Prospective students often use law schools' estimated cost of attendance figures to estimate and compare the cost of attending the schools to which they have been admitted. The ABA Standard 509 Information Reports show prior-year tuition/fees and estimated living expenses, and this information can also be found on each school's "ABA Required Disclosures" page on its website. ( Vanderbilt's ABA Required Disclosures page ).
Each law school makes a living expense estimate in order to set the maximum federal loan amount its students may borrow to cover living expenses. When a student who is qualified to receive federal loans submits a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to a school, the school normally allows the student to borrow the maximum amount, and the student decides how much to borrow, if any, up to that maximum.
The borrowing cap established by a school's living expense estimate does not necessarily reflect an amount that a typical student spends on non-tuition expenses, but it does define the maximum loan amount available for that purpose. Each school bases its estimate on its own assumptions about personal choices such as living alone or with a roommate, transportation, living in least expensive housing available, eating options, expenses for clothes, entertainment, and others. For that reason, some schools' living expense estimates might reflect a minimum amount that a student who had no financial resources other than loans might need to live frugally, while other schools' estimates might reflect an amount that would support a frugal lifestyle plus additional borrowing capacity if needed.
For example, Vanderbilt's 2017-18 living expense estimate is $25,818 which can be compared to one New York law school's estimate of $23,194. Because New York is more expensive than Nashville, living in New York on $23,194 is like living in Nashville on $11,676 (Cost of Living Wizard salary.com). In the abstract, a student at this New York law school living on the school's borrowing cap ($23,194) and a VLS student living on $11,676 would have the same standard of living, but the latter would have additional borrowing capacity if needed.
Your living expenses may be higher or lower than the estimate provided by the school you attend depending on the choices you make that influence your living expenses. As you compare schools' estimated living expenses, bear in mind that schools may differ in their approaches to making these estimates, and the cost of living may differ between law schools' locations.