You Ask…I Answer – How Do I Pick A Law School

Question:

I thoroughly enjoy your blog on building a solo practice. I’m only pre-law (1L in ’10), but already like the idea of flexibility and efficiency that comes w/a solo practice, and abhor the thought of sacrificing family life for slavery @ biglaw. Assuming this is the path I want to take, what should be my main consideration in choosing a law school? I’m thinking minimum debt, but would you recommend taking a scholarship @ a top 45 school instead of full price @ a T14?

I know others have given their opinions on this very topic. It’s a very important decision with major ramifications down the road.  But I’ll give you my two cents for what it’s worth.

Get the best education you can based not just upon what you can afford today, but what you can afford tomorrow.

First, making the decision to go to law school today is folly for many.  I’m talking about those who just think it might be a good idea because they have nothing better to do and their parents think their child should have a professional degree.

If you really have the right motivations to go to law school, and it is whatever motivation will sustain you through the ups and downs intellectually, emotionally and financially, both during and after law school, then you should definitely move forward.

Which law school based upon ‘ranking’?  I’m not a fan of law school rankings.  Anyone who reads my blog knows this.

However, I am a fan of the best education at the lowest cost and in a location which works for your life.  If you are free to move about the country for your education this gives you more choices on all fronts.  But if your mobility is limited then so are you choices.

If you know you want to work for a firm then in this economic and professional climate you have to go for a pedigreed education.  But that isn’t enough.  You must be at the top of your class and start connecting early.  Only you know if you want to incur a mortgage-sized student loan for this based upon your commitment to practicing law and your capabilities. Only you know if your expectations for a Big Law placement are realistic.

If you know you want to go solo then your goal is the best education at the lowest cost so you graduate with minimal debt.  Student loan debt stops many a lawyer from going solo whether right out of school or because of a lay-off.  More often then not students don’t do a realistic cost-benefit analysis when analyzing a graduate degree.  You have to look at cost of the loans plus lost income (for some) while attending school full-time and then realistically assess the length of time it will take you to break even based upon your projected income.

Projecting income is like playing the stock market.  Every financial planner will tell you to plan conservatively at work with a 7% interest per annum on your 401k.  But they never counsel you to factor in the years when you not only don’t earn any interest but lose principal.  You have to be able to weather both.

In this climate, knowing you want to go solo, I would encouragel you to give very careful consideration to the overall costs of your education.  If you are going to get a full ride at a top 45 school that works with your personal life and professional goals, knowing what I know now as I look in the rear view mirror, I would go for it.  And if you are in the top of your class, should you change your mind about your solo ambitions, you’ll still be in very good shape.  It’s all about having choices.

Make decisions that give you choices.  If you’re laden with debt, it’s a very real bondage.

And I’d like to ask my readers to chime in.  This is always a controversial topic and I am just one voice.  Let’s hear more.

This entry was posted in Subjective Opinions. Bookmark the permalink.

Enjoy our blog posts with lunch! Enter your email address and we'll send you an email each time a new blog post is published.

21 comments on “You Ask…I Answer – How Do I Pick A Law School

  • This is a really tough question. I went to a top law school and graduated with about $55k of debt. I worked at biglaw and put all my money towards paying it down. I hated my biglaw job and resented the fact that I had given up so much to go to law school. However, when I left the biglaw job to switch to a completely different type of law, the reputation of my law school really helped. Although I quit my job without another job lined up, I had an offer within less than a week. That’s in this economy, too.

    Going to a law school that doesn’t have that automatic name recognition means that you have to work harder to get your foot in the door. But, not having to dig yourself out of a large hole when you’re just starting your life is worth a lot too. This debt really delayed my plans for house, kids, etc.

    If you have a good personality and people like you, you can probably do just fine without a big name on your diploma. It would be nice to start out with no debt. That said, I have benefited from the name on my diploma.

    • Emily, thanks for joining the conversation. As we all know, there are so many variables. In this particular situation the scenario described someone who is pretty sure they want to go solo. If you knew you wanted to go solo right out of law school and bypass the Big Law circuit, do you think the name recognition would alone would be worth the debt incurred and the delays you described in your personal life? You wouldn’t be looking to get the Big Law job so the name recognition would be for the benefit of your clients. And as most solos will tell you, clients don’t ask. Whether there is a difference in the quality of education is another story and one to consider in the calculation. But you did acknowledge that in hindsight the debt impacted your life choices. And in today’s economy this is something which cannot be ignored.

