I had an idyllic childhood, in a small-town America sort of way. Before I was old enough to work, I rode my bike down to the Long Prairie River to cast for northern pike in the summers. I defended our backyard fort from neighborhood invaders with my brother. I got a good public-school education. Other than a rough six months when my old man was healing from two busted knees (he had to thereafter transition from carpet layer to public-school custodian), we always had our basic needs met. My mom was a dental hygienist at the same small-town dental office for 30-some years. That kept the household bills paid.
But, household bills aside, one thing a small-town dental hygienist and a public-school custodian were not going to be able to do was contribute tens of thousands of dollars to pay for their sons’ higher education. So, I worked hard in high school. When I finished, I accepted a full academic scholarship at an undergraduate institution. After that, I applied to eight law schools. Four of them offered me full scholarships. I accepted one of the full scholarships, graduated from law school without debt, and never looked back.
In addition to my private practice experience, I’ve now been teaching legal writing as an adjunct law professor for as long as I was in law school myself. Obviously, I’ve been writing for Above the Law as well, often about financial issues impacting law students and new lawyers. And in all the time since I went to law school, with all my diverse experience, it has been reinforced more and more to me that my approach to law school scholarships wasn’t a fluke. It wasn’t just chance. Yes, I worked hard and got good grades, but I was also strategic. I followed a defined process, with a specific goal in mind, and achieved it. This could be replicated.
Your Debt-Free JD: How to Graduate from Law School Without Incurring Student Loan Debt is a guide on how to strategically apply for and get through law school with maximum opportunities but at minimal cost. I set out to write Your Debt-Free JD to share my expertise with any prospective law students who don’t want to graduate handcuffed to six figures of student loan debt. I particularly have a place in my heart for those potential law students who, like me, have no family members in the legal profession to help in navigating the dizzying world of law school applications.
Most potential law students base their school selection on only one factor: perceived prestige. This means, basically, that most law students just go to the school they get into with the highest U.S. News rank. Your Debt-Free JD argues that law school rankings and claimed prestige have little to do with the quality of the legal education actually provided, and that school rankings and prestige have even less to do with real-world outcomes for most law students and new lawyers (career outcomes ultimately have a lot more to do with you than with what school you go to). Law students who understand how to play the U.S. News rankings to their advantage can finagle their way into tens, and probably hundreds, of thousands of dollars in scholarship money while giving up virtually nothing in terms of educational quality or career outcomes.
The biggest part of getting your JD without getting buried in debt is properly understanding what is important about the U.S. News rankings — how you can use them to your financial advantage, at the expense of the prestige-obsessed. But the last two sections of the book are dedicated to what you can do while you’re actually in law school to ensure you remain at least relatively debt-free. There is material for current law students as well as prospective ones. I wanted to empower more people to be able to pursue meaningful work with nonprofits, in government offices, or even out of the legal field entirely, rather than everyone being stuck with high-paying private sector work after law school to pay off debts they never should have incurred.
Having been a relatively active player in the literary community for a few years now, I initially sent out some query letters to literary agents and book proposals to small publishers. The response I got (if I got one) was either sorry, we don’t work with this kind of book topic, or we don’t think there is a big enough market of potential law students who both don’t want to incur debt and are openminded about the U.S. News rankings maybe being meaningless garbage. I figured the publishing industry insiders might be wrong, and I also figured that my manuscript was neither helping anyone nor earning me a bit of scratch on the side sitting unused on my jump drive.
I just self-published a draft of Your Debt-Free JD on Amazon for download to your Kindle or other device, which you can find by following the link in this sentence. It’ll only set you back $9.99, and I guarantee you’ll get at least that much value out of it. The manuscript is a little over 70,000 words, making it roughly equivalent to Scott Turow’s One L in length. If you like the book or find it helpful, please tell your friends and leave a five-star Amazon review. If you don’t like the book or have any nonformatting criticisms, feel free to let me know (but leave a five-star review anyway). And if you really want a paper copy, email me at the address below and we’ll work something out.
Jonathan Wolf is a litigation associate at a midsize, full-service Minnesota firm. He also teaches as an adjunct writing professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, has written for a wide variety of publications, and makes it both his business and his pleasure to be financially and scientifically literate. Any views he expresses are probably pure gold, but are nonetheless solely his own and should not be attributed to any organization with which he is affiliated. He wouldn’t want to share the credit anyway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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