Congratulations! You’ve been accepted to law school! When you sent in your applications, you probably had a few top favorites in mind. As the acceptance (or rejection) letters start rolling in, though, now is the time to think seriously about some chief considerations before making the big decision. Which law school is right for you? If you’re choosing between several options, consider the following.
Where do you actually want to practice law?
If you’ve been accepted to Ivy League or other nationally or internationally recognized law schools, nice work! Location won’t be as important of a consideration for you because let’s be realistic, you can take a Harvard or Yale J.D. just about anywhere.
However, for everyone else, consider whether you would actually want to practice law in the cities where your potential choices are located. Maybe that school in Chicago has some attractive offerings but have you ever even been there? How do you feel about snow? During your three years of law school, you will be working during the summers, networking and making many connections in the city where you go to school. If there’s a law school on your list that is in a location where you already know you would never want to practice law, consider looking elsewhere.
Similarly, ask yourself if you’d even be interested in taking that state’s bar exam. Not all bar exams are created equal. You can absolutely take the bar and practice in a different state than the one you choose for school, but you might have to jump through some extra hoops to teach yourself specialized bar material or to apply for jobs.
What kind of law job do you want after graduation?
If your dream is to work in big law and you’ve made it into some top schools, factors like national rankings might be more important for you to consider. If you already know you are going to pursue only non-profit work, rankings might not matter as much to you. Similarly, if there is some niche area of the law you’re really excited about pursuing, a school that focuses its clinics or academic scholarship in that area might be a better choice for you, even if it’s rankings aren’t as high.
That said, our interests often change. Just like in undergrad where you may have gone in with the clear dream of becoming a pediatric cardiologist, and then somewhere along the way ended up as a computer programmer or Russian literature major instead, you might change your mind in law school as too.
When you’re contemplating the type of job you might want to find after getting your Esq., it’s not crucial that you nail down a practice area or even decide whether you would rather work in criminal or civil law, litigation or transactional work. You will have plenty of time over the next few years to decide! But, if you have a school on your acceptance list that stands out as matching well with some program specialty that is really important to you, like maritime law, death penalty work, or a particular child advocacy clinic, make sure that is at least a factor in your decision.
What’s the bottom-line price tag?
As you weigh your various law school options, one of the most crucial considerations should be your finances. If you think looking at your student loan debt is hard now, just wait until after law school. For the vast majority of J.D.s, this number is pretty big. Sometimes student loans can feel like free money, and it’s easy to put off facing the interest rates and financial consequences. For every school you’re considering, try charting out a total tuition and living expense estimation chart. Make sure you’re factoring in things like the variation in rent costs across cities. If it’s much more expensive to pay your electric bill, or run errands in one city versus another, those dollars could start adding up fast. Look at the tuition prices at each school and offset them by the financial packages you’ve been offered. If you’ve been awarded any scholarships, factor that in as well.
If you’ve been awarded a merit scholarship, keep in mind whether there is a GPA cut-off for eligibility — there often is. If you need to maintain a 4.0 to keep getting your tuition break, realize that this is not the norm for most law students. It’s easy to be idealistic before you start law school and realize how tough the curve and competition can be. Many law students find themselves Bs, Cs, and even worse for the first time in their lives in law school! At least ask yourself if you could handle taking out loans or covering your expenses in other ways if you’re not able to meet your scholarship or grant eligibility. Of course, you will try your best and keep your grades as high as possible, but make sure you know what is going to be required for you to stay within your budget if you miss the mark.
If you have any student loan or other debt lingering from undergrad, make sure you’re adding this to your spreadsheet as well. You probably won’t have to make payments while you’re in law school, but the interest likely won’t stop accruing. Bottom line, whatever your financial situation, make sure you’re giving yourself the most realistic idea possible of what you’re going to be responsible for paying once graduation rolls around.
For many law school grads, their student loan payments are higher than their rent or mortgage each month. Sometimes a lot higher. Being saddled with this kind of debt is something that will likely affect the rest of your life, including what kinds of jobs you might be willing to pursue or accept, and how feasible it might be for you to buy your dream house or car, travel, plan a wedding, have a baby or put a kid through college. Obviously finances aren’t all there is to life, but they can impact a lot in terms of your stability and well-being.