      So, again, if you knew you were going solo would you make the same decision? (not asking you to regret your choices, it’s purely a philosophical question :-)

  • Susan, it has always been my plan to go solo/start my own firm. I faced this same dilemma when I was deciding which law school to go to. I chose not to go to the lower-ranked school with scholarship because I felt like I was purchasing safety and options by paying for the school I went to. I planned to work a biglaw job purely to pay the debt, kind of as an indentured servitude. :-) When I left the big firm, I wasn’t comfortable going solo just yet, so I wanted to find an experienced person at a small firm to apprentice under. I thought it would take a lot longer to find that position, because there’s no standard hiring procedure and it involves a lot more networking. I got responses right away, though.

    A more prestigious law school will give you more options. I know what some of those options are, and I’m sure there are others floating out there that I don’t know about. Your question is basically: for those people that aren’t interested in options, because they have a very specific plan, is paying anything more than the minimum worth it? If you put it that way probably not. If you know exactly what you want to do forever, just get the tools to do that.

    That’s the hypothetical answer. The real answer is, if you can get into a top school, a lower-ranked yet still top school will give you a free ride. So the comparison isn’t really between top and no-name, it’s between #3 and #20, or #20 and #40. I don’t necessarily think that the difference between those schools is necessarily worth the price.

    It is amazing, though, how much un-earned credibility I get just when people hear the name of my school. I don’t know that that’s a good thing, but hey, I’ll take advantage of it! I’m sure that as your career gets longer, the diploma matters less because there are other data points to evaluate you on.

  • I equivocated too much in my last post. Here’s my bottom line point: paying $150,000 to go to the #1 school instead of going to the #20 school for free is absolutely not worth it if you know that you want to go solo.

  • I had no clue what I wanted to do after law school. I am a first generation college grad, and therefore also a first generation professional.

    I went about selecting which law schools to apply to in a very logical manner. First, I found a resource that listed the average GPA and LSAT scores for each school (no, I don’t remember the name of the resource – it might have been the US News rankings, for all I know). Next, I looked at my GPA and likely LSAT range. Then, I chose two top-tier schools that were mathematical long shots (less than 1% chance of getting in); two mid-range shots, and two almost sure-things.

    This is pure folly. I had no notion of where I was going or why. Just that I wanted to go and I wanted to get in.

    I was fortunate enough to be accepted to the University of Denver College of Law. They are a private institution, and my debt load fully reflects that – despite having secured a scholarship (which really just allowed me to squeak by on the maximum federal loan amounts and a few private loans, just for good measure).

    When I attended DU, they were struggling to bring their rank up. I think they were stuck in the third tier, due to some errors in employment reporting. Today, I believe they’re somewhere around 77. Not bad for about 8 years of dedicated work. All of this assumes, of course, that ranking somehow means anything in terms of your ability to practice law.

    In my experience, the two bear little, if any, relationship to each other.

    Where they do relate is in terms of perceived value in larger firms.

    I talked to plenty of colleagues who interviewed with firms whose primary focus was class rank, law school rank, and GPA.

    I never applied to any of those firms. If that’s what they value, then I’m not a good match.

    Is that because my performance was mediocre? Sure. Can I tell you why my performance was reflected as mediocre, with notions like forced curves that were adjusted up the semester after I took the majority of my required, forced-curve classes? Sure.

    Would it matter to you, if all you cared about was ranks and numbers? Nope. And it doesn’t matter to me, either. Because I know what I’m doing now and where I’m going. And those items just don’t factor into my plans.

    If you choose to go to law school, take some time to learn about yourself and make sure you’re doing it for you.

    No one else is going to pay the debt. No one else is going to stay up long hours to help you with the brief you’re writing, or the argument you’re preparing for, or the cross-examination that scares you to death.

    Think about the fact that you will have salary requirements – and estimate what they will be.

    I used to chuckle when I saw that request in job postings – what is your salary requirement.

    I grew up with the belief that I should take any job I could get, and be damn thankful for it. Whatever they paid me, I should gladly accept.

    My “requirements” meant nothing to my potential employer.

    Again, this is pure folly, and probably reflects some deeper esteem issues of mine.

    Learn from my foolishness, and figure out what you’ll have to make just to pay back what it costs to go to law school.

    And then take a hard look at which firms will pay you that much. Talk to associates at those types of firms. Think long and hard about whether you’ll be willing to deal with the types of work you’ll have to do.

    Some have remarked that everyone they’ve ever worked for has been insane – absolutely, positively nuts. Be ready for that. Be ready for the partner who screams, who disapproves of everything you touch, or write, or think. Be prepared to have to run every piece of correspondence by someone else, because you can’t be trusted to represent the firm’s position on anything.

    Will this be your experience? Maybe, maybe not.

    But I strongly recommend that you consider it as possible – no matter where you go, what you do, or whatever the rank and tuition may be.

    This has turned into more of a diatribe than I intended, but consider it the perspective of one who has learned first-hand (and rather after the fact) why it’s important to take a serious pause before jumping into a particular situation.

