Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF). PSLF allows forgiveness on Federal Direct Loans after 120 qualifying payments if you work full-time in qualifying public service employment (employment in government and 501(c)(3) nonprofits count).
  • Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAPs), which provide funds to help make payments on educational loans.

Both Income-Based Repayment and Public Service Loan Forgiveness can provide significant relief for those who work in public service by allowing you to make lower monthly payments on your federal loans and achieve total forgiveness of those loans after ten years.

For example:

  • If you have $25,000 in federal loan debt and make $30,000 per year, your monthly payment under a standard 10-year repayment plan would be $288).  Under IBR, your payment would be $166.  If your income increases, the amount you pay would too. But as long as you have a partial financial hardship it will be capped at 15 percent of your income. For example, if you receive 3 percent annual raises over 10 years, the amount you pay in year 10 would be $216 per month (still lower than a 10-year plan).
  • Under this scenario, over 10 years, you would pay approximately $22,776 and if you qualify for PSLF, the government would forgive what’s left: $17,291.

But even if you aren’t planning to work in public service, IBR can still help lower your monthly payments.  Providing you demonstrate a “partial financial hardship” IBR is available to anyone with federal government loans and offers total forgiveness on any balances that remain after 25 years.

If you are thinking of going to graduate or professional school and will need to take out loans, the numbers – and relief – can add up.

Consider “Dara Defender”.  Dara graduates from law school with $120,000 in federal loans and takes a position as a public defender with a starting salary of $45,000 annually.

  • Under a standard ten-year repayment program, Dara will pay $165,716 over ten years and is required to pay $1,381 monthly regardless of her income; this is more than half her monthly income.  Under a 30-year repayment program, her monthly payments would be $782 and total $281,632 over 30 years.

However, Dara is in control because she knows about IBR and PSLF. She enrolls in IBR right after graduation.

  • In her first year, Dara’s payments are $353 per month (less than half than what she would pay under a 30-year plan).  As she receives annual raises of 3 percent, her payments gradually rise. In 10 years, her monthly payments are $461.
  • Dara has remained in public services and after making 120 payments, she qualifies for PSLF. She has paid $48,570 (a little over one-third of the original principal) over ten years, and the federal government forgives $151,133, the balance of the principal and the interest left on her loans!

What if Dara doesn’t qualify for PSLF? Here’s a look at how IBR can still help:

  • Dara leaves public service after seven years and begins to earn $80,000 per year. With 3 percent annual raises, in year 25 she will make $132,228 and pay $1,227 monthly (still less than a ten-year repayment plan).
  • Dara will pay $241,064 over 25 years, and the government will forgive $43,405.

IBR and PSLF can make a huge difference. There are also special forgiveness provisions for Federal Perkins Loans and for teacher loan forgiveness on Stafford Loans.

Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAP’s) can also help you manage educational debt and are available from a variety of sources.  For example, the American Federation of Teachers has a searchable funding database, the National Health Service Corps helps fund State Loan Repayment Programs, and the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program offers loan forgiveness to veterinarians. Many law schools and state bar associations also provide LRAPs.

Because they provide funds to help you make payments on your loans, LRAPs are valuable on their own.  In a perfect scenario, you would qualify for low monthly payments under IBR and use LRAP funds to make these payments while working in a qualifying public service position, allowing you to earn PSLF – all without using your own limited income!

This is only a brief description of how these programs work and how you can qualify. Equal Justice Works provides free educational debt relief webinars every month to help you learn more. You can view our schedule and register for the session that fits your needs on our website. You can also download our Educational Debt Manual to help you manage your student debt.

Radhika Singh Miller is a program manager for Educational Debt Relief and Outreach at Equal Justice Works. In 2008, she served on the Student Loans Team in the Negotiated Rulemaking for the College Cost Reduction and Access Act (CCRAA) and has extensive knowledge of this landmark educational debt relief legislation. Radhika graduated from Loyola Law School Los Angeles. Prior to joining Equal Justice Works, she was a staff attorney at the Partnership for Civil Justice, focusing on constitutional and civil rights litigation and advocacy.

Stay up to date on the medical and law school application process

April 23, 2012

With each application cycle, The Career Center sponsors two year-long CTools Sites to support UM students and alumni/ae applying to 1) medical or 2) law school. Subscribers receive timely updates and application tips from beginning to end of each cycle.

Subscribe to the Med App CTools site

Subscribe to the Law App CTools site

For questions about these CTools sites, please send an e-mail to mmecozzi@umich.edu. For questions about your umich account after graduation, please contact ITCS at itcs.accounts@umich.edu.

Please note that even if you register immediately, the new CTools sites will not open for a few more weeks; thus, the Med App 12-13 and the Law App 12-13 tabs will not appear immediately in your CTools site menu bar.

