It doesn’t have to be this way.

If someone asks you whether they should go to law school, here is a very safe response: “Sure, provided that you get into a top law school and can go for free.” Even the biggest critics of legal education would admit that, assuming you want to be a lawyer, going for free to an elite law school is not a bad idea. See, e.g., Professor Paul Campos, Don’t Go To Law School (Unless) (affiliate link).

How can this be achieved? It’s not impossible. As we’ve mentioned before, more than 10 percent of law students graduate with zero debt, and another 5 percent or so graduate with less than $20,000 in student loans. Some of these students receive generous scholarships from their schools; others have savings or come from well-to-do families.

But there are other options. For example, does your employer offer tuition reimbursement?

As we noted in Morning Docket, at least one top law firm offers a tuition reimbursement program. The Washington Post reports:

Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner, a law firm that specializes in patent and trademark work[,] has a generous reimbursement program that covers 100 percent of staffers’ law school tuition.

To qualify for the reimbursement, employees must work as “student associates” while they attend law school. These positions are typically part time, and the firm bills clients at a lower rate for the work.

“I signed some checks for Harvard and Stanford in the past year that nearly made me choke,” joked Barbara McCurdy, managing partner. But “the benefit for us is that we attract really excellent talent.”

Going to Harvard or Stanford Law on someone else’s dime: what’s not to like? This program sounds like a win-win-win: the student gets free tuition, the firm gets part-time work from the student, and the client gets work at a lower rate per hour.

The firm has a program for non-attorneys too:

Finnegan also offers a chance for tuition reimbursement for non-attorney staffers, but the program is structured differently. To receive full reimbursement, the employee must get an A in the class. A B is eligible for 80 percent reimbursement and a C is eligible for 60 percent.

This setup is “an incentive for the employee to do as well as possible with their course work,” said Dawn Ibbott, director of human resources and administration.

That’s quite generous. In the age of grade inflation, who gets a C these days anyway?

Finnegan isn’t the only legal employer that helps employees out with educational expenses. As you may recall from one of our earlier posts, Law School Success Stories: The Virtue of Thrift, the armed forces have similar programs, provided that you commit to serve in the military for a certain number of years after graduation. And another one of our readers, who started off as a paralegal at an ERISA boutique, got financial help from his employer when he decided to go to law school (again, contingent on his working for them after graduation).

A reader who read about the Finnegan program shared these thoughts:

FYI, this program isn’t that special. A lot of firms do this for patent people. I have friends from Ropes & Gray and Fenwick & West who went through similar programs.

From what I’ve seen, these firms will often encourage their high-performing patent agents/technical specialists to go to law school so they can come back to the firm as patent lawyers. It’s also usually reserved for patent agents with advanced technical degrees (masters in engineering (especially CS or EE) or PhD in a life sciences discipline). And they all offer the same deal as Finnegan — 100% tuition coverage.

But there are always strings attached: (1) you still have to bill X hours/year while you’re in law school (usually around 500 hours, which you can easily bill if you work full-time during winter + summer break); (2) you have to stay on with the firm X years after you graduate (sounds like two years is typical).

One benefit is when these guys graduate and start as associates, they usually get some credit for past work and/or their advanced degrees. So, for example, I had a friend at [one firm] who had a PhD and had two years of patent agent experience at the firm before law school. When she went back after graduation, the firm gave her 2 years credit for all that, so she started as a 3rd-year equivalent. That meant she got paid $185k base in her first year.

This reader noted, though, that not all firms are this generous. Some firms give less credit. And you need to read the fine print. Sometimes a firm can fire you in the middle of your program and not pay the rest of your tuition.

Does your employer offer tuition reimbursement or any other form of assistance with educational costs? If so, what are the specific terms of the arrangement? Feel free to email us or text us (646-820-8477). Depending on what responses we receive, we’ll update this post or write a new post. Thanks.

At Finnegan, a generous tuition reimbursement program [Capital Business / Washington Post]

Earlier: Law School Success Stories: The Virtue of Thrift
Five Trademark Lawyers Take Leave of Finnegan Henderson


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