    And for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t change a thing I’ve done – except to have planned a little more, and more fully faced the realities I was choosing for myself.

    Cheers.

    • Leigh, it is a wonderful diatribe :-) And it really showcases why you have to examine a decision from every angle and to understand who you are and what you are capable of and how far you are willing to stretch yourself. You’re right. Unless you’ve got a sugar daddy or getting a full ride, you own that debt and will have to pay that debt. And paying that debt will dictate many decisions in your life. Make sure you anticipate and learn what your future could be like (although you can’t truly know until you live it) and then still be open to opportunities you never expected as a result of choices.

      Thanks for your insight and candid sharing.

      • After some reflection (and re-reading), my comments might be better characterized as a response to “Do I Pick Law School?” and are tangentially related to the thrust of the initial post. Apologies for my meanderings.

        Susan, thanks for your kind words.

        I am ever learning to “still be open to opportunities [I] never expected as a result of [my] choices”.

  • If the goal is to go solo, then the best bet is a state law school (reduced cost), with a decent reputation (for a quality education), and which is local to where you want to practice (for developing contacts and familiarity with local practice).

    I wouldn’t recommend going solo right out of school. Law school only teaches you a fraction of what you need to know to practice competently. Much more comes from experience and decent mentors. Better to spend a few years at a quality law firm learning the ropes and building client relationships before hanging up the shingle.

    • Hanoch, thanks for joining the conversation. While you wouldn’t recommend solo, how do you address the current job market? Even if law school ‘only teaches you a fraction of what you need to know to practice’ do you think there are steps one can take WHILE in law school to supplement what you believe is additionally required to obtain some experience. (BTW, I disagree regarding competence. If you pass the bar,the state where you hold your license has deemed you competent. What you may not be is experienced.)

      Would love your thoughts.

  • In early 2000, I made the decision to go to law school more-or-less on a whim. (I don’t recommend this approach, but it’s actually worked out fairly well for me!)

    At that time, I lived in San Diego and had just met my now husband. I did not want to leave San Diego, so I applied to only one school: USD Law (currently ranked around #62 by US News, I think). To my great surprise, I was accepted and offered a nice scholarship. I did well in law school and was hired by a well-regarded biglaw firm. I’ve never felt that going to a second-tier school limited my options.

    For someone planning to go solo right out of law school, I’d definitely recommend going to the lower-ranked first-tier school for free. I’d also recommend working hard to graduate in the top 10%, so that…just in case…there are other options.

  • I am all for a solo practice, but ideally not right out of school.

    Law school is generally geared towards developing a basic knowledge of the law and certain methods of legal analysis. Bar exams are designed to test for those things.

    Practice is a different ball game. No one in law school taught me how to develop a long-term strategy for prosecuting or defending a case; understand the risks and benefits of drafting pleadings in certain ways; create a truly persuasive brief; or take or defend a deposition. All of these things I learned (I hope) by watching and working with more experienced lawyers and it takes years to hone these skills. I don’t think law schools are institutionally competent to deal with these issues.

    Having said that, the current job market is obviously an utter disaster and I can’t blame anyone for deciding to make a go of it as a solo right out of school if there are no other options. In that case, a new graduate will have to be creative. One should develop good contacts with more experienced lawyers who can help with advice and questions; if a litigator, it would be good to observe reputable lawyers in court during motion hearings and trials; take full advantage of good CLE courses (and ask a lot of questions); and generally read as much as possible on practice issues. Although I don’t think it is an ideal way to start out, I certainly think it can be done.

  • As someone still encumbered with a lot of debt, take this as you will… But my thinking has been that money is a renewable resource; time isn’t. I didn’t want to be somewhere I didn’t want to be for three years. I was never going to get that time back, so I wanted the experience to be everything it could be for then. I think that was right; following the things you are enthusiastic for ends up opening doors anyway.

  • It doesn’t matter if you don’t think US News ranking or “prestige” don’t matter or shouldn’t matter.

    The fact is that they matter a heck of alot in the real world if you want to work at a large firm or a reputable mid law firm. That’s just a fact life. Firms engage in signalling. They want to show that they are worth $500 an hour because their associates are from the best schools. Law is a snobby profession. If you have to pay sticker price for law law school go T10, go public or don’t go at all. There is a wave of news and info on the internet about all these diploma mills that are churning out law grads who have paid $40k a year for tuition and graduated with $150k in debt with no job and no job prospects.

    If you are going solo the above advice does not apply.

