[This song is from Cabaret. If you don't know the play/movie, watch it; it's a major cultural reference.]

You NEED to file your taxes, because you need to file your FAFSA. The need-based portion of financial aid awards is linked to your income taxes for the previous year, in this case 2012. If you don't file those papers, you may not get some portion of money.

What portion? No one can say. So much has changed so quickly in the financial aid realm that I've interviewed a handful of people and looked for the commonality in the advice. But let's start with Rule #1. When I told you about admissions data on Christmas, I quoted my contracts professor as saying "all rules are vague and elusive."

Every school (or every state) has the right to set its own policy; what's 100% true at Michigan may be 100% false at Minnesota. So read this to learn what questions to ask, not to find answers.

Rule #2: Money is important. It's not the only factor, and it's not the most important, but if you overlook it, you'll regret it for the next 5 to 30 years. That's as long as a mortgage, and it can be as big as one. LSAC has published a brochure about financial aid. Here it is. It gives you some info about budgets and how to meet them. In general, it's too general to be really helpful (but then, in general, generalities are. That's why we so often say, "That's a generalization.") It has excellent information on the new repayment laws.

Money is so important I've already written about it several times. Off the top of my head, I can think of two links in my "Recent News Treasure Chest" about finances: One addresses the need to question and track forms, grants, and debts, and the other tell how financial problems can keep you from getting licensed. One in "The Big Picture" discusses whether law is the right field for you if money is your primary goal, and one in "Preliminary Choices," discusses the futility of trying to predict your financial future. There's a section in "Choosing Law Schools" on how misleading a median salary can be (the source of most of this year's rabble-rousing). There's even a small bit in advice about acceptance letters, but I've never had a comprehensive section on financial aid.

There's a reason for that: financial aid info is fluid, school-specific, and usually a secret, so it's virtually impossible to give solid and timely answers. If there ever was a need for that info, now is the time, so I'm assembling as much as I can of what you need to know. Some of that will overlap with the notes above, and I'll link to specific pages from time to time. But this brings us to Rule #3.

All of this may be true when I'm writing it and false before you get to law school. Many (but not all) schools are free to change courses mid-stream, or for residents, or for minorities, without ever publishing any information about it. This isn't scandalous, fraudulent, or unusual. It's the way money gets handled.

For instance, many years ago, when I was attending UPenn undergrad, my father died. UPenn had a scholarship for such a situation, and they awarded it to me. It was entirely their choice whether to reduce my loan amount or my grant amount when they gave me this scholarship. I could have been left with a smaller loan, or the same loan I had the year before. Both options were perfectly legal, and perfectly reasonable. I think they reduced my loan, because I remember being happy about it. (Thank you again, Mr, D'Augustine.) But either decision was justifiable.

In gathering this data, I talked to a number of people. I made sure to talk with admissions officers from the east, the midwest and the west, north and south, and both public and private schools. I read that LSAC brochure mentioned above, and a few schools' financial aid web pages. I reviewed and, where needed, updated my own pages. I've combed through handouts I've given to my clients in previous years. And herewith I give you everything I know and can share, and every question I think you should ask, about financial aid.

It's way too much for one page, so, as with my Christmas admissions data, I'm linking to the main points here, and you'll be whisked off to even more info.

Figure out

  1. how much money you'll need;
  2. where you'll get it;
  3. and how (and for how long) you'll pay it back.

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