Outdoor landscape of Washington College of Law

Helping Students Carry the Hidden Costs of Law School

Portrait of Chris WhiteWhen it comes to attending law school, tuition and educational costs are not the only considerations. There are many smaller—but essential—expenses that can have a real impact.

Chris White— who graduated from American University in 2019 with a dual juris doctor and master’s of business administration degree—feels passionate about this subject. White was on active duty as a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy, assigned to a joint-forces unit out of Doha, Qatar, when he decided to become a lawyer. Once at AU, he encountered fellow business law students who struggled to afford taking part in externships, internships, conferences, and traveling for job interviews—which can be career-defining opportunities.

“Certain firms choose to conduct their interviews in their hometowns. They rent rooms in hotels in places like New York City and require students to travel for the opportunity to interview with them,” White explained. “I know students who had to be up at 1 or 2 a.m. so they could drive from DC to New York to beat the traffic for an early morning interview. They couldn’t afford a hotel to arrive a day earlier to relax and prepare. Instead, they were stressed about the drive, stressed about gas and tolls, stressed about the interview. That’s just not a recipe for success.”

Moreover, some students had to forego the opportunity altogether. 

These realities inspired White to establish an endowed Washington College of Law fund that supports student travel for interviews, externships, conferences, and seminars. Part of Change Can’t Wait: The Campaign for American University, the fund will also help students take advantage of unpaid internships or other career-advancing opportunities. Expanding access to experiential learning and creating a more equitable and empowering AU education are two of the campaign’s focus areas.

“This isn’t a scholarship,” White emphasized. “This is a flexible fund to pay for hotels or Airbnb or simple travel expenses or meals—whatever is needed to alleviate the stress,” said White, who has pledged half the funds needed to meet the threshold for endowment. He also feels small contributions from alumni will make a difference. “Take a gift of $2,000 over five years. It’s not a huge ask. Or a contribution of $20 a month or $50 a month adds up quickly,” he said.

In addition to helping students, White predicts the fund will bring stronger alumni engagement and an uptick in WCL rankings—and he has firsthand experience with the power of student-alumni connections.

“When I was in school, I was in the transactional law society, and we sponsored all sorts of activities,” White said. “We targeted first-year students and alumni. Because they were first-year students, we could host events without the pressure of an unofficial job interview or asking the alumni for donations. It was simply an opportunity for alumni to talk about their practice and what a day in their life was really like.”

White recalls that in its first year, people showed up in droves. “[We had] 60 to 80 alumni,” he said. “And when it came to students, I had to turn them away because too many signed up for the space we had available.”

Today, White practices at Clark Hill PLC in Lansing, Michigan, assisting domestic and cross-border clients contracting with local and state governments or with the federal government. The job took him full circle; his family moved to Michigan when he was ten years old, and his parents still live in Okemos. Before joining Clark Hill, White worked for the global law firm Shearman & Sterling LLP.

Reflecting on his time at AU, there’s a reason he remains connected now. He said AU gave him access to “great professors, great mentors, and great alumni.” From past experience, he is confident fellow WCL alumni will rally to help the next generation of law students.

Join the effort to advance the Business Law Program Student Opportunity Endowed Fund by making a gift today at go.american.edu/businesslaw.