Choosing a law school can be a very daunting process and it is easy to be overwhelmed by the different rankings and the perceived prestige of certain schools. With good marketing and the sales pitch of a perceived elite status, it is very easy to end up selecting a school, only to find out that it didn’t provide the ‘Return on Investment’ (ROI) that you expected. However, before we jump into how you can go about making a well-rounded choice, it needs to be said that you need to ‘know before you go.’
If you don’t know what you want to do with your law degree (I don’t mean specific practice areas, but rather ‘I don’t know if I want to be a lawyer, but it sounds interesting’) then it is going to be difficult to make a sensible choice. In order to know if your chosen school is ‘fit for purpose,’ you first need to know what that purpose actually is.
Law school is the last place I’d suggest someone go to ‘figure it out,’ or to ‘find themselves.’ It is too hard, too long and too expensive to pursue without a clearly defined objective in mind. It is an investment, of time, money, and effort and, like any other investment, you need to have a clear sense of the likely ROI on 3 hard years of law school. This says nothing of the additional stress and work associated with preparing for and passing the bar exam.
As you wrestle with your ‘why’ consider asking yourself, out loud:
"What is my actual end goal and how does law school move me towards that goal?"
The more clarity you have on your end goal, the more informed you can be and the better your ultimate decision is likely to be. Do you see yourself wanting to:
These are all important considerations, because where you go to law school matters. Not all law schools are created equal and thinking ‘as long as I have my law degree, I’ll be fine,’ is a mistake. While frustrating, the reality is that some schools will provide you with opportunities that simply do not exist at others.
Rankings – Do They Really Matter?
Well, ‘kinda, sorta.’
When people talk about rankings, they are generally referring to the US News & World Report law school rankings (‘the Rankings’) that come out each year. There are a number of rankings out there, but the US News is, overwhelmingly, the most relied upon. The nuance and manipulation of the rankings is complicated and could be a post of its own, so I won’t try to fully address it here. However, it is important to note that while they are relevant to your decision making, they are just one of several factors to consider.
Your specific career goals will be especially relevant, in that you do not need to go to ‘Prestigious U’ to have a great career as a litigator in Florida. Chances are, if you planned your applications strategically, getting into ‘Prestigious U,’ should mean that you also have some significant scholarships on the table at other schools – which shouldn’t be lightly dismissed. On the other hand, if your goal is to do aviation finance, or derivatives (i.e., work at a Big Law firm), then school rankings do matter, as certain firms will, with some exceptions, hire from the classes at the top 14 ranked schools (the T14). Those exceptions are made for those at the very top of the class at other schools – but even then, you need to be exceptional. In turn, and as your career progresses, there are firms that will only recruit lawyers who have been at certain peer firms and so again, school ranking can be an important consideration.
Most aspiring attorneys are at least familiar with the television show Suits. While undoubtedly an entertaining show, it is nothing like real legal practice. For example, only around a third of the national law school class will secure a graduate role that pays over $100,000, and a significant number of those positions will be filled by graduates from the top 10-20 schools in the country, along with candidates in the top 10-15% of classes outside of the top 25 (roughly speaking). Remember, most of the legal profession is concentrated in firms of 50 or fewer lawyers, and those firms (with some boutique exceptions) aren’t generally paying new associates $100k+ per year. It is also important to remember that just going to a T14 school is not enough to guarantee the outcomes (financial or professional) that you might be pursuing.
What often comes as a nasty surprise to many, is that law schools almost universally grade on a curve. As a result, and unlike college, there will be only a small minority who get A’s, with the majority being in the B-C range, even though the difference between those two groupings is often slight. In addition to grading on a curve, many law schools rank their students and even in cases where they don’t, your GPA will still give employers a sense of where you are in the pack.
