Can 1L grades impact how much I pay for law school?

Unfortunately, yes. It’s well documented that the vast majority of law firm recruiting takes place during the fall semester of law students’ second year, and first year (1L) grades are all that legal employers have at their disposal at the time when deciding which students to hire into their summer associate programs. What may not be as obvious, though, is that 1L grades can also directly impact your overall cost of attendance — often increasing the tuition you pay.  

So maybe some rather sketchy math factored into your decision to go to law school. That’s to be expected. It’s why I’m here to explain how 1L grades can impact one of the largest investments of your life — your law school tuition. No need to worry, the information won’t cost you a dime.

Cost of attendance & conditional scholarships

As your law school acceptances begin to roll in, one number you must pay close attention to is the “overall cost of attendance” — what it will cost you for tuition, cost of living, books, fees and interest.  The overall cost of attendance at many law schools exceeds $300k. However, if your LSAT score and/or UGPA are above those of other applicants you can expect a school to offer a partial or even full scholarship that can significantly reduce your tuition. But buyer beware: Many such scholarships are “conditional” — making them contingent on you maintaining a certain GPA or class rank during the 1L year.

Some students may erroneously believe that their scholarships are “guaranteed” for all three years. Worse, there are students who understand the award is conditional yet become overconfident, assuming that the scholarship offer itself is a sign that they’ll be among the top students. Don’t be fooled.  

Top grades in law school are difficult to achieve because law school exams are graded on a curve, thereby mathematically ensuring that not all scholarship recipients can achieve the GPA/rank needed to retain their award. During 2015-16, of the students attending one of the 99 law schools that awarded conditional scholarships to entering 1Ls, an average of 27% (1 in 4) failed to retain their scholarship. At roughly a quarter of those schools, a staggering 40% of 1L students lost their scholarships. Students who find themselves in this unenviable position have two choices: Drop out and cut their losses, or pay “sticker price” at a school that they may not have otherwise attended if it weren’t for the now-lost scholarship — all the while knowing it will be a struggle to land a job without good grades.

Conditional scholarships place significant pressure on law students to perform out of the gate and to keep missteps to a minimum in order to earn the highest 1L GPA possible.

“The ~$1000 I spent on Law Preview was well worth the cost. My school has a 40% class rank requirement for retaining your scholarship, I know a number of students whose scholarships were reduced or eliminated for not making that cut. In my mind, Law Preview basically saved me $36,000 per year by assuring me I would have the foundation necessary for academic success and to retain my scholarship.”

— Quinn E., Creighton University School of Law

2L retention scholarships

Now, perhaps you’re not among those with an LSAT score or UGPA that is worthy of a scholarship. Maybe you’re simply lucky to get into law school in the first place. Regardless, there’s still an opportunity to decrease your overall cost of attendance by having your law school offer you a “retention” scholarship for your second (2L) and third (3L) years.

You see, after 1L grades are released in June law schools will sometimes award significant scholarships to top students that reduces their tuition during the second and third year. A school’s “generosity” at this time is most likely an effort to prevent those students from transferring to higher ranked schools.

Law schools know that top 1L students are more likely to pass the bar exam on the first try and also land a job within 10 months of graduation. These are two metrics schools must report to the ABA and, more importantly, that are incorporated into the U.S. News Law Rankings. Consequently, they would rather discount a successful student’s tuition in order to keep them, rather than lose them as a transfer student to a higher ranked school.

“I took Law Preview in Philly last summer and the exam strategy class in DC last fall. I just had to write to say thank you again. I got a 3.71 my first semester and wow has it paid off… The law school awarded me a retroactive scholarship in the amount of $10,000 a year based on my first semester achievements. They don’t want me to transfer, I guess. I have recommended the program to all of my undergraduate friends who are planning to go to law school next year. I also told them that the exam strategy course is perfect for going into exams and it is offered at the perfect time. The program has definitely paid for itself.”

— Eric H., University of Pittsburgh School of Law

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