Learn the Art of Negotiating Law School Financial Aid

Shawn P. O'Connor

Welcome to the latest installment of Law Admissions Q-and-A, a monthly feature of Law Admissions Lowdown that provides admissions advice to readers who send in questions and admissions profiles. If you have a question about law school, email me for a chance to be featured next month.

This month, as a follow up to the post on maximizing your chances of getting financial aid, I answer readers' questions regarding law school financial aid.

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Dear Shawn: I have been accepted to law school at University of Virginia with $60,000 in merit-based financial aid. I have also been admitted to the law schools at Cornell University, UCLA, Georgetown University and University of Southern California without scholarships and am on the priority wait list at Duke University.

What is your advice for approaching the other schools about potentially matching or beating Virginia's $60,000 scholarship? My hope is that since Virginia is ranked seventh, the lower-ranked schools will have an incentive to provide financial aid as well.

Is it better to send letters to law schools to negotiate financial aid as soon as possible, or should I wait to hear from my remaining law schools (Stanford University, University of California--Berkeley, Columbia University, University of California--Davis and University of Chicago)? Finally, what might the $60,000 offered by Virginia potentially translate into at UCLA or University of Southern California? -Seeking a Match

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Dear Seeking a Match: Negotiating financial aid is a valuable strategy to ensure that you obtain the best possible financial aid package at the school of your choice. It is wonderful that you have been offered a $60,000 scholarship at Virginia, but if Virginia is not your first choice then you likely will want to leverage that offer to try and secure a similar level of aid at another school.

Identify your clear first choice school before beginning financial aid negotiations. It tends to be more effective to tell a particular school you are absolutely committed to matriculating if they match or exceed an offer than trying to negotiate with various schools at once.

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I would wait until you hear from your remaining schools before broaching the subject -- assuming that one of the schools you have not heard from might be your top choice, where you'll find it worth paying full price. You have received a very generous scholarship from Virginia, but wait for all the pertinent information before you start negotiations, as you could get only one shot -- unlike buying a car, you probably won't be able to haggle back and forth with a school.

Without having substantial time to review your overall application -- GPA, LSAT score and the strength of your essays and recommendations -- and consider the schools that offered aid vs. your dream school, I cannot advise you on a specific strategy to maximize your financial aid grants. But it is critical that you negotiate in a professional and polite manner to avoid offending the schools and that you conduct negotiations at the right time and under the proper circumstances (for example, do not bring this issue up at an admitted students weekend).

Finally, a number of schools simply refuse to negotiate on merit-based financial aid. When I applied to law school, I had a full merit-based scholarship to Columbia. Because of the strength of their brands, Harvard University, Yale University and Stanford refused to offer me any matching aid, which is their general practice. -Shawn

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Dear Shawn: I just read your post with financial aid advice for parents of law school candidates, and I have a question regarding my daughter potentially transferring after the first year of law school.

My daughter plans to start law school in fall 2013. So far, she has been admitted to the law schools at Santa Clara University and University of Southern California; however, her dream school is Stanford, and she has not received that decision yet.

If she is not accepted at Stanford but does well in her first year at Santa Clara, what are the ramifications regarding financial aid (need- and merit-based) if she is accepted to Stanford as a transfer student? If she received financial aid at Santa Clara or University of Southern California, will that transfer to Stanford? -Will the Money Follow?

Dear Will the Money Follow?: Unfortunately, financial aid packages do not transfer when a student transfers law schools. Stanford typically does not offer merit-based scholarships at all because of the strength of the school's brand and its ability to attract top students without such aid offers.

If your daughter receives a need-based scholarship at University of Southern California or Santa Clara, it is likely that she will also be offered one at Stanford, though it may be higher or lower depending on your family's individual circumstances and the demonstrated need of the school's other students. You will have to complete a new need-based financial aid application for Stanford for the school to determine your eligibility.

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Before accepting a merit-based scholarship offer at Santa Clara or University of Southern California, be sure to read the fine print. I often counsel students in your daughter's situation to consider a lower scholarship offer from a school that does not require that the scholarship be repaid if the student decides to transfer rather than a higher aid offer from a school that includes such a provision. These "clawback" provisions are not unheard of in first-year law student merit-based aid packages. -Shawn