It might be a tough reality, but most law students will not be at the top of their class. In this economy, most law grads will also not be handed a big firm job and pay their loans off within months or even a couple of years of graduating. These avenues are possible, but again, they’re just not the norm, and they might not even be what you want, so it’s important to think of these things now.
I know the numbers might seem somewhat abstract to you now as you plan which offer to accept, but think about how the decisions you make now could affect the rest of your (and your partner and/or family’s life). As you weigh your options, make sure the price tag is a top consideration. Be realistic, factor in your other debt and expenses, and look at the kind of life you want to have down the road. Big law school debt can often require a big pay check to offset it, and big paychecks usually entail long hours and working at least some nights and weekends — if not a lot of nights and weekends. So, ask yourself, how do you see your ideal life after law school? How much debt you take on now could really affect how much free time and spending money you have later on.
How is life as a law student at your chosen contenders?
Three years is a long time to be miserable. So make sure you’re not stacking the deck against yourself when you narrow down your list of schools. Do you know what kind of school environment is right for you? If not, you might want to think some more about it. Do you respond better to smaller professor-to student-ratios and accessibility during office hours? Do you care whether you are just one of many in a lecture hall full of hundreds? What are you views on the definition of “healthy competition?”
There are always those rumors about a law student at one school or another taking pages out of the books on reserve at the library so their classmates won’t have access to them. Maybe this is an urban legend, but if any of the schools you’re looking at have a reputation for a cut-throat student body, consider whether this is true, and if so, whether it’s ok with you to be in that kind of environment. What kinds of access to academic support programs or counseling does your potential school offer? How do students generally feel about one another?
In a lot of ways, law school will fly by, but the quality of your day-to-day life is important. I’m not saying you should necessarily choose your school based entirely on these kinds of warm and fuzzy concerns, but liking your fellow students and enjoying spending time on your campus a long way to balance out the other pressures and stresses inherent in being a law student.
Have you actually seen the school you will be calling home for the next three years?
When I was looking at law schools, I thought I had my mind made up, and then I actually visited the campuses. What looked bright and welcoming as set forth on the glossy pages of promotional brochures played out much more dismally. Walking into the library felt like entering some combination of an parking garage, and an underground bunker. People on this particular campus also just seemed miserable. The few I talked to said they hated it there.
Long story short, go check out your options for yourself. Talk to the students. What is the worst part about being a student there? If they say the food, maybe you’re fine, you can always bring a lunch. If they say how unsupportive the career planning office is, mention an abysmal lack of motivated or accessible professors, or tell you how unprepared graduates feel when it comes to practicing law, you might be in trouble.
I remember that around finals during my first semester at the school I finally chose, a guy in my class accidentally left his laptop on the bus. All of his outlines, class notes, practice exams — everything was gone for good, and he hadn’t backed up anything. Not the brightest move, but you know what? Our class rallied to give him notes from every single lecture, and even shared outlines so he would at least stand a fighting chance of passing his exams — which he did. He didn’t win any awards that semester, and this particular guy ended up leaving law school the next year to pursue something he was much more passionate about, but when it mattered, his classmates had his back.
This factor on its own wouldn’t necessarily be enough to weigh against some other important criterion like diversity or reputation, but I remember thinking to myself in that moment that I had chosen the right place. Maybe something like this wouldn’t matter to you, or maybe it’s beside the point. Perhaps school rankings and bar pass rates trump everything, but how those around you treat each other is at least something to consider.
At the end of the day, high rankings can carry a lot of weight, and they’re a crucial consideration. At the very least, you want to make sure your diploma is from an institution that is well-respected in the community where you intend to practice law. Be sure you’re also reviewing your finances with an eye toward what is realistic and feasible for you personally. Look at the school’s culture and student body, and ask yourself if there are other important factors for you that aren’t neatly summarized in the brochures. I would strongly suggest visiting your list of campuses and seeing how it would feel to study in the library, eat lunch at the nearby cafe, sit in the lecture halls, and try to talk to some professors and students if you can.
This is one of the most exciting and important decisions you will make in your life. Make sure you give it the weight it deserves.
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And check out these helpful posts:
- How to Make The Most Out of Academic Guidance
- Getting Settled Before Your First Semester in Law School
- How to Organize Your To-Do List in Law School
- Making the Most of Professors’ Office Hours
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