Folks who went to Prestigious U, but who were in the bottom of the class will themselves be unable to start their careers in the ‘Big Money Club’ of Big Law, despite graduating from Prestigious U. While they won’t secure Big Law jobs with the accompanying salary, they very likely have levels of debt that equate to the cost of a modest home. Accordingly, choosing a school, based only on the rankings, can lead to you making a grave mistake. Without much effort, you can easily end up on a path to paying way too much for law school, or going to a school where you are railroaded into practice areas you need to pursue (for financial reasons) rather than having the freedom to take the job you actually want, e.g. public interest.
Now, before people jump into the comments section… Yes, there are some forms of public service loan forgiveness, but the school specific programs vary wildly from one school to another, and the government program:
At the end of the day, it is simple; the Rankings are a tool that everyone should use, to some degree, and that no one should use as the sole criteria for choosing a school.
What then should students consider if the Rankings are just one of many factors?
I work with folks from all over the United States and some want to return to their home state, after law school. Others are hungry for change or adventure, and see themselves leaving the West Coast for Utah, Texas or Florida, or maybe they want to leave Wisconsin and head to New York or Washington DC? Does it really matter what state you go to for law school?
The conventional wisdom is that if you know you want to be a lawyer in Utah, then going to law school in Utah. It will give you three years to build contacts, gain summer experience and get familiar with the intricacies of the law in Utah. If you are from Wisconsin, and you want to practice law there, going to school in Wisconsin makes a lot of sense, as it will also avail you of the state’s diploma privilege (so you get to skip the bar exam in Wisconsin). However, the real benefit of going to law school in your preferred state really comes down to proximity - to jobs, connections, and opportunities. Going to a school outside of your preferred state doesn’t mean you can’t come back after law school, and there are good reasons to justify doing just that.
For example, it might make great sense to attend an out of state school that offers you:
Now, should you choose to go to a school outside your target state, that isn’t as well known as the University of Michigan, you will need to do some extra leg work when it comes to finding a job in your home state. This challenge is in no way insurmountable. It will pay dividends to use your summers wisely, by trying to secure summer clerkships or internships, in your preferred home state. If you do want to go the Big Law route, try to land in the offices in your target state. This isn’t always possible, but it’s wise if you have the option.
It will also be important to cultivate a strong network within that state and this is something you can do year-round. As you begin to factor this into your decision-making process, you should contact the career services office at the schools you’re looking at. Find out if many graduates have found positions in your preferred state and whether they are the kind of jobs you would find appealing. In the event it has been done recently (within 3 years), ask the career services office to connect you with those alumni. On the other hand, if it’s uncommon for someone from that school to land a job in your state of choice, bear that in mind.
Remember, law school choice is more of an art than a science, but it pays to begin by following the conventional wisdom of attending law school in your preferred state. However, if the school and the offer are right, be willing to acknowledge that there are cases where leaving your home state for law school, and returning for practice, is the smart play.
That brings to the question of law school debt.
This is deserving of its own individual post and its importance cannot be overstated. Lawyers are paid to provide counsel to clients, so you must think of your future self as being your first real client. What this really boils down to is that you need to know exactly what going to law school will cost you.
Yes folks, that means that we need to do a little thing that a lot of aspiring lawyers dislike… math.
The good news? All the hard work is done for you!
All the data you need is freely available but ignoring it, closing your eyes, and blindly leaping into law school is a terrible, terrible decision.
By terrible, I mean it can really ruin your life. It can mean delaying key life goals, like owning a home, having a family, or even leaving a job you don’t like. Consequently, avoiding this risk requires you to be ruthlessly self-interested in the process of choosing a school. Remember, it is not entirely up to the law schools – you get a vote, and it is the deciding one.
If I came to you and said, ‘Hey, I have a great investment for you. I would like you to borrow $150,000 (roughly the average law student debt) and give it to me for the three years,’ you’d have some questions.
What was the likely return and how has this investment performed historically?
What is the business plan?
What happens if you lose my money, what am I Ieft with?
