Deciding where to attend
The law schools have made their decisions; now it’s up to you to decide which offer of admission to accept. How do you decide between the prestigious school that offered you no scholarship, and the somewhat less prestigious one that offered you a free ride? Or between the East Coast school that has exactly the program you love, and the West Coast school with strong connections to your dream job? There are no easy answers to these questions. For most people, one of the most important things to do is to draft pros and cons lists for each school and compare. Which pros matter more to you? Which cons would hurt the most? Only you can make these determinations, because only you know how much each of these factors matters to you.
That said, there are a few common situations that merit some general advice.
Prestige vs. Money
So here’s the common dilemma: applicant is surprised to be admitted into School A, a “Top 50” school, but, of course, is offered no scholarship. S/he will have to finance the entire $150,000 in tuition, plus more for room, board, books and coffee. The student was also admitted to his/her safety school, a school decidedly not in the “Top 50,” but with an offer of a scholarship for the entire tuition, all three years. Which school s/he should choose?
The old advice was simple: attend the “best” (i.e., most highly ranked) law school you get into. It might even have been good advice back in the days when the debt service on one’s law school loans didn’t eat up such a huge chunk of the average first year salary. But these days, when tuition and debt are at an all-time high, the job market for lawyers is not as bright as it once was, and the prestige factor may possibly be losing its edge, the question is much more complex.
Before s/he can really approach an answer, the applicant must ask him/herself a critical prior question: what is s/he hoping to get out of law school? What is the ultimate career goal? Some parts of the legal job market are indeed quite “pedigree-sensitive”—meaning they strongly favor grads of the most prestigious law schools. Those job markets tend to be concentrated in academia (by far the most elitist of all), the giant corporate law firms (aka BigLaw) and some of the national and international public interest organizations. If your ambition is to work in one of those fields, then the perceived pedigree of the law school should certainly be an important factor in your decision—it will in fact be easier to get a job in those fields with the brand name degree. (Important caveat: nothing is guaranteed. The name brand on your diploma will make things easier, not easy or a lock. You are still responsible for making opportunities happen.)
But what if the applicant is interested in small firm work, a government job, opening up her/his own practice, legal aid/legal services or working in-house at a large corporation? At that point, pedigree begins to diminish as a factor relative to geography. Grads of regional law schools tend to congregate in the same region, and as they become hiring attorneys, they tend to hire their own. Suddenly, the cheaper, less well-ranked school is looking pretty good.
But it’s still a hard call If the job market is a key consideration for you as you decide between schools (and it should be), contact the placement offices at each school to ask them hard questions about their grads. Contact relatively recent (3-5 years out) alumni of each school working in the kinds of jobs you’re interested in, and ask them about their experiences looking for work. How did their placement office help them? How was their degree perceived? How many grads of their school are currently working at their firm or in similar positions? This information could prove very helpful.
You’ll also want to make sure you understand the conditions of the scholarships being offered to you. Do you need to maintain a certain grade point average or ranking in the class? What is the grading curve like—is it such that it makes it very difficult to maintain the ranking required? What percentage of students lose their scholarships after the first year? For more on scholarships, check out our pages on Financing Law School.
A variation on the money vs. prestige comparison involves a public law school compared to a private one. For the public school, just make sure you understand what it takes to acquire and maintain residency in that state (if it’s not your own already) and to be eligible for in-state tuition.
Programs vs. Location
Is it worth it to attend a school far away from the job market where you hope to end up, in order to benefit from a particular unique program? Depends on the program. If you want to end up San Francisco, but love Northeastern’s co-op program, the two choices are not necessarily opposed to one another: you can pursue co-ops in San Francisco, thereby overcoming a good part of the regional challenge. But what if the program is something more site-specific, like Western New England’s Small Business Clinic? In that case, you’ll have to weigh just how important that opportunity is to you in terms of skill-building, intellectual challenges or other benefits, vs. the challenge of seeking a job in a far off city with a law school brand name that will be largely unknown (and without the kind of assistance and connections you’d get from a placement office located in the city you seek to find a job in). In short, it should be a pretty special program.
Famous faculty vs. approachable faculty
Potential high level connections vs. a nurturing learning environment. That’s really what this choice comes down to, although it’s important to remember that the famous faculty aren’t necessarily going to be helpful to you, and the approachable faculty might work with you more in depth. And neither fame nor approachability translates necessarily to “good teaching.”
This is less a decision between two factors than taking into account this highly subjective sense of what the school is like. It necessarily entails visiting the schools and speaking with faculty, students, administration and alums of each. Sometimes you just know in your gut when a school is right (or wrong) for you, but rarely does that gut sense come with out a visit to the school.