Different Paths in Public Service

April 11, 2012

Career opportunities in public service are varied and growing and there are many paths you can take to get the public service job of your dreams.

Are you passionate about a problem facing society today and do you have the desire to help find a solution?  Are you interested in global climate change?  Providing health care to children living in poverty?  Economic re-development?  If you are committed to a cause such as these, then a non-governmental organization (NGO) might be a great place to start your public service career.  NGOs bring together people with similar interests and concerns to work to address a variety of issues.  NGOs include nonprofit (tax exempt and other) and voluntary organizations on the local, state, national and international levels. There are many resources to help you search for opportunities with NGOs, and this worldwide directory of NGOs from The World Association of NGOs is a good place to start. If you have something specific in mind already, try this custom search engine.   While you’re still in school, try to get as much practical learning experience as possible by getting involved.   Volunteer to get your foot in the door, take internships that deal with issues that interest you, and look for summer opportunities. University of Michigan has the Public Service Intern Program, and you can also keep an eye out for non-profit and NGO openings at Idealist.org: a great resource for volunteer, internship, summer program, and job opportunities.  And if you are considering a public service legal career, make sure you explore the clinical programs, pro bono requirements and externships at the law schools you are interested in attending.  The Equal Justice Works Guide to Law School can help you quickly compare law school offerings.

Working for local, state, federal or tribal government is another public service option that offers tremendous variety.  From providing vital daily services to the public, to disaster response, financial management and policy analysis, government employees have the opportunity to assist in an industry that was designed to improve and protect the lives of people locally as well as throughout the country and world. You can find jobs in the federal government by searching USAjobs.gov, and find local and state government jobs on your state’s website. The federal government offers many development programs, such as the Presidential Management Fellows program and the Pathways Program, to get you started in your government career.

Academia is another important and influential public service career option.  Whether your passion is working with youth or lecturing at the collegiate level education is an area where qualified individuals are always needed in many areas of the country and the world.  And while a position in academia is often thought of as teaching, a public service career in education does not always mean standing in front of a classroom.  Other options are administrative positions in school districts, such as being a Principal or Superintendent, or staff positions in universities and colleges, such as recruitment and financial aid offices, career services or student group centers, and individual college offices. Gain experience in academia by volunteering as a tutor in your community, or seeing if you can work part time in one of your school’s administrative offices. Test the water to see if academia is right for you by applying to programs like Teach for America or local teaching fellowships.

One more note:  Public service careers are often lower paying than those in the public sector.  If you have educational loans and are concerned that you will be unable to “afford” a public interest career, there are programs that can help. Repayment plans like Income-Based Repayment (IBR) can help lower your monthly payment amounts, Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAPs) can help you make those payments and with Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) you can earn forgiveness after making payments for 10 years. Don’t let the high cost of education stop you from pursuing a career in public service. Visit Equal Justice Works’ online resource center to learn more about IBR, PSLF and LRAPs, how they work and how to qualify, and the steps you can take to ease the burden of student debt.  Again, if you are interested in public interest law,  The Equal Justice Works Guide to Law Schools has information that can help you explore different schools’ LRAPs, scholarships and grant programs to help you determine affordability BEFORE you go to law school..

Having an interest in a public service career is a great goal, and luckily you have a variety of options to achieve it.  There are many online resources that advertise positions in the fields noted above and more.  Some of these resources include Public Service Careers, PSLawNet, Higher Ed Jobs, The Center for Independent Consulting, as well as local and state government and news websites.  Best of luck in your job search and we commend you for following you passion into public service.

Nita Mazumder is a program manager of law school relations at Equal Justice Works.  She is responsible for cultivating and maintaining relationships with law school professionals and student groups as well as serving as the main point of contact for the organization’s National Advisory Committee. Nita previously worked for Georgetown University Law Center and has practiced in both the private and public sectors.

Is Getting a J.D. Degree a Good Investment?

March 27, 2012

Today, Wendy Perdue, Dean and Professor of Law at University of Richmond School of Law weighs in on the soundness of investing in a legal education.

Is getting a J.D. degree a good investment? The answer to this question, like the answer to all questions about investments, depends first and foremost on what the investor’s objectives are. If the primary reason for “investing” in a J.D. degree is to become wealthy, a J.D. may not be the best investment. Instead, you may want to pursue a career in finance. Likewise, if you are looking for a degree program from which you can graduate and then step effortlessly onto a career escalator without having to do much work, the J.D. degree might not be the ticket for you.

Being a lawyer is an intellectually engaging and challenging career. It is for many people a wonderful way to spend one’s life. A legal education is also tremendously versatile – the legal and analytic training that one gets in law school is a terrific foundation for a career in business, politics, public policy, non-profit organizations, law enforcement, and a host of other careers.

