Between the troubled state of Charlotte Law School, where the students can’t even get loans, and the recent closure of Whittier Law School, the risks of choosing a subpar law school have never been clearer.
Choosing the right law school is important for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, it has a huge impact on your likelihood of employment. The top fourteen law schools in the U.S. News and World Report rankings all employ at least fifty percent of their classes, with some employing closer to ninety percent. When you get past those historically-consistent schools, the results vary substantially. Apart from the obvious reasons for wanting a strong employment record, two aspects of law school make it even more important—the cost and the time-expenditure. Law school is expensive.
For my school, Columbia, the estimated cost of attendant at face value (with tuition and living expenses, etcetera) is approaching $300,000. I would think long and hard before investing that much money in a school that could not guarantee better than 1 in 2 odds of employment. This is especially true given that law school takes three years. Granted, compared to the time it takes to become a doctor, this is just a drop in the bucket. But for a non-doctor, this is a substantial time commitment. You’re giving up on beginning in another career and putting most other aspects of your life on hold. At the heights of my pessimism, I can’t help but think that I’ve mortgaged my youth to some extent (how’s that for melodrama). Bottom line, if I wasn’t extremely confident that I’d get a job (given Columbia’s sterling track record of employment), I would have been beyond reluctant to spend the money and time it takes to get a law degree.
You’ll hear people try to mitigate the risks by saying a law school degree is portable and can only help you get another job. As Business Insider wrote a few years ago, “[l]aw degrees are not portable … legal education does not give you many (if any) practical skills that are marketable to employers.” You go to law school for one reason—to practice law. If that’s not your goal, or if your school won’t facilitate that goal, don’t go.
Beyond merely noting the published employment statistics for your potential school, you should dig a little deeper into the types of jobs that graduates land. If you’re interested in big law, but your school mostly places graduates in public interest, high employment statistics won’t tell you very much. You should also look into where your school places grads. I, for one, did not want to work in New York. I chose not to go to a school like Cornell because it caters only to one market—New York. Columbia opens doors nationally, but that isn’t always the case. Strong regional schools like Santa Clara University, University of Minneapolis, and the like, generally only place grads in one market. In choosing your school, you should make sure its employment outcomes align with your geographic preferences.
Beyond jobs, you should also be aware of your school’s loan program and loan repayment program. As Charlotte Law indicates, you should know whether your program is at risk of falling afoul of accreditation standards and losing funding (this is almost universally not going to be the case but, hey, it happened). Also, and particularly if you want to do public interest work, you should know if your school has a strong loan repayment assistance program (or “LRAP”) that can help you take care of any debt you accrue. Finally, if your offer comes with a scholarship or financial aid package, you should know the GPA your school expects you to maintain to keep receiving the aid. Some schools require a B+ average, which might not seem like a high bar to those humanities majors out there (I can say that because I’m an English major—can I get a “grade inflation!”), but it is extremely difficult to predict how you’ll perform once you get to law school. It is different ballgame, and you might not know the rules for a little while.
At the end of the day, your choice of school is an extremely important decision. To some extent, you will always be judged by your choice of institution (until you develop a strong record of success in practice). The best way to make your choice easier is to perform well on the LSAT. If you’re choosing between schools in the top-14, you’ve almost already made it. If you’re not, you have to think much longer and harder about your choice (and about whether you should go to law school at all). Your LSAT score is the single biggest component of your application, and you should do your utmost to succeed on it during the relatively brief period of time you have to spend studying. It will all pay off in the end.