Law School Decisions: Choosing Prestige or Money

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So last week, Ginny wrote a fantastic post about not selling your soul to go to the highest ranked law school possible, after which a commenter mentioned that “It’d be nice if we could supplement this blog with the opinions of someone who chose the other route.” (Although I definitely suggest you read Ginny’s blog, the “other route” would be turning down scholarships to go to a higher ranked school with little or no money).

Suddenly, with speed that would make Usain Bolt jealous, I had an email from the MSS Big Dogs in my inbox. In a very touching show of faith, Jodi explained that she felt certain I had been offered money at a lower ranked school, and asked if I’d be willing to weigh in.

Except I hadn’t been offered any large scholarships, so I politely declined.

Then I threw a mini-hissy fit about all my debt, huffed and puffed about my 10×8 square foot bedroom, stubbed a few toes, felt bad for myself, ordered in food and bought some accessories I couldn’t afford because Bloomingdales was having an online sale. Soon enough, I was full of chicken tikka masala and dreaming of scarves soon to be arriving via UPS. I should have been content, yet I couldn’t entirely shake the feeling that I was a bit abrupt in my refusal to respond.

It is true that I really didn’t get any substantial money from any school. Partially this is because I was not entirely on top of my financial aid, and likely missed out on some grant opportunities. At the same time, there are merit scholarships, and these are generally offered without respect to financial aid. Indeed, often they are offered right in the acceptance letter. Tangential story: I knew a student once who was for some reason convinced she wasn’t going to get into her dream school (which was crazy, because she was a shoe in), and when she got her acceptance letter she also was offered a pretty hefty scholarship, and she actually peed her pants. No joke. So that’s something to look forward to in the upcoming months.

My acceptances, however, were sadly urine-free. One school did offer me an amount that was roughly 5% of what my tuition would be. Except, as far as I could tell from the letter, I’d have to pay it back after I graduated. Which sounded less like a scholarship to me, and more like a “loan” you take out down by the docks to avoid a credit check. Being fond of my kneecaps, I decided to decline that piece of sketchiness.

However, despite the lack of scholarship money, I wasn’t being entirely honest when I told Jodi I couldn’t weight in. After all, there are a lot of law schools out there, and I am relatively certain that at least some of them would have offered me money if I had applied. Possibly even a lot of money. But I chose to only apply to schools that I wasn’t even sure I’d get into, and was relatively certain weren’t going to give me dollars. So I basically made the choice to go to a higher ranked school without money by never applying to any “safeties”, admittedly because I knew that having a way around that debt would likely lead to days of agonizing and uncertainty. This way my final decision was much easier.

But the question remains, why didn’t I apply to lower ranked schools? Anticipating what everyone reading this is thinking anyhow, I will admit, prestige played a part in my decision. Feel free to leave a comment or two about how I’m elitist, and I’m not sure I’d even argue otherwise at this point, but there was something very attractive about going to a well-known law school. Especially since I went to a no-name undergrad and masters program. If nothing else, I knew this choice would enrich my parents’ bragging rights considerably.

Plus, prestige plays a part in more than just Elle Woods style pick-up lines. After all, there is that little thing called employment to consider. Of course, as Ginny pointed out in her post, a higher ranking does not necessarily mean better employment opportunities. And, unfortunately, the statistics that schools put out regarding employment have been challenged as not always being accurate. Luckily, I had reason to believe that the statistics at the school I am attending are more or less true, and that the name of my law school should carry some weight when I apply to future jobs.

Additionally, I have very little interest in living the real life version of The Deep End, and intend on going into public interest work when I graduate. So the number one factor in my decision was selecting a school that had a good loan repayment program. Now, my next statement is nothing more than personal observation, but it seemed to me that really good loan repayment programs were only to be found at top ranked schools. My theory is that it’s all a part of the same vicious cycle. Better USNR rankings = more Big Law employment = more grads making oodles of money = better endowments = more money to hand out to the few bleeding hearts who make it past the adcoms. In fact, the best loan repayment program I found was at the loftiest of all fake law schools. Unsurprisingly, that school didn’t want me. But I managed to find a few others who would let me in and later fund my quest to save the world, and out of the ones who did so I simply selected the program that was the most lucrative at that time.

Now, there is a very good argument to be made here in favor of the full scholarship route, especially in my situation. After all, it is one thing to have a program that will eventually forgive all your loans, and another entirely to just not have any loans in the first place. For me, deciding between the two was simply a matter of wanting the greatest opportunity to get the best job possible when I graduated. The unfortunate truth is that, in the long run, a well-regarded law school will open at least some doors. If that same law school is also willing to pay back my loans, well hey- double win.

Of course, there is another reason to go to the best-ranked school possible, and that is if you do have your heart set on practicing corporate law in one of the top Big Law firms. In addition to owning you, those guys define elitism, so if you don’t have a degree from a top ranked school or a parent who has been elected to the Senate, your chances of being one of the select are diminished. But keep in mind (and I am passing no judgments on the actual quality of schools here, simply retelling it as it is), if your goal is a Vault Top 10 firm you can’t just go to the best law school that you get into, but rather one of the best law schools, period. And even then, that job is by no means guaranteed, it is merely possible.

So, as you all enjoy the free swag you’ll amass from admitted student days (I hope you like metal water bottles), and try to decide if you really can handle the move from sunny SoCal to somewhere above the Mason Dixon line (hint: you likely can’t. And it’s gotten even colder since Colin wrote that. Even the natives are hurting inside). So as law school responses come rolling in, think long and hard about that debt question. Make sure, if you decide to take that “other route” and borrow more in loans than most people make in three years, that you can articulate why and at least have a somewhat plausible plan for survival post law school.

And I hope you’ve started doing your taxes.

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