Nonetheless, law school is an expensive proposition, both in terms of time and money. It is not right for everyone and ought not be undertaken lightly. It is also true that along with the recession, there has been a downturn in the job market for lawyers. Law graduates do not have the luxury of graduating into the protective arms of guaranteed employment.

So, in the face of these new economic realities, why choose law school? To begin, the value of legal training cannot be measured in cost alone. Unlike many other graduate level disciplines where the education focuses on an ever-narrowing subject, a legal education focuses on the broader subjects of logical thinking and clear expression. The utility of these benefits – which is difficult to quantify – is not limited to the confines of employment. In everyday living, our society confronts us with the ubiquitous presence of laws, rules, and regulations. How to problem-solve, how to express oneself orally and in writing, and how to navigate our system of laws is the quintessential product of a legal education. And, of course, these invaluable skills are not easily factored into the routine cost-benefit analyses that rely solely on raw employment statistics.

One concern for anyone considering law school is how to finance it. Most law students borrow the cost of their legal education and the average loan debt for a law graduate today is about $100,000. That is a big number and causes an understandable worry about whether you will be able to pay that off. “What if my starting salary out of law school isn’t large enough to service my debt?” Fortunately, it is possible for most law graduates to service their debt regardless of the size of their salary. Most law students’ education loans are financed by the federal government which offers all borrowers the option of repaying their loans based on a percentage of their income (known as “income-based repayment” or “IBR”), thereby allowing graduates at all income levels to be in a position to repay their loans. The current IBR cap is 15% of “discretionary income.” This means that no matter what your salary and no matter the size of your loan, your monthly repayments can be capped at a manageable amount. Anyone considering law school should be completely familiar with this loan repayment program. You can find more information about it at studentaid.ed.gov/ibr.

So is getting a law degree a good investment? Right now, new graduates may have to hustle a bit more – and be more creative – in their job search, and allow more room for flexibility in terms of job type and location. But getting law degree is a sound investment if you have a passion for justice, if you want to serve clients, if you want to be a part of a wonderful profession; if, in short, you want to be a lawyer.

Myths and Realities of Careers in Public Service Law

March 20, 2012

At Equal Justice Works, we know that there are misperceptions that can deter students from pursuing a career in public service. We hope to dispel some of these myths and relay the realities, both positive and negative, about entering public service.

The myths:

1)    Because of your student loans, you cannot afford to work in public service.

As these jobs are typically lower paying, public interest employers are often sensitive to the difficulties their employees have repaying educational loans, both for undergraduate and graduate school.  Many government agencies and nonprofit institutions offer loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs) that help employees make monthly loan payments.  Because the availability and exact provisions of these programs vary, when speaking with a potential employer, ask if they offer an LRAP as well as what are the requirements for their program.  It is important to make sure that an employer’s LRAP does not conflict with any other loan repayment assistance options you might be eligible for and to be aware that employer LRAPs almost always count as taxable income. Not all public interest employers have the resources to provide LRAPs, but they may provide information on other assistance programs for which their employees qualify. For example, employers of poverty lawyers in D.C. can petition to be eligible for the D.C. Bar Foundation’s LRAP.

The Federal Government also offers additional assistance to those entering into public service.  Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) and Income-Based repayment (IBR) are two options available for borrowers with eligible federal direct loans. To learn more about educational debt relief visit Equal Justice Works’ website or send an email to debtrelief@equaljusticeworks.org.

2)    People working in public interest could not land any other job.

Public interest jobs are often incorrectly perceived as employment options for those unable to land a financially lucrative position. But as the economy continues to struggle and the job market remains stagnant, many students are looking to enter into public service.  According to a New York Times article, 16 percent more young college graduates worked for the Federal Government in 2009 than the previous year and 11 percent more for nonprofit groups.  Federally funded public service programs have also seen a drastic increase as applications for Teach for America jumped by 32 percent last year and applications for AmeriCorps positions tripled from 2008 to 2010. Competition for these positions continues as federal budgets are slashed, forcing programs to cut positions, resulting in the best qualified and most dedicated candidates being selected.

3)    You cannot get a public service job right out of school.

Although not all positions may be paid, there are many ways to gain valuable experience and become familiar with nonprofit organizations or government agencies that may ultimately lead to a paying position. During school try to get as much practical learning experience by getting involved at public service organizations.  Volunteer to get your foot in the door, take internships that deal with issues that interest you and look for summer opportunities. With recent budget cuts, many organizations are looking for additional help – look at idealist.org for open positions or organizations looking for assistance.  Inquire about volunteering for local pro bono legal providers (legal aid societies or other nonprofits that offer direct legal services) as well as public defender offices.  Working or volunteering in these settings is essential for those considering law school after graduation as these experiences can help you decide what sector of public interest law you want to pursue as well as help build relationships that can assist you in the future.

