One of the biggest factors driving students in their choice of law schools is cost. Forbes recently put out a list of the most expensive law schools for 2017. Even when you know exactly what a school costs, it is still difficult to recognize the best value. I’m going to cover some of the factors I would recommend considering, beyond the mere cost of attendance.
Employment Statistics. There may have been a time when jobs were handed out like Halloween candy to recent grads, but we don’t live in that world any more. Once you get past the historically consistent top-14 schools in overall rankings, employment odds almost universally dip below 50%. You’re basically betting your tuition and cost of attendance on odds that are slightly worse than a well-played hand of blackjack. I would (and I did) value high employment statistics over lower cost. Obviously, this only applies to a point. If you can save $200,000 by going to a school with slightly worse employment odds than your first choice, obviously (in a vacuum) I would recommend going to the exponentially cheaper option. Essentially, the choice comes down to how risk averse you are versus how debt averse you are—it is a very subjective choice. If I were weighing factors, employment odds would be at the top of my list, taking into account specific career goals (i.e. a school might place well at large corporate firms, but if you want a public interest job then those numbers won’t tell you very much). The better the odds of employment, the larger your safety next against incurring massive debt you may never pay off.
Geographical Preferences. Some schools, even ones in the top-14 (like Cornell), generally only place their graduates in one legal market. Flagship regional schools like the University of Minnesota, George Washington University, or Emory University can be a great value for students who are dead-set on staying in practicing within that one legal market. I wasn’t sure where I wanted to practice when I started law school, so I chose Columbia because I thought it had the most geographical portability—I didn’t want to close doors to any market. If I had known exactly where I wanted to practice, I likely could have chosen a cheaper school to accomplish my goals.
Individual Fit. This is a little more nebulous, and it didn’t drive my decision at all (I had never been to Columbia or lived in New York prior to making my decision), so it is harder for me to ascribe any real “value” to it. But I’ve heard from my classmates that visiting schools and getting a sense of the environment helped them narrow down their options. If you would hate your life at a particular school (more than the baseline level of hatred most law students have for their lives during the first year), then you should probably weigh that in your analysis. With that in mind, I would avoid relying on generalizations about a school’s reputation. Columbia, for example, has a reputation of being ultra-competitive and cutthroat. I spoke to several recent alums before making my decision, and they all told me that wasn’t a true reputation. You’re much better off either visiting a school or talking to students than you are relying on generalities.
One additional factor I would consider, specifically for public interest students, is the school’s loan repayment assistance program (or LRAP). Assuming there isn’t a massive gutting of LRAP (which isn’t guaranteed), most schools will help you pay off your loans if you stay in qualified employment for 10 years. If you are sure you want to do public interest work, the LRAP becomes more important than the cost of attendance. There is a huge caveat here, which is that many students come in to law school thinking they want to do public interest work (like become the next Amal Clooney and work exclusively on human rights issues) and then realize they either don’t want to practice in that area or that there simply aren’t people hiring. If you’re going to rely on LRAP, you better do your homework on your preferred area of law before you go to law school—talk to practitioners, build your resume, and make sure it is a realistic option.
The face value cost of attendance is a relevant factor in your analysis. The published cost of attendance is usually fairly accurate, and it will give you a sense of your debt-load and monthly payments (assuming you have no outside funds or outside assistance). But it doesn’t give the whole picture. There are a variety of other factors that should come into play.