Think of law school in the same way. That means getting real about the cost of your J.D. and figuring out which of your options gives you the greatest rate of return on your time, effort and money. In some cases, that means spending more, and getting a greater return. In other cases, it means investing less money, lowering your risk and increasing the chances of a positive return. This is really where you need to adopt that ruthless self-interest I mentioned. By doing so you can ignore your current emotions and make a decision that best serves your client – your future self.
[Sidebar: Being ruthlessly self-interested in selecting a school doesn’t mean acting unethically, unprofessionally, or in ways that are unbecoming of an aspiring attorney. Failing to remember this will not only harm your reputation, but it can cause you very real and long-lasting professional issues as well. It does mean making sure that you are making a choice that gives you the outcome you want.]
Choosing a law school is as much about the school choosing you, as it is about you choosing them. How then do you go about doing this?
Data is your friend
Every person who is going to law school must, and I mean must, be familiar with www.ABArequireddisclosures.org (ABARD). If you haven’t already looked through the website, do it as soon as you finish reading this! Here is where you will find all of the required ABA reporting, listed by school and year. The three reports you can choose will provide you with a huge chunk of the data you will need to make an informed law school choice. The first of these is the 509 report (‘the 509’).
The 509 will show you a great deal of helpful information, including the breakdown of the quartiles for GPA and LSAT at a particular school. This allows you to objectively assess where you are likely to be in the class. The LSAT plays a large role in admissions decisions because, among other things, it is a great predictor of 1L grades. With that in mind, resist the urge to use your GPA to assess your likely class quartile, and rely on your LSAT as the guide – even if you don’t like where it leaves you.
Yes, law schools do assess your application holistically.
Yes, strong letters of recommendation and a strong personal statement make a difference, but…
Those factors are only relevant to being admitted to the school, they have no bearing on whether attending that law school is actually a good idea. Remember, you pay tuition regardless of your grades or job outcomes. Getting in is a big piece of the equation, but you always need to keep your law school ROI at the very center of your decision making process.
I know of lots of lawyers who perhaps didn’t get the most amazing LSAT score, who went on to be great lawyers and lots of LSAT wizards who don’t practice law. The point here is not that your LSAT score is solely determinative of your class rank or your future. However, when you think of law school as an investment, you’ll want to objectively assess your risk factors. Remember, in law school, everyone is sharp, and everyone works hard, so at least consider where the statistics suggest you’ll land. If you outperform where the LSAT suggests you might land – great, but it’s better to outperform expectations, than to struggle to meet lofty ones.
The 509 will also provide you with a historical demographic breakdown of a particular year’s class, as well as tuition and scholarship information. It will also provide you with an estimate of your living expenses, but be careful. The living expenses outlined in each school’s 509 are extremely tight and, at first glance, are a little deceiving. You are technically only able to borrow funds for the time you are in class, and so the living expenses listed in the 509 are for only 9 months of the year. For that reason, I advise students to add the additional 3 months to their budget and to give themselves an extra $5,000 to account for emergencies. All it takes is a death in the family, or the need to replace your car’s transmission to throw your budget way off. These unexpected things will pop up, and they have a habit of doing so when least expect them.
Now, before someone pipes us about summers at a Big Law firm, yes – they do pay handsomely, but not everyone gets that opportunity. Secondly, it’s better to budget and find yourself in a surplus, than to bank on a Big Law summer, only to find out you didn’t land a spot. This issue is even more acute for those wanting to do public interest.
Too often, when students look at law school costs, they focus on the scholarship awards. In the end calculation, the scholarship amount isn’t that important. Instead, what you really need to focus on is the Cost of Attendance (COA). The COA is basically three years of tuition (taking into account scholarships and any outside funding), plus three years of living expenses (as outlined above). This then allows you to:
While this exercise can be confronting, it allows you to consider what you must earn, in order to stay on schedule, without having to live off ramen noodles and credit cards for the next decade. This is where ABARD is a huge help. Using the employment reports (outlined below) you can then start to assess how feasible securing such a job is, graduating from the school in question.