4)    Highly paid individuals are happier.

Even though those working in the private sector may be earning high salaries relative to their experience, there can be tremendous job dissatisfaction.  In the legal profession, public interest attorneys are often not paid as well as large firm lawyers; however, there is an overwhelming job satisfaction among public interest attorneys because of the direct impact they are having in their clients’ lives.  When working to make the world a better place, or on issues that are important to you, the size of the paycheck often doesn’t matter as much because of the passion you have for your work

Now the realities about entering a public service career:

1)    Public interest jobs are typically lower paying than private ones. 

Those who are in public interest will never earn as much as their peers at large corporations or law firms, but the trade off is increased job satisfaction as well as the personal satisfaction of working toward a common good.

 2)    The threat of budget cuts is ever present.

The potential of further funding cuts to public service organizations continues to be a threat as federal budget debates rage on and private donors cut back during the recession. Organizations may hire laterally and may hire volunteers instead of entry-level staff.  However, lack of funding and volatility are of equal concerns in the private sector as the job market continues to flounder.

3)    It can be harder to obtain public service jobs than private sector jobs.

Unlike large firms, public interest employers generally do not have a set hiring schedule where they bring on new staff each year.  Instead, they tend to hire when they have openings. They may not have staff solely dedicated to recruitment, as most corporations do, and often the person responsible for hiring also has a full workload and other responsibilities. Securing a job in public interest takes a concerted effort and perseverance. Students interested in public service need to be patient, as they may not obtain a job until much later than those working in the private sector, but continue to network and explore different options public service has to offer, including volunteering and fellowship opportunities. 

For those hoping to enroll in graduate, medical or law school immediately after graduation, it is important to consider where you might like to work after receiving your advanced degree.  Look at which programs and schools have a dedicated public interest programs or public service requirement as part of your degree. The Equal Justice Works Guide to Law Schools, provides pre-law students the opportunity to compare law schools based on a number of factors, including the public interest experiences and courses available. In addition to selecting the correct school, be sure to utilize your summers to gain experience working with the populations you ultimately want to serve.  The Equal Justice Works Summer Corps program allows for law students to gain hands on experience working with clients and assisting practicing attorneys focused on issues from assisting at-risk veterans to helping victims of domestic violence, to working on civil rights issues.  No matter what your passion, there are a number of fellowships and funding options available for students to work in public service for a summer.

The benefits to pursuing a career in public service are numerous and fulfilling.  Not only will you gain tremendous hands on experience that can lead to professional success, but also make a visible and lasting difference in the communities you serve, which is the ultimate reward.

Nita Mazumder is a program manager of law school relations at Equal Justice Works.  She is responsible for cultivating and maintaining relationships with law school professionals and student groups as well as serving as the main point of contact for the organization’s National Advisory Committee. Nita previously worked for Georgetown University Law Center and has practiced in both the private and public sectors. 

Defining Public Interest Law

February 23, 2012

Today’s guest post was written by Nita Mazumder. Nita is a program manager of law school relations at Equal Justice Works.  She is responsible for cultivating and maintaining relationships with law school professionals and student groups as well as serving as the main point of contact for the organization’s National Advisory Committee. Nita previously worked for Georgetown University Law Center and has practiced in both the private and public sectors.

Public interest law is defined as anything affecting the well-being, the rights, health, or finances of the public at large, most commonly advocating for those living in poverty or marginalized populations. While it can be tireless work, and the financial rewards are not great, on campuses across the country, the desire to “give back” is growing.

According to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), the percentage of new lawyers entering public interest careers is growing; in 2010, nearly seven percent of new attorneys entered public service, up from just two percent in 1990.

There are many reasons to pursue a career in public interest law: dedication to a cause; the ability to make a difference; or the desire to take on significant responsibility early on in your career. Public interest careers encompass a wide array of practice areas, ranging from litigation and class action work, to policy, legislation and community organizing.  You could work at a direct legal service provider such as Legal Aid helping indigent individuals or focus on impact litigation that affects a large number of people.  You could work for a non-profit organization, an international non-governmental organization (NGO or a public interest law firm.  Other options include working for the federal, state or local government, as well as in public defender or prosecutor offices. Public interest attorneys work in many areas of law that, according to a recent report by NALP, will continue to grow in the near future, including issue areas such as immigration, healthcare, education, elder law, energy, veterans’ rights, and housing law.

