Welcome to Ahead of the Curve, our new series for incoming 1Ls. We’re getting lots of questions about what law school to attend, how to pay for it, and what people can be doing now to set themselves up for success in law school. Stay tuned, and be sure to sign up for our free mailing list and check out the Start Law School Right course to ensure you’re ready to go on Day One!
Let’s face it, law school is expensive. The average debt of a law school graduate is over $100,000. Therefore, it’s definitely understandable that as your law school acceptance letters roll in, you may find yourself torn. You didn’t mentally prepare yourself for that acceptance to Yale or Harvard, nor did you prepare yourself for the full-ride scholarship you received to Tier-2 University School of Law. The problem is, Yale didn’t offer you any scholarship money, while Harvard only offered you $10,000. Considering the impending debt that could be coming your way upon graduation, I can understand the temptation you feel to attend a lower-ranked school that gave you a full scholarship. But despite this temptation, let’s be real, who wants to pass up on the prestige of attending the best law school in the country? Well if you find yourself in this predicament, pause for a moment and pat yourself on the back because this is a great problem to have. Nevertheless, it’s a problem that needs to be solved.
So how do you decide which law school to attend? This is an extremely tough decision to make, because, depending on the legal career you choose, law school ranking really does matter. Now don’t get me wrong, I truly believe that regardless of the school you attend, if you put the work in and make the right networking contacts along the way, you can land any job you want. However, based on the tough economy that we’re currently in, the higher ranked the school you attend, the better your job prospects are. But this reality only adds another layer of difficulty to your decision. How do you decide between paying the full-tuition price to attend one of the top law schools in the country or the possibility of graduating debt free, after attending a much lower-ranked school on a full scholarship? Law school is a major financial commitment, so money should definitely play a major role in your decision.
As you make a decision, keep these four things in mind:
1. Scholarship Requirements
Before accepting an offer based on a scholarship, it’s important to review the scholarship requirements. Some scholarships may require you to maintain a certain GPA throughout law school and, if you fail to do so, you will be left paying the full tuition price. I know you’re probably thinking, “Well, I got into the school, so I must be smart enough to maintain any GPA requirement they throw my way.” While I don’t dispute your brilliance, keep in mind that law school is extremely challenging and the difficulty of maintaining a 3.0 GPA can be underestimated. So, before deciding on a law school based on a scholarship offer, be sure to review the scholarship requirements, and find out what the school curves to. If these requirements include a GPA minimum (especially if that requirement is above the mid-point of the curve), be sure to consider whether you can afford the full-tuition price if things don’t go as well as you hoped. It’s also worth asking what percentage of the students in a given class end up keeping their scholarships after the first year. If the school won’t provide this information, that should be a huge red flag!
2. Location You Plan To Practice In
I know it’s hard to think about the future, but if you already know where you want to practice after law school, then your decision has immediately become a LOT easier! If you’ve received a full-ride scholarship to a lower-ranked school in a state you want to practice in and a non-scholarship offer from a top school in another state, then maybe you should consider sparing yourself the debt and attend school in your practice location of choice. When considering an offer of employment, many employers consider the ties of the applicant to that state. Employers often show a preference for students who have attended the local law school because this shows more of a commitment to that location and a lesser chance that this employee will relocate.
So, for example, if you’re from Georgia and you got a full ride scholarship to UGA and an offer with no scholarship from Penn, if you know you want to practice in Georgia upon graduation, it may be better to select UGA. Yes, employers might quickly give you a job offer in Georgia if you went to Penn, but considering that UGA is also a good school and staying in Georgia is your ultimate goal, if you do well in school, employers would just as easily give you an offer with the comfort that you will likely stay at home and not bail after a few years for bigger pastures.
3. Type of Legal Career You Want
Another consideration to make is the type of legal career you want upon graduation. Do you want to work in a big firm or do you want a small firm or a public interest position? Big firms offer the most competitive positions. Therefore, if this is the career that you want, it’s best to set yourself up as a more competitive option and attend a higher-ranked school. Yes, it will be a burden to pay the tuition for a top-ranked school, especially if you have a full scholarship offer elsewhere. However, if you’re lucky enough to land a big law job, you will receive a salary that allows you to relatively comfortably pay back your loans. (Just keep in mind the attrition rates in large firms – so you’ll want to focus on paying off your debt quickly when you still have a large salary. Most people take a pay cut to leave a large firm.)
Now, if you want to work in a small firm or pursue a public interest career, you should consider that school ranking isn’t such a major factor in landing these positions. Yes, employers in these settings would certainly be impressed if you attended a top-ranked school, but you could also gain access to these positions by excelling in a lower-ranked school and interning to show your dedication to the cause. Additionally, a salary from a small firm or public interest position will not be very large. Therefore, it may be beneficial for you to accept a scholarship from a lower-ranked school instead of worrying about how to repay your massive loans with a starting salary of $30,000. (However, on the flip side, may top-ranked schools have generous loan repayment programs for graduates who go into public interest work, so these are worth looking into as you make your choice. Just be sure you understand the fine print and dig into what’s covered, what happens if you get married, and so on.)
4. Your Current Financial Status
Your overall financial status should be the most important consideration in deciding which law school to attend. If you (or your parents!) can afford to pay the full-tuition price at a top-ranked school or if you don’t foresee the repayment of your student loans being a burden, then your decision is complete. Go with the higher-ranked school! However, if you face the financial difficulties that many aspiring law students experience, then seriously consider the factors I’ve pointed out above before making your decision.
I understand that many of you have no idea where you would like to practice or the type of legal career you want and that’s okay. Fortunately, the decision that you make doesn’t have to be permanent and there may be opportunities to make changes after your first year. So, if you’re unable to afford a top-ranked school right now, and you take a scholarship elsewhere, you always have the possibility of transferring to a higher-ranked school after the first year (therefore setting yourself up for a big firm position more easily, if you decide that’s your goal). On the other hand, if you decide to go to a top-ranked school and take out a loan to cover the full-tuition price and during 1L year you realize you want to be a public interest attorney, all hope isn’t lost. Many public interest positions allow for your loans to be forgiven, by your school or by the federal government. Therefore, you can breathe easier knowing you may have some help with your loan repayment (but do look into the details!).
I know I may not have provided the most straightforward answer to this question, but I hope these considerations will be helpful. Good luck!
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