Considering the actual cost of law school, apart from any emotional considerations, is unsettling. This is especially so, when you factor in interest on your loans, plus any other student debt you have (e.g. undergraduate debt). However, while uncomfortable, it is better to know that cost now, than to get a rude awakening at the end of your 2L, or 3L year. It also really focuses you on which of your potential law school investments gives you the greatest return on your time, effort and money.
Never get emotional about school choice.
Remember, as a lawyer you have a duty to act in the best interests of your client. Here is your chance to represent your most important client, and to act in their best interests – your future self.
It is a sobering reminder to consider the kind of job you can afford to take after graduation. For example, graduating from law school with $200,000 in debt means that public interest law isn’t really a financially viable option.
While there are school funded public service loan forgiveness (PSLF) programs, these vary greatly from one school to the next. There is a federal PSLF program, but never confuse its existence for a form of well-intentioned, or reliable debt relief – it isn’t. The federally administered program is infamously full of paperwork, delays, a bloated, cumbersome annual recertification process, and gross uncertainty. It is a congressional program that could disappear at any point, leaving you high and dry. It might sound like a great option, but it is simply not designed to help you ‘win,’ and it should never be seen as an insurance policy.
Don’t go to law school with a blind eye to your financial position. It will come back to haunt you if you do. Depending on a variety of factors, including your career goals, you might be better off going to a school that is:
Throwing caution to the wind and chasing ‘Prestigious U’ can lead to far more less favorable outcomes than you might think. Everyone is different, and there’s no ‘one size fits all’ approach, so seeking advice pertaining to your specific situation is key. If you have a spouse, or a family willing to help, have those tough conversations as to what that means – in detail. Afterall, you need to understand exactly what kind of help you’ll need, and what you can count on. To be forewarned is to be forearmed.
We’ve discussed how the LSAT can help you objectively assess where you are likely to be in a particular class (considering 3 years of data). However, without repeating the above, don’t assume that just going to a T14 school is simply enough. As I’ve said before, there are good reasons to go to certain schools, if you have certain goals. However, if you get into a T14 school, by the skin of your teeth, you should have some scholarship options elsewhere – schools where you are much more likely to be towards the top of the class.
Now, some schools don’t rank their classes, others do, but this doesn’t mean your grades are unimportant, as the law firms will see your GPA. Admittedly, this might be after an initial interview, but they will see it, and even without a class rank, they can get a sense of where you are, based on your law school GPA. While your LSAT isn’t the only factor in deciding to attend a school, don’t dismiss those schools that are little further down the perceived hierarchy. You might just be able to rise to the top of that class, not to mention the benefits of your likely reduced debt load. I know someone who graduated from a school currently ranked outside the top 100 who finished at the top of their class and has had a career that many Yale grads could only dream of – including clerking at a state Supreme Court, the Federal Court, and for a Justice of the SCOTUS.
Are law school grades the only factor in your job search? No, but don’t kid yourself into thinking they are irrelevant either, especially at the top end of the job market (clerkships & Big Law especially). To address the role of your law school grades and job outcomes is deserving of another post. However, when it comes to choosing a law school, don’t assess yourself by where you aspire to be, but by where you currently are. We all want to think we are the exception to the rule but remember, we are dealing with a massive investment that you will be responsible for. Instead, look at the data and objectively assess your likely class performance. This is not to say you will, or won’t, have outcome X; but it helps you understand the likely ROI of attending that school and to ‘risk assess’ the investment of your time, effort and money.
As for scholarships, while schools will award a small number on the basis of diversity (and even fewer on the basis of need e.g. Harvard), the only concrete criteria for scholarships will be your LSAT score. If you can land a score that puts you in the 75th quartile, you are in a much better position when it comes to scholarships. Not only does it suggest you will do well at that school, but it also helps boost that school’s average. In turn, that higher average LSAT positively impacts their US News ranking. With the right score, and a careful application strategy, you can attend law school on a full ride, or a heavily reduced price. It all comes down to a careful and objective assessment of the school, your likely place in the class, and that old friend of ours - the ROI.
