It’s no secret that student loan debt is out of control in this country. Most people today assume that you can’t go to college without borrowing heavily. Paying cash for a professional level degree like law school or medical school seems completely out of the question. The average law school student graduates with more than $140,000 in student loans. This can stifle even the most robust legal career and cause stress and havoc far into the future. I wanted to become a lawyer, but I was unwilling to accept decades worth of debt as the cost. So I figured out how to cash flow my law degree. In the process, I realized that paying cash—even for a law degree—was much more achievable than most people realize.
Here’s how I did it:
#1- I chose a school I could afford.
Choosing a school is the biggest factor in the education cost equation. Tuition levels vary dramatically based on whether the school is a public, private, in-state, out-of-state, or a so-called prestigious university. After applying to three different law schools during my senior year of college, I chose to attend a public, in-state school where the tuition was reasonable (approximately $20,000 per year at the time). It didn’t carry the prestige of Harvard or Yale, but at less than 1/3 the cost, I was willing to overlook that detail.
#2- I lived like a student while I was a student.
While I was in school I did everything possible to live inexpensively. During my first year, I rented a single room for $300 per month. I bartered services with my landlord and did landscaping work around the property in exchange for five month’s rent. In other words, rent for my entire first year of law school cost me only $1200 out of pocket. After getting married immediately after my first year, my wife and I chose to live in a simple, inexpensive one-bedroom apartment for the remainder of my schooling.
I also chose to drive like a student. While many of my law school colleagues were rolling up in Mercedes and BMWs, I retained the $3,700 1998 Toyota 4Runner which I had purchased during my senior year of undergrad. The odometer turned over the 250,000-mile mark one morning on my commute to the school. I still drive that car today.
#3- I sought out scholarship money.
I knew scholarships could be an integral part of paying for law school without loans, so I pursued them aggressively. About 59% of graduate students receive some sort of scholarship or grant money, and I wanted my piece of the pie. I also knew that test scores were a big factor in how schools make scholarship award decisions. So I studied hard for several months in preparation for the LSAT (law school admissions test) and managed to score in the top 20% of all test takers. This qualified me for a partial scholarship which covered about 70% of my tuition. My good score wasn’t a product of my intellectual smarts as much as it was the smart way in which I approached test preparation. I spent considerable time familiarizing myself with LSAT study aids and even took several free simulated practice exams. In the end, this work paid off big time.
#4- I worked more than they said I should.
Despite my scholarship award and frugal lifestyle, I still had massive amounts of ground to make up to pay for school without loans. I knew working would be another big part of that. Most people assume you can’t work during rigorous graduate programs like law school. Then again, that may be why most law students end up graduating with hundreds of thousands in debt. To me, the cost of three very tough years in school was totally worth the reward of a lifetime of freedom.
During the semester, the law school attempted to limit student work levels to a maximum of 20 hours per week. This was to help ensure that students didn’t let their work interfere with their studies. I did my best to obey this mandate, pushing the limits often. But In order to spend more time working, I was not afraid to let my grades slip a little bit. I wasn’t concerned about my GPA as long as I passed my classes. When out of school during the summer and other breaks, I worked like a complete maniac, often pulling 60 to 80-hour weeks.
I didn’t waste time with minimum wage jobs but instead did things that really moved the needle. By continuing my college enterprise of mowing lawns, I could easily make $25 per hour or more. So I did a lot of that, mowing about 2,500 lawns over the course of my three-year law school tenure. I also did a wide range of other kinds of work for money including roofing, painting, laying tile, building decks and even started selling real estate before I got out of school. All in all, the massive amount of work I did helped cover the remainder of my education and living expenses but also helped prepare me for the real world after school. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
My experience during law school was not typical of most law students. But my experience out of school hasn’t been typical either. Without any student loans, I have been free to engage in the practice of law on a part-time basis while also pursuing several other ventures. I get to pick my clients and work with who I want to work with. I also enjoy the freedom of an extremely flexible schedule and a budget with some wiggle room. I get to spend time with my young family and take things at my own pace.
The sacrifices I made during school were the prices I paid for these privileges.
It wasn’t easy, but now that I am out of school, I am convinced that it was completely worth it.