Lawschool-FinanceAs law students’ debt soars, a new financial education program aims to help them better manage their personal finances while on campus and balance loan repayment and income once they graduate.

The three-year financial literacy program, a national endeavor developed by the nonprofit AccessLex Institute, combines online classes, in-person workshops, podcasts and other resources all managed through a personalized online portal.

There’s plenty of work to be done, according to a recent AccessLex poll. More than a quarter of law student respondents said they didn’t track their spending or follow a budget, and 70 percent said their personal finances were a source of stress. Fully 85 percent gave themselves a grade of B- or lower in personal finance knowledge.

AccessLex’s MAX program for first-year law students will roll out in the fall, with the second- and third-year curricula coming on line in 2018 and 2019, respectively. MAX is free to students, though their law schools must sign up for the program. There is no cost to the schools.

It’s tempting to assume that law students are knowledgeable about their finances because they are older than undergraduates and have enjoyed academic success, said Lyssa Thaden, managing director of AccessLex’s Center for Education and Financial Capability. But that’s not always the case.

“What we found in our research is that students had a lot of questions across all of these topics,” Thaden said. “Some of them have never had a budget or spending plan before. Some were very interested in how credit works.”

Some law schools have their own personal finance programs for students, while others don’t have the resources to offer financial education, Thaden said. MAX, which AccessLex said is the first national financial education program just for law students, is intended to supplement existing programs and bring money management education to campuses that currently lack them.

Financial education is sorely needed in law schools, said Joshua Holt, an associate at Goodwin Procter who runs the BigLaw Investor website, which offers money management advice tailored to large firm lawyers.

“There is a lack of financial education for lawyers,” Holt said. “Any type of education is probably going to be a good thing because it will spark the conversation. It’s important for law students to start thinking about the financial implications of going to law school, and to start to plan for what their post-law school financial life will look like.”

Yale Law School is among the campuses that already provide personal finance education, said financial aid director Jacqueline Outlaw. Its program covers budgeting, loan repayment for different legal career tracks, investing, credit management, and dressing for success, among other topics. Managing student loan debt is an ongoing concern for many Yale students, said Outlaw, who welcomed the MAX program as another tool to help students gain financial literacy.

“I think [the program] will be an important resource to utilize and is a positive development in helping to provide schools and students with even more resources on financial education,” she said.

AccessLex, formerly known as Access Group Inc., counts all nonprofit, American Bar Association-accredited law schools as members. It conducts research, programming and policy advocacy centered on legal education, lawyer professional development, diversity on law campuses and law student finances. The organization is funded through the reinvestment of profits generated when Access Group was a provider of graduate-level student loans—a business it was essentially pushed out of in 2010 when the federal government expanded eligibility for direct student loans. (AccessLex still services existing loans, but does not issue new ones.)

It’s no wonder then that law students are stressed about money, as a law degree is a pricey endeavor. The average tuition for resident students at public law schools was $15,455 a year in 2014, according to the ABA, and private schools cost an average $32,367. Average student debt for public school graduates in 2014 was $84,000, while private law grads took out an average of $122,000 in loans.

“A lot of law students are very worried about taking on six figures of debt, and whether they’ll be able to pay it off or not,” Holt said. “They’re very nervous about it, and a lot of the time people don’t talk to others about money. It’s a taboo subject. To have an opportunity to talk about this stuff is fantastic.”

The MAX program combines online classes, in-person workshops, podcasts, webinars and monthly newsletters to discuss a wide array of financial topics. Participating students will also have access to one-on-one financial coaching, and can personalize the program using its online portal. AccessLex developed the program during the past academic year, conducting focus groups and other testing at 43 different law campuses. More than 5,000 law students participated in the development process, and 98 percent of the students AccessLex polled said a personal finance program offered through their schools would be useful.

Though voluntary, Thaden said she is confident that busy law students will make the time to participate given the interest they expressed in focus groups. AccessLex is sweetening the deal by raffling off $5,000 and $40,000 scholarships to students who complete the program.

“We’re going to talk about budgeting in the context of legal education, which means that I need to tell you about the costs of the bar exam, and the cost of bar prep courses, and living costs for the several months before you take the bar,” Thaden said.

MAX starts in the fall semester of the first year of law school, focusing on identifying each student’s financial personality, setting financial goals, and developing a spending plan. The second-semester curriculum centers on following a budget and understanding and monitoring credit. Over the summer, students will learn about managing financial accounts and services.

The second- and third-year curricula will cover a variety of topics, including how to compare job offers, the tax implications of paid summer positions, insurance coverage, planning for retirement, and, of course, options for repaying student loans.

“We spent a lot of time talking to students and administrators about what they wanted and needed,” Thaden said. “We looked at how we enact behavior change. The students are really eager for a program like this. They want to be financially successful.”

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com. On Twitter: @KarenSloanNLJ