Free Money for Law School? Good Luck!

In a twist of fate highly convenient for examining the merits of an argument made in a New York Times article this week, I just received an acceptance letter offering me an annual $10,000 grant as well as free first-year course books from a law school that will remain nameless. The article’s author appeared to enjoy writing about the downfalls of the law school experience. In January, he wrote about the abysmal job market, but now in “How Students Lose the Grant Game as Schools Win,” he discusses the propensity of law school officials to conceal the actual statistics concerning their students’ abilities to retain their scholarships.

The letters I received say nothing of caveats, but I did a quick search and easily found that this scholarship is only renewable for the second- and third-years of school if I stay at the top third of my class. That sounds pretty reasonable, and I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who disagreed with the requirement. After all, these grants are awarded for scholastic merit.

The issue according to the author is not the requirement but the very small number of students who are actually able to maintain the grades and consequently retain their grants for the second and third years of law school. Many are now arguing that schools should be required to report the number of students who manage to maintain these scholarships each year in the spirit of full disclosure.

It would certainly be nice of the law schools to disclose this information, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this out. On account of the long-recognized curved grading system, only a small number of students are awarded A’s each semester; it is very likely that many of them necessarily will not attain the required GPA.

The whole thing smells sort of like a devious bait and switch, but it’s not like this information is unavailable. All anyone needs to do is ask for it.

It isn’t particularly nice of these schools to deliberately withhold such information in the actual award letters, but it isn’t absolutely wrong either. Is it really too much to ask someone who wants to be a lawyer to read the fine print and employ some very basic statistical logic? I mean come on, $10,000 a year for three years? I could buy a new car with that! Even as an entering law student, I know that nothing comes for free.

It’s the students’ responsibility to ensure that they are aware of the strings attached to the grants, and in all fairness, it’s the responsibility of the law schools not only to train future lawyers but also to attract the students with the most potential for success. If that means offering merit scholarships to attract students who might otherwise choose a higher-ranking institution, then so be it. And if that means requiring these students to maintain grades within the top third of their class ranking even in light of the terrifying curve, then more power to them.

Some might call accepting a grant like this a risk-free bet. Students take a chance believing they will make the grades and ultimately lose nothing by doing so. But I will concede that the weight placed on the misleading and biased U.S. News law school rankings ensures that there is a risk for some. Many students forgo attending a higher-ranked law school with more job opportunities to take advantage of grant money covering their tuition in part or in full, so that even if they don’t get the job that pays $180,000 a year to those grads from higher ranked institutions, they graduate with less debt. However, if these students lose their grants, statistically, they end up paying the same $40,000 sticker price for a “lesser” institution with fewer employment opportunities. It’s a bummer, but I can’t comfortably say that it’s totally unfair.

The problem comes down to the consistent attitude of many of the incoming law students who seem to think that despite the state of the economy and overabundance of lawyers in general, the statistics don’t apply to them. In a recent survey conducted by Kaplan, 52 percent of prospective law students were very confident that they would be employed after graduation while only 16 percent were very confident in their classmates.

You might look at this as naivety, but I see it as uncalled-for egoism. What makes any of these respondents more worthy of job placement than the person sitting next to them? They’re ultimately doing themselves a disservice by lying to themselves about their competition. And again, there’s the curve. Even if the students enter with the same credentials, law schools make sure to draw lines in their ranking system.

Quite frankly, I almost feel that those who aren’t resourceful enough to do a little digging and who aren’t willing to contact those in charge should bear the burden of heavy debts when they graduate. Serves them right.

And despite it all, I still want to go. Not just to wait out the lousy economy or because I’m afraid to participate in the real world, but because I want to be a lawyer. I am willing to play their high stakes game. I say to you, law school, bring it on.

Ariana Santoro is a fourth-year physics and political science double major. She can be reached at