  • After eleven years of practice, the primary advice I can give to those who are considering law school is to carefully analyze and assess your reasons for going. While alternative careers with a law degree are possible, there are faster, cheaper and more direct paths toward such careers. If you are still determined to go to law school, understand that the supply of newly-minted lawyers substantially exceeds the opportunities available, and, indeed, the overall demand for compensated legal services.

    In selecting a law school, the advice is simple: go to the best law school that you can reasonably afford. Like it or not, this is an elitist profession, and even more so in the current climate. If you want large firm training, prestige and contacts, the alternative are either to attend a name-brand school, or to shine academically at a “lesser” school. Even for those who wish to go solo right away, added prestige is always helpful.

    On the issue of going solo, there are obvious drawbacks to going solo right away, not the least of which is the relative difficulty of getting the experience, training and mentoring you need. A better choice for many might be to start a small firm with colleagues, ideally with varying levels of experience. But if this isn’t possible, I still think that a firm of two, three or four relatively new attorneys has a better chance of thriving. Aside from providing greater critical mass, there are the benefits of cost-sharing, learning from one another’s experience, and leveraging the group’s contacts–not to mention the moral support a group can provide.

  • Susan,

    I have very limited options for law school as my family and I are very committed to the area we live in and I also need to continue to work full-time. My only real option is a Tier 4 school. I visited that school and got a good impression of the place, the students, and the fit for me. My other option would be to wait 2-3 years and go to a state, Tier1 school. My ultimate goal is to practice law in the small town I currently live in. My LSAT and GPA are high enough that I could probably get scholarships to either school.

    Should I feel free to go to the Tier 4 school now as it fits my requirements so well or do I need to wait and go to the Tier 1 school if it is an option in a few years?

  • Lori,

    My philosophy is go to the best school you can afford. However, you are also factoring in a time gap. You have to ask yourself if you want to wait a few years to go to a Tier 1 (and why DO you have to wait). You have to ask yourself if you are looking for employment with your degree or to go solo/small firm. Many law firms support their local graduates.

    Regardless when you go, you should always go for as many scholarship dollars as you can get and don’t be afraid to apply to both schools and negotiate as much scholarship as you can for the school you want to go to by using your other scholarship money as leverage :-)

    Most importantly, if at all possible, come out of law school with as little debt as you possibly can to provide yourself as many choices. Once laden with non-dischargable debt life is very different!

    DId you listen to our recent teleseminar with Rachel Rodgers and Jack Whittington? http://solopracticeuniversity.com/2011/01/12/is-law-school-a-losing-game-we-asked/

    They have some great insights as they are right in the thick of it today.

    • Susan,
      Thanks for your quick reply! I did listen to the podcast and found it very helpful. I need to wait to go to the Tier 1 school because I would have to go full-time, and cannot afford to do that for a few years.

      So the choice is between part-time at a Tier 4 school next year or full-time at a top 20 school in a few years. Of course, I could also go to the part-time school in a few years.

      Lori

      • Personally, I would get started and with scholarship money while you are fully employed. If you want to transfer later to full time at a top 20 school see what’s involved and at what cost to do so. You can be two years older with some schooling under your belt or two years older without. Either way you are going to be two years older. What works best for you? That’s the question.

  • This discussion is awesome! Love it!

    Regarding soloing as a new attorney, I am a new attorney that went solo after my clerkship. I did tons to hone my lawyering skills during law school via internships, a legal clinic, volunteer work and mock competitions. Its not exactly equal to 10 years of experience but its served me well. And based on the results I have achieved for my clients, I am a great attorney!

    Plus, the bottom line for me is this, am I gonna put my dream of having my own firm on hold for 3, 5 or 10 years because “THEY” (whoever they is) say its easier to start a practice after having more experience? Absolutely not! Do I have to work my butt off because I am somewhat new to the game? Yes! Have I learned more than any associate at any firm in the country in the past 5 months of practicing on my own? Hell yes! Do I have an awesome network of mentors who help me with my work when I hit a wall? Absolutely! Do I love my job and my life? You betcha!!

    Regarding choosing a law school for a soloing career, I say go to the most affordable school that has the best (and most) clinical programs. Take charge of your education, take as many practical courses as possible (such as trial advocacy, mediation, etc.), enter every brief writing and appellate arguing competition known to man and intern, intern, intern (through clinics, volunteer work, etc.). You will come out feeling confident about your ability to be a lawyer, you will have an awesome resume and you will be ready to start your own practice after you pass the bar.

    Those are my two cents.

    PS- And start working on those negotiation skills early by negotiating your financial aid package here’s how: Call or email the Financial Aid Director of School A (yes, the boss) and tell her that School B is giving you X amount of scholarship (only if its actually true) but you’d rather go to School A, and ask will they match your scholarship (don’t ask if they can because of course they can!). The earlier you do this, the better.

    Good luck out there!

Comments are closed.