Todd Rothman, Senior Associate Director
Merit scholarships to law school seem to be abounding these days and, as a result, more and more admitted students are negotiating the merit-based scholarship package they were initially awarded. Although there aren’t any hard-and-fast rules for how these negotiations ought to proceed, it is becoming an increasingly common practice among scholarship awardees. And while some law schools make it abundantly clear that these negotiations are unwelcome, many law schools will indeed engage in these conversations to provide admitted students with the most attractive financial package.
Since many admitted students understandably find these conversations to be challenging – and a little awkward – I thought I would provide a few best (and worst) practices as you attempt to navigate the sometimes thorny process of scholarship negotiation.
1. Before you contact any law schools for additional merit-based funding, you should have a full understanding of what the real costs of attending each law school will be. Rather than merely comparing merit awards, you need to consider the full financial picture of the next three years. This includes, but is not limited to, analyzing differences in sticker-price tuition costs (public vs. private), overall cost of living (housing, whether or not you will need a car), and the fine print of renewing your merit scholarship each year of law school. Some law schools will provide the merit-based scholarship without any stipulations, while others might require you to maintain a certain GPA each year or finish in a certain percentile of your law school class. When you consider all of these factors more comprehensively, it isn’t always the law school with the highest award that will be the most affordable.
2. Since every law school will likely handle these negotiations differently, it is always best to inquire with the law school directly – either by email or phone – about if/how they are interested in proceeding with this process. In order to make the biggest initial impact, many law schools will start with their best offer and, if that is not substantial enough, their hands are essentially tied at that point. If that is the case, it is best to find that out before you assume that they are open to further negotiations. Many law schools will prefer you to start this process in writing – either a hard copy letter or an email – and will often ask that you also send (or attach) copies of the award letters from the other law schools to which you have been admitted.
3. Your correspondence with law schools should be professional and polite, but must also be undemanding and grateful in tone. Remember that applying to law school is the first step in your career as a lawyer and that includes, of course, all of these types of negotiations. After all, this law school has not only admitted you to their incoming class, but has further incentivized you through merit-based awards. Clearly, this is a law school that thinks very highly of your talents and potential contributions to their law school, so you should approach this process with care, caution, and appreciation. Make sure that you reiterate in all correspondence how much you like their law school (and why), so that there is a bigger picture to your financial negotiating. Keep in mind that you are asking for additional funding and that, much like anything else, you will get more bees with honey.
4. Only engage in negotiations with law schools that you would realistically attend, so that your conversations can be based on honesty and a genuine desire to make your financial package at a given law school work so that you might be able to enroll. Otherwise, you are wasting everyone’s time, including your own.
5. If a law school does come back with a more attractive scholarship offer following your negotiations, please send a thankful response within a day or two. And if you still require additional time to make a final decision, it is appropriate to provide the law school with an approximate time frame for your decision-making process.
6. Speak with a pre-law advisor if you have any specific questions or concerns about how to proceed with your own merit scholarship negotiations. Although there are no agreed-upon guidelines for these kinds of discussions, we certainly have experience in helping applicants to manage this process.
1. Do not assume that law schools will enter into a fierce and dramatic “bidding war” over you. Even those law schools which are willing to engage in these negotiations will often hit their ceiling after the first reconsideration and, after that, it will be up to you to decide. These sorts of discussions are not intended to take place over the course of months of negotiating with several back-and-forth conversations.
2. Do not present a law school with any threats or an ultimatum – for example, “If you don’t increase my merit award by $10,000/year, then I’ll be attending X Law School instead.” That kind of aggressive and thankless approach will often result in a response email akin to “We wish you all the best at X Law School.
3. Do not cite U.S. News & World Report rankings in your correspondence – for example, “X Law School is higher ranked than your law school and they offered me more money than you.” Rankings have no bearing on the decision-making process for awarding merit-based scholarships at a given law school, nor will they come into play during the renegotiating process. In addition, you cannot leverage merit scholarships at “lower-tier schools” for an offer of admission at “higher-ranked schools.” That’s a clear case of apples and oranges.
4. Do not send the same generic email to each law school with which you are negotiating. Take the time to tailor each correspondence to the law school and make sure that you address and send the correspondence to the appropriate contact person. If you’re unsure as to whom to send it, then contact the Admissions Office directly and inquire – and make sure that you get their name (and title) correctly in the email.
5. Do not haggle over minimal monetary differences between offers from law schools. You have entered into this application process with the knowledge that law school is a very expensive endeavor, but that there is a significant return on investment in your future professional life for your time, energy, and money. A good rule of thumb is that, if it’s a difference of less than $5,000/year, you should cease further discussion and accept that as a final offer.
6. If a law school does not come back with a more attractive scholarship offer following your negotiations, do not send an arrogant or exasperated response. Again, you were simply asking (not demanding) for additional funding, so the prospect of getting a “no” is always a possibility. If, at that point, you would like to withdraw your acceptance, then you are certainly free to do so… politely.
Again, please keep in mind that there aren’t any hard-and-fast rules for how to go about this. Hopefully, though, these pointers will help you on your way to becoming more knowledgeable and more confident about how to proceed in these negotiations. And even though these discussions can be stressful and often awkward, try to keep the bigger picture in mind – you have successfully navigated the law school application process and, more than that, you have been admitted to law school with scholarship money!