Regardless of the category of work, public interest positions are coveted opportunities that require dedication and skill.  Because public interest organizations often do not have the resources to train new attorneys, employers in this field value critical practical experience and students should gain as much professional skills training while in school.   If you are interested in pursuing public interest in law school, try interning for a summer at a legal aid office or public interest law firm – working with low-income clients can give you a better sense of what their needs are and how a legal degree can better help you advocate on their behalf.  Take classes focused on social justice and history to gain a better understanding of the injustices and inequalities that have plagued our country in the past.  Other undergraduate classes that may be helpful include criminal justice, political science or classes that focus on enhancing logic and writing skills.  It is also useful for any career path to consider taking public speaking or debate so you can more effectively articulate and advocate for your cause or client.   It is also beneficial to learn a foreign language.  Being proficient in a foreign language is appealing to most public interest employers who deal with non-English speaking populations. . Leadership positions in organizations, student or otherwise, involvement in community activism, and volunteer activities are often also appealing to potential employers.

During law school focus on getting practical experiences such as filing and writing motions, courtroom experience and client interaction.  This can be accomplished through clinic work, a summer internship, an externship during the semester, volunteering at a public interest organization, or a fellowship for law students such as Equal Justice Works’ Summer Corps program.  While in law school, try to take coursework in trial advocacy and public interest related classes as well as participate in advocacy competitions and become a member of a relevant student public interest organization. Law school affords the perfect opportunity to explore different practice settings and issue areas that may interest you.

At Equal Justice Works, we believe that the poorest and most vulnerable among us deserve the same access to justice and quality legal representation as the more fortunate.  Our programs provide training and opportunities that enable law students and attorneys to provide effective and needed services in underserved communities across the country.  Programs like AmeriCorps, Teach for America, and the Peace Corps are examples of service programs that help underserved communities and offer opportunities to work in the public service sector and discover what you may be passionate about prior going to graduate school.

We are committed to expanding public interest law opportunities for students and lawyers, and accomplish this by helping law schools establish and strengthen their public interest law programming and curricula; informing pre-law students about a law school’s public interest program through our Equal Justice Works Guide to Law Schools; and providing public service work experience, professional development and training (through webinars, workshops, conference and career fairs) for students and lawyers.  Through outreach and advocacy, we also work to reduce the educational debt barriers to public service careers.

To learn more about public interest law and the programs and services Equal Justice Works provides, visit www.equaljusticeworks.org.

Navigating your way to the right law school

January 31, 2012

By Radhika Singh-Miller, Equal Justice Works

Choosing the right law school can be a daunting task, especially since there is no “one-size fits all” approach to determining which law school will meet your needs. Anyone deciding where to enroll in law school must weigh the costs and benefits of earning a J.D. and determine what will make your law school experience fulfilling. This is particularly true for those interested in pursuing practical skills training in specialized areas as part of their law school experience. To make the most of your law school experience, examine three important areas when making your final selection: experience and training opportunities; professional guidance and support; financial assistance, tuition and fees.

Evaluate specialty, experience and training opportunities
Specialized courses, clinics and professional skills training opportunities tailored to your interests can provide valuable knowledge and lay the foundation for your legal career. Learn about which schools provide valuable hands-on experience, allowing you to work with clients and practicing attorneys. Remember when choosing a law school that it is important to develop additional techniques and skills not taught in the classroom but essential for jumpstarting a successful career. Pro bono programs and requirements often provide opportunities for students to learn outside of the lecture hall.

Look at the specific courses, clinics and internship opportunities available at law schools and use this information to make a more informed decision. These training opportunities, especially in the field in which you hope to work, are ideal for discovering your passion, honing your skills, and making connections with future employers. Think about where and in what field you will want to practice after graduation and allow that to impact your decision on which law school to attend.

Professional guidance and support
If you are the type of person who prefers a lot of career guidance, look at schools’ specialized departments. For example, if you are interested in pursuing public interest law, many schools have a public interest law department; some even dedicate a public interest advisor to counsel students on courses and career opportunities. Smaller schools may not have the same resources, but they can still offer tremendous support. Look at a school’s available resources that you will be able to utilize throughout your experience, including the number and type of student groups as well as career services such as career fairs and alumni networks.

When thinking about future employment, be sure to look at the school’s employment statistics for graduates to see what type of work they tend to pursue as well as the number and type of employers that participate in any campus career fairs.

Remember to consider everything in context. A small school may not have the resources for a full-time dedicated counselor but if it has strong ties to the community in your chosen geographic area; has a valuable network of graduates in the sector of law you hope to pursue; or a curriculum focused on areas that interest you, you will still get the support you need.

Evaluate financial assistance options side-by-side with tuition and fees
When evaluating law school, cost should be a top priority. Law school is not cheap and often requires you to take out large amounts in student loans. Be realistic! Assess your financial situation and determine the availability of aid as well as repayment options after graduation.

