On Friday I spoke at my law school at an admitted students’ event about how I decided on a law school. I am sharing some of my thoughts here as well because I know that many of you are making the same decision.
Finances are the largest part of the decision of where you go to law school, but perhaps not in the way you may be thinking. It is my opinion that students should be less concerned about how much you take out in loans, and more worried about your ability to pay back those loans.
I turned down a partial scholarship at a school that did not offer loan repayment for public interest to pay full tuition at a law school with loan repayment assistance. I calculated how much I’d be paying back per month and realized the school with loan repayment would actually require me to pay back less. Many law schools have calculators like this one to help you determine your monthly loan repayment.
However, if you are planning to work in the private sector, then it makes more sense to be concerned with how much you are taking out in loans. Still, it may make sense to go to a more expensive law school that is highly ranked if you believe that your employment prospects will be better. Take a close look at the employment statistics for the schools you are considering. Also, if possible, try to get a sense of which employers attend the law school’s early interview week and how many students get internships through that process.
The one thing I wish I had been more thoughtful about when considering law schools was the location of the law school. I was fortunate that I ended up in NYC. It made a big difference in regards to the speakers who came to the school and the opportunities to network with them. Furthermore, I had opportunities to take part in term-time externships that are significantly more competitive during the summer. Particularly if you are interested in a career path outside of big law, both the ability to network and to partake in term time opportunities should factor into your decision-making.
Law school is distinct from undergraduate studies in that you should be mindful not only of classes and professors that are of interest to you, but also your ability to learn legal skills while in law schools. Thus, you should evaluate whether you will be able to participate in clinical opportunities – both the number of clinics and how competitive they are. The more experience you have when applying for jobs, the more competitive you will be and the more choices you will have. This is true for both public and private sector jobs. Additionally, you should learn what is taught in different first-year lawyering and legal writing programs because those skills are foundational to whatever you decide to do.
In regards to specific academic classes, it is valuable to have a sense of your ability to take classes at other schools at the university you are attending. I, for example, was able to take a class at the arts school (Tisch) at NYU called “Loss, Trauma, and the Performance of Witness” in the performance studies department. As someone who thought I wanted to be a trial attorney focusing on criminal law, it was both useful and interesting to have the opportunity to learn from about these issues through another lens. Many of my fellow students interested in corporate law took classes at the business school. I think it’s worth inquiring whether these opportunities will be available to you, even if it’s not determinative.
On the other hand, the type of support provided by career services should be decisive in where you go to law school. Most law schools have support for students who are interested in going to the private sector. However, if you’re interested in public sector work or something specific (like international law), it’s worth looking into the support you’ll have. This support is defined both by the advisers that they have on staff as well as whether students from that law school have gone down that path in the past. It is important to know the advising capacity of the law school and the alumni network that will be available to you.
Something specific to public interest students that is vital is summer stipends. Almost all public interest summer internships are unpaid. Many schools offer some grants to offset costs. However, some schools guarantee stipends to cover living costs while others are selective. There are others that may offer classroom credit that would allow you to graduate law school earlier. This is important for public interest students because these jobs are quite competitive immediately after law school and students who have interned in related fields during law school are at an advantage.
Finally, I suggest visiting the school to get a sense of the culture and vibe if possible. Every school describes themselves as collegial, but when you’re on campus, you’ll get a better sense. You spend a lot of time studying in law school and want to be somewhere where you’re comfortable. Relatedly, pay attention to extracurricular and affinity groups that will allow you to find community and continue to do things you enjoy. This may also include more competitive extracurriculars like moot court and journals. Those are prestigious opportunities you will want access to and schools vary widely with how many journals exist and slots are available for students who want to participate.
When all else fails, go with your gut!