So, you’re ready for law school! Congratulations on making that decision. But which school to go to? There are hundreds of fine law schools throughout the country and finding the right fit can be a daunting task. This post discusses some of the factors rising law school students should consider when choosing a law school.
I think the three factors that you should consider once you have made the choice to go to law school are:
- school location, and
- practice areas and settings.
I believe very strongly in graduating from law school with a minimal debt load, even if you plan on going into BigLaw and getting a great salary right out of the gate. I graduated with a low debt load (about $30,000) and paid it off relatively quickly (within 3 years). I was able to do that by thinking about debt load and debt management before I ever set foot in a law school.
I chose my law school, University of Denver Sturm College of Law, because it made the most financial sense for me. I do not regret this choice one bit. I started with a half scholarship and was able to pick up additional scholarships after the first year. I did about a quarter in loans and about a quarter out of pocket. My husband and I made a really aggressive plan for paying off my loans, and we stuck to the plan.
When you’re planning for law school, start thinking about debt management and the impact it will have on your career and personal life choices. You will unquestionably have more professional options and flexibility if you can keep your debt load low. For example, after I paid off my student loans, I took a two-year career break to be a stay-at-home mom after the birth of my second child. This was something I always knew that I wanted to do.
I have since returned to practicing law, but I do so on a part-time basis so I can still care for my young children. Neither would have been feasible options if I had a large law school debt load.
When you’re weighing the financial package of each school relative to each other, consider the following:
- What scholarships are you initially offered? What are the terms of the scholarship?
- What is the potential for picking up additional scholarships after your first semester or year?
- Does any school you’re considering offer tuition assistance through work-study or other programs?
- Does any school you’re considering offer in-state tuition?
- Does any school you’re considering have a loan forgiveness program? Loan Assistance Programs (LAPs) or Loan Repayment Assistance Programs (LRAPs) will vary from school to school. Some schools offer these programs to all graduates; some limited the number of graduates. Some limit the program to those in public interest careers.
That’s my pitch for choosing a law school that gives you the option of graduating with minimal debt load. Don’t be shy about asking the admissions or financial aid office plenty of questions.
For the vast majority of students, it makes sense to go to school where you want to practice. Consider that something like 75 percent of lawyers in Colorado went to either Colorado U. or Denver U. for law school—that may be an urban legend, but it holds up in my experience. That’s a tight legal market to try to break into.
You might have compelling reasons for choosing to go to law school somewhere outside of the area you anticipate practicing in. That is fine, and I am certainly not going to tell you that you’ll never get a job.
But, if you know that you’re going to live and work in one state or region, the local contacts that you’ll make through law school will be invaluable in your job search and networking. I still call up law school classmates practicing in-state to discuss a legal theory or just to pick their brain. Part of the reason that I chose DU was that I knew I was going to practice in Colorado.
If you’re deciding between several schools in the same area, don’t be shy about calling up practicing attorneys and politely asking for their thoughts. One of the best things about the legal profession is that lawyers are usually incredibly generous with sharing their time and experience. Most lawyers I know would be happy to meet with a prospective law student over coffee to discuss these factors.
If you want a SCOTUS clerkship or a BigLaw practice, going to a top-ranked or T14 school is probably going to be important. Certain substantive practice areas are associated with higher school rankings or may be difficult to break into without those credentials. If you plan on having a solo family law practice, a T14 law school education is probably not as important.
I am not making a value judgment about either option. Just remember that law school is a vehicle to help you reach your professional goals and some schools may be better suited for your goals and plans. I am here to say that that you should not believe anyone who tells you that you must go to the most prestigious law school that you can get into.
Finally, keep in mind that life plans and professional goals do change and you’ll want a broad base of professional experiences to draw from. Law schools offer a wide variety of extracurricular options, most with a substantive focus or practice-readiness component. Clinics, law reviews/journals, internships, moot court, and other activities will help round you out as a student and future lawyer. I participated in several, and they added immensely to my law school experience. Although I don’t think these should be primary considerations in selecting a law school, they are important.
Good luck future 1Ls!