Look for information on tuition and financial assistance programs that will allow you to determine which law school is affordable for you. Not only examine the costs of attending a school, such as tuition and fees, but also look at a school’s financial aid offerings, available grants and scholarships as well as loan repayment assistance programs (LRAPs) that will help you repay loans after graduation. In addition to academic scholarships, many schools offer public interest grants, scholarships and opportunities for funding that can help with living costs and costs of attendance.

Finding the perfect law school can be a long and tedious journey, but there are tools available to help you make more informed choices. In addition to examining an individual school’s website and traditional ranking systems, utilize other tools when making your decision. You can start with the Equal Justice Works Guide to Law Schools, which allows you to examine a school’s available curricula, financial aid options, and staff and faculty engagement. While designed especially for students interested in public interest law, learn how this interactive, free online tool provides extensive data on the availability of specialized courses, clinics and externships; financial aid and loan repayment assistance programs; the allocation of faculty and administrative resources; and other information valuable to helping students determine which schools best fit their interests, financial parameters, and future career goals. The Guide allows students to search schools by geography, tuition, and more, and create side-by-side comparisons of schools to learn more. I wish you luck on your journey and hope you’ll utilize the information provided in The Guide to navigate to the perfect school for you.

Radhika Singh Miller serves as program manager of educational debt relief and outreach at Equal Justice Works. In 2008, she served on the student loans team in the negotiated rulemaking for the College Cost Reduction and Access Act (CCRAA) and has extensive knowledge of this landmark legislation. She conducts educational webinars and presentations, advises schools and organizations, and advocates for legislation and policy. Prior to joining Equal Justice Works, Miller was a staff attorney at the Partnership for Civil Justice in Washington. She received her J.D. from Loyola Law School Los Angeles.

Revisiting the Wolverine Scholars Program

June 1, 2011

Update: The Wolverine Scholars Program was discontinued in July of 2011.

Today, Assistant Dean and Director of UM Law School Admissions Sarah Zearfoss revisits the Wolverine Scholars program.  If you would like to read other Dean Z’s reflections, check out her blog, A2Z.

Back in fall 2008, the UM Law School announced the creation of the Wolverine Scholars Program, and much hubbub promptly ensued. Several commentators (e.g., MoneyLaw, TaxProf, and Legal Profession Blog) essentially accused us—a bit churlishly, in my view, since none of them troubled to talk to us about it—of engaging in a craven and transparent attempt to “game” the rankings, with the result that for many weeks, I spent a lot of time countering those claims (The short version: the Wolverine Scholar cohort is way too small to move the LSAT median; no gaming). With an almost three-year hiatus behind me now, my PTSD has abated, and in response to the cajoling of the always-charming Mariella Mecozzi, I’m game to tackle the topic in-depth once more.

First, a brief explanation for those who weren’t reading law blogs back in 2008: what is the Wolverine Scholars Program, and who is eligible?  The program invites applications from University of Michigan undergraduates who are, roughly speaking, rising and graduating seniors (so, for this year, people who will graduate sometime between summer 2010 and spring term 2012), and who have attained cumulative GPAs of 3.80 or higher over at least six semesters at Michigan. If you meet these criteria, and haven’t yet taken the LSAT, you can apply. There, that’s the big part, the part that got everyone all agitated: you do not need an LSAT to apply under this program. Why not? Because we did a whole lot of data-crunching from the quite large pool of Michigan undergrads who have historically matriculated at the Law School and concluded that people who had earned GPAs at the stated level did well at the Law School, regardless of their LSAT score. In other words, we concluded, a high-enough undergraduate GPA from Michigan did as much predicting of law school GPA outcome as we needed; the LSAT just wasn’t adding helpful additional information.

Still, you might ask—why mix things up? Why not just keep requiring the LSAT even if it doesn’t help?  It doesn’t hurt, right? Well, it kinda does.  We know, generally speaking, that although the LSAT is a very good tool, it is not a perfect one, and a weak LSAT will underpredict performance for some people, making them appear to be worse law school prospects than they truly are.  And we also know that every year, people whom we might like to admit don’t apply because they see their LSAT and conclude they don’t have a shot (Often, people would apply as transfers and tell us just that:”Michigan was my dream school but I didn’t apply because my LSAT was [insert sub-median LSAT here], and I knew you wouldn’t admit me.”). We thought that instituting a small, experimental, non-LSAT admissions program might get us a chance at a few of these applicants who we were otherwise missing. We also thought this program would be a great opportunity to strengthen our intra-institutional ties with the undergrad community, which is our single biggest feeder and at which, nonetheless, there is a persistent, unshakeable rumor that Michigan Law “does not like” Michigan undergrads. How much more of a love letter can you send to a group of law school applicants than saying, “you don’t have to take the LSAT”?