Employment and Bar Passage Outcomes
Like the 509 reports, both employment outcomes and bar passage rates can be found via ABARD, listed by school and year. Sometimes, a class is just a little on, or off, so you should always look at more than one year’s data, but let’s talk about employment outcomes first.
When looking at the employment reports, you will see that the job outcomes are divided up into a variety of different categories. What you want to focus on is ‘Full Time, Bar Passage Required’ (FTBPR) jobs i.e. jobs as lawyers. Doing a bit of basic math, you can see what percentage of the class secures that kind of job and then using your LSAT score, you can consider if you are likely to fall within that percentage. Now, many law schools will list on their homepage the percentage of the class that secured fulltime employment. However, that percentage is almost always a composition of two job categories, bar passage required jobs and what is called ‘J.D. Advantage.’ My suggestion is that you focus solely on FTBPR jobs, not because those other jobs aren’t great outcomes, but in choosing a law school, you want to know that you are likely of having the option of actually practicing law, at the end of it.
However, the assistance the employment outcome report provides doesn’t stop there. On page one, you will also see the size of the firms that people have gone to. If your goal is Big Law (500+ attorneys), then you can really see what percentage of the class secured those jobs, and can decide if you are likely (statistically speaking) to have that option. Some schools put a large portion of their class into Big Law, others only a handful, but this report allows you to really get a sense of the likely outcomes from attending that school. You should also give some consideration to the number of state and federal clerkships, as these are also seen as very prestigious roles that also open up the prospect of Big Law, if that’s your goal. Other employers, like the US Attorney's Office, will also place a premium on candidates with clerkship experience, although they prefer to hire attorneys with at least 5 years of practice experience.
It is crucially important to remember that Big Law, isn’t ‘Better Law,’ it’s just different; different clients, different practice areas, different geography etc. The differences between Big Law and the smaller to medium size firms is worthy of being addressed in its own post, so I won’t try to address it here.
Finally, and in returning to a point I made earlier, contact the career services office at the schools you are considering. They will be able to help you see how many people have achieved your career goal, and how frequently. If you’d be the first to achieve your goal from that school, it doesn’t mean you can’t be, but you also need to factor in the reality, that you probably weren’t the first to have that goal. The goal here is not to limit you, or to throttle back your desire for the law, but rather to help you find, the fastest, cheapest and most direct path to your goal.
Bar Passage Rates
Finally, you should turn your attention to the bar passage rate of a school. This information can be found in a separate, standalone report via our old friend, ABARD. Now, some states (especially CA and NY) are known as being particularly difficult bar exams, but my advice is to make sure that the bar passage rate at the schools you are looking at is, at the very least, above the state average. It is also helpful to use your LSAT (remember its role in predicting 1L performance) and use it to assess:
I would also advise that you look at a minimum of three years of bar passage data, to account for any anomalies. It also helps you get a more substantial sample size, as you make your decision.
Choosing a law school is a very important process that needs to be undertaken carefully, but clinically. I appreciate the fire that burns within so many people who desire a legal career, that’s a good thing! It’s a feeling that often builds up over a long period of time, and it is easy for that drive, to turn into an emotion which can sometimes be controlling. As you undertake this process, remember that law school is not solely about the experience. It is a blink of an eye in your life – less than 4 years (accounting for bar prep and the bar exam). However, it is a massive investment of time, effort, and money.
At the end of the day, law school choice boils down to being an informed risk assessment. Remember, any choice you make, about any aspect of life is fundamentally a question of risk. Deciding to leave you house each day is a risk, but it’s one we all take. Choosing your law school is no different, so make sure the decision is an informed one, that maximizes your chances of you securing the career you want, as quickly, as affordably and directly as possible.