In general, law schools offer 3 main kinds of scholarships/grants which provide tens of millions of dollars in financial aid to students each year: (1) need-based scholarships; (2) merit-based scholarships; and (3) criteria-based scholarships. Most law schools provide at least 1 of these 3 kinds of scholarships, with need-based scholarships being by far the most popular and lucrative. Some of these scholarships are funded directly by the law schools themselves, others indirectly through endowments (often from generous alumni), while still others are funded by third parties and third-party organizations.
Law schools award need-based scholarships based on a student’s demonstrated financial need. Law schools are solely responsible for determining a student’s financial need, and they typically require students applying for such scholarships to complete at least 2 forms: (1) the Free Application for Federal Student Aid ("FAFSA"); and (2) a law school-authored financial aid assessment form. It is generally (but not always) true that the most prestigious law schools and the oldest law schools offer the most need-based scholarships, because they tend to have the largest endowments that permit need-based aid.
Many law schools also award merit scholarships which, as their names suggest, are given on the basis of prior academic achievement. Some of the most prestigious law schools (like Yale, for example) do not offer merit-based scholarships. Their reasons for not doing so vary, but one reason undoubtedly is that they have no strategic need to do so. After all, if you are fortunate enough to receive an offer from Yale Law, history tells us that you do not need much persuasion (in the form of money) to accept their offer over all others.
Many other schools, primarily those outside the top tier, offer merit-based scholarships as a way to woo students who have UGPAs or LSAT scores far above their median since those two data points represent significant factors in USNEWS’s ranking formula. By essentially “buying” students in the form of sizable merit scholarships, these schools hope to achieve a better ranking and, by extension, better national visibility. So, if you have the type of scores that might make you an attractive candidate for a merit scholarship, it might be unwise to approach the admissions process blinded by your desire to attend your 1st choice “dream” school -- keep an open mind because your 5th choice school might become your 1st choice when you receive their financial aid offer in April!
While there is much focus on merit-based scholarships for entering law students, you should also be aware that most schools reserve some money for merit-based scholarships that support second- and third-year students. Many schools again, those primarily outside the top tier, will offer merit-based scholarships to second- and third-year students who achieve academic excellence during their One L year. But don't be fooled. Often a law school's decision to award a merit scholarship to a second-year student has less to do with the school’s largess, and more to do with the school’s concern about losing its top students as transfers to higher-ranked schools. Notwithstanding schools’ motivation for awarding these scholarships, cash is cash! So, understand that even if you weren’t offered money to attend -- perhaps your UGPA/LSAT are far below your school’s median and you got an offer by the skin of your teeth -- there’s still hope because merit-based scholarships for second- and third-year students are based upon your academic performance during law school (not before).
Many law schools offer scholarships based certain criteria that a student meets. For example, a law school that’s part of a larger university may have received endowment money specifically to fund scholarships for university undergraduates who are now considering attending its law school. So, hypothetically, Northwestern University School of Law could award a scholarship each year only to Northwestern University undergrads who have displayed exemplary academic achievement throughout their undergraduate studies.
Another example could be a scholarship awarded to a law student who intends to study a certain kind of law. So, hypothetically, a law school alumnus with a career in First Amendment Law could fund a scholarship awarded each year to an incoming law student who has a demonstrated interest in a civil liberties law career. Still another example could be a scholarship sponsored by a specific organization for the benefit of its employees and their children. So, hypothetically, Microsoft could fund a scholarship at the University of Washington Law School awarded each year to an employee or an employee’s child based on academic achievement and financial need.
Finally, some outside organizations -- primarily large law firms that tend to support a particular school by heavily recruiting its students -- will sponsor scholarships. So, for instance, the legal powerhouse Skadden Arps funds the Frank Rothman Scholarship at USC School of Law which not only entitles an entering USC admit to a 3-year, full-tuition scholarship, but (get this) also guarantees a paid summer clerkship during their 1L summer.
The different categories of criteria-based scholarships are only limited by the imaginations of those who endow them. While such scholarships are more common at the college level, they also exist at many law schools, and the admissions and financial aid offices at each school almost always promote them as a tool to attract students to their schools.
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