One question I frequently field about the way we’ve structured the program is why we don’t take applications from people who have already taken the LSAT; not requiring it is one thing, but why go so far as to bar Wolverine Scholar applicants from having taken it? For this, there are two reasons. One is simply my humanity. I may endeavor not to put any weight on an LSAT, but if it’s there…well, it’s hard not to look, and that’s just going to mess up the whole experiment. The second reason is frankly self-interested. I haven’t yet mentioned that the review process for Wolverine Scholars takes place in a very compressed time frame in the summer before the usual admissions season begins; so this July, we will make offers to Wolverine Scholar applicants to matriculate in Fall 2012—whereas for everyone else, the 2012 admissions offers won’t begin getting made until early November. It is our selfish hope that a talented Michigan undergrad who learns he or she is admitted in July might just forego the great joy of taking the LSAT and choose to enroll at Michigan.  If we allow applicants who have already taken the LSAT, though, that big incentive evaporates.

But we know it’s not all about us, so we actually went to great lengths to design the Wolverine Scholar application process in a way that would not disadvantage anyone—we are, after all, one big happy Wolverine family. In my view, the one potential downside to the program is not being able to sit for the summer LSAT, which most prelaw advisors will tell you is the optimal sitting (because you get it out of the way without the distraction of your regular classes, and in the event you get a lower score than you were expecting, you still have plenty of time to take it again in the fall and apply relatively early in the process). Despite this conventional wisdom (which is, to be sure, good advice), most people take the fall LSAT (for example, in the last two years, a total of about 115,000 people took the LSAT in the fall, and fewer than 66,000, or a little more than half that number, took it in the summer)—so foregoing the summer LSAT, while a cost, is by no means a fatally unfavorable circumstance.

That’s about it, though, in terms of disadvantages. We waive the initial application fee, and in the event you aren’t admitted and wish to reapply for early or regular decision, we’ll waive it again. We make the decisions in plenty of time for you to register for the fall LSAT and be assured of getting your first-choice testing location.  We never “hold it against you” that you applied and weren’t admitted (either through Wolverine Scholars, or through the regular process, for that matter); if you apply again, you have a clean slate. If you get admitted as Wolverine Scholar but want to apply to other law schools, you absolutely can—the program is non-binding, and no deposit is required until the end of April almost a year after you were admitted. Finally, if you get admitted and want to enroll but think, “I don’t actually want to go straight to law school after graduating, and would prefer to work for a little while,” we’re incredibly free with deferrals (even though we’re often kind of stinting with deferrals as a general proposition). Basically, worst-case scenario, the Wolverine Scholar gives you a dry run at the law school application process.

Apart from the lack of an LSAT, there are two big differences in the way we review Wolverine Scholar applications and the way we review regular applications: we give heightened scrutiny (to borrow a phrase from the constitutional law realm) to the undergraduate curriculum and to the recommendation letters. Both factors, of course, are important as a general proposition in admissions, but our familiarity with the curriculum and the recommenders here give them added weight. And without the LSAT as a factor, and with the leveling influence of a 3.80-GPA floor, the quality of the curriculum and the strength of recommendations are the elements that really illustrate academic strength.  Finally, because the pool of applicants is so much smaller than the general pool, we simply have the freedom and ability to spend a lot of time going over details with a fine-tooth comb.

That’s a point that leads very nicely into a topic that I’ve had lots of people raise: how hard is it to get in, anyway? The obvious data point—percentage of people admitted—doesn’t really tell you what you want to know. For our regular decision pool, we typically admit about 20% from a pool of 5500; for Wolverine Scholars, we admitted 27% in 2009 and 30% in 2010, with pools of about 50. That is certainly encouraging; it looks like it’s a lot easier to get in as a Wolverine Scholar. But the numbers mask something important: the Wolverine Scholar pool has been consistently AMAZING. It is extremely difficult to make the choice to deny anyone.  In contrast, while our regular admissions pool is full of hard decisions, there are probably always 20 or 25% that virtually everyone who reads the file would think should be a denial. In other words, our pool of Wolverine Scholar denials contains a much higher percentage of top-notch, hard-to-deny candidates than does the regular admissions pool. That reality is reflected in another statistic: of the 66 people who have been denied as Wolverine Scholars in the last two seasons, 14 were subsequently admitted in the regular admissions pool.

Overall, we’ve been very happy with our Wolverine Scholar “experiment.” I am very optimistic that at the end of our five-year trial run, we will choose to make it a permanent fixture in our admissions toolkit.

Waiting It Out

February 10, 2011

A couple of red traffic lights against a blue sky

Today, NIU College of Law’s Director of Admissions Sarah E. Scarpelli explains the law school “waiting lists” phenomenon, while providing tips on how to navigate them.

It’s February, and you might have started your law school application process late last semester. Decisions are beginning to populate your mailbox or your e-mail inbox. You may have been consistently checking the online status checkers available through many law schools’ websites. Perhaps you have received good news and learned you have been admitted to a few schools. You may have already had your heart broken a time or two through a denial letter. But arguably, the most confusing, maddening and frustrating decision of all is this:

After careful consideration of your credentials, the Admissions Committee has decided to place your name on our waiting list.

I believe this is the most accurate, eponymous “decision” in the admissions arena because you will definitely need to wait. And wait. And potentially wait some more.

I understand how you feel. Many years ago I was placed on two law schools’ waiting lists. Although I felt punished, I ultimately enrolled in law school unscathed. I graduated and have spent the past 12 years counseling students just like you as they try to make sense of this situation.

I will try to demystify this situation for you. Please note, those of us in the law school admissions arena are also operating under conditions of uncertainty. We are charged by our deans and college presidents to enroll classes of certain sizes with certain qualifications. The admissions committee may rely heavily on past years’ data to determine how many students we may need to accept in order to yield a number that comes as close as possible to the goals set by our institutions. That said, as the overall market fluctuates, so does the number of students that may accept offers of admission at any given law school. I have worked at three different law schools over the years and have witnessed considerable shifts in the size of the applicant pool as well as in the number of students called off of the waiting list. For example, right after 9/11, the interest in legal careers was at an all-time high and the admissions committee at my first law school employer admitted just ten candidates from its waiting list. Nearly a decade later, with the economic recession and a smaller applicant pool, almost a third of the entering class was invited from our school’s waiting list.

To respond to these kinds of challenges, many law school admissions committees create what I liken to an insurance policy. Simply put, if hypothetical ‘Law School X’ does not yield enough students through its regular admission cycle, ‘Law School X’s’ admissions committee will begin to admit candidates from its waiting list/insurance policy. Also, (and this is particularly true during the summer months leading up to first year orientation at most law schools), ‘Law School X’ may lose previously-committed students to other law schools. Again, ‘Law School X’ is able to fill those vacancies by admitting talented students from its waiting list/insurance policy.

Please allow me to share these candid and heartfelt suggestions as you navigate your own waiting list experience:

  1. Do not take this news as an ultimate rejection. Remember: your candidacy is attractive to the admissions committee for a number of reasons and your file will remain under consideration.
  2. Read the waiting list decision letter and all materials/instructions carefully. If there are additional forms or steps to complete, do so. Many admissions committees will provide you with specific instructions. For example, the committee may pass the baton back to you and ask you if you wish to remain under consideration. If you do not follow up, those schools are likely to remove you from the waiting list. Please recall that the committee is striving to mitigate uncertainty. If you do not appear interested in ‘Law School X,’ they will move on to another candidate. Oftentimes, you will be asked to complete a brief form that details your intentions. For example, you will need to check a box that indicates whether or not you wish to remain under consideration. You may also be asked how long you wish to remain under consideration. Many schools keep their waiting lists open until the first day of classes in August. Over the years, I have witnessed a significant amount of waiting list activity during those final days of summer. If you are passionate about attending a particular law school and you are able to pivot, to mobilize, and to change your plans at the last minute, you need to inform that school’s office of admissions.
  3. Be pleasant, not pesky. Many law schools will invite you to submit additional materials to build your application. Some may encourage you to visit. As I wrote in #2 above, read each school’s instructions carefully. As time marches on, you may feel pressured to call ‘Law School X’ everyday to reiterate that ‘Law School X’ is your number one choice for your legal education. There is a very fine line between being eager and pesky. Daily calls may be seen as over-the-top and you may jeopardize your chances for being called off the list should a vacancy occur within ‘Law School X’s’ entering class. In addition to forecasting how you will perform academically at ‘Law School X,’ the admissions committee is also working to gauge whether or not you will fit within its community. Intangibles, particularly on the interpersonal level, are important when the committee is entering the final hours of the admission cycle.

If you are placed on a law school’s waiting list, there are definitely aspects of your candidacy that the Committee values. That doesn’t necessarily take the sting out of the situation, but please know that I have witnessed many waiting list success stories through the years. Ultimately, there is a law school community for everyone. Strive to navigate the process with patience and respect and you will find your way. Please do not hesitate to email me with questions or concerns. My address is sscarpelli@niu.edu. I hope to hear from you.

Photo credit: Horia Varlan / CC BY 2.0


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