You applied to nearly a dozen law schools and got accepted to a handful of them. Likely, you received acceptance letters from a healthy variety of institutions—some “safe” schools and maybe even a highly ranked one. The decision could theoretically be the most important you’ll ever make. Do you go to school where you want to live or the one just down the street? Do you go to the best school you got accepted to or the one that gave you the biggest scholarship? Here are a few pieces of advice that I’ve come to realize along the way.
U.S. News & World Report Law School Rankings. If you take one thing away from this blog post it’s this: DO NOT BASE YOUR DECISION ON RANKINGS! Let me explain by example: a friend of mine decided to the University of Minnesota (for full price) rather than William Mitchell (where he was offered a 75% scholarship). Today, nearly 7-years after graduating law school, he is still paying on his debt, and will continue to do so for years to come.
Why did he make such a fiscally irresponsible decision? Simply put, U.S. News & World Report. Prospective students are too often basing the biggest decision of their life on a ranking system that is completely arbitrary. Do you think hiring partners at law firms are combing through the U.S. News rankings every year basing their hiring decisions on rankings? Not one chance. Sure you’d love to go to a law school with some notoriety—mainly so you can impress your parents and friends. But do you value notoriety over $100,000.00 + in student loans? I’d rather keep that money in my pocket, go to the most affordable school, blow employers away with my personality and work experience, and then spend the money I saved on a house!
Debt. Debt is potentially the biggest issue facing law students these days. On average, some 90% of law students borrow to finance their legal education and the average debt now exceeds $100,000.00. With legal education becoming more expensive by the year, this number will continue to grow exponentially. So what can you do about law school debt? The answer: be mindful of it. All too often do law students misunderstand or simply ignore the significance of taking out massive loans to finance law school. They think, “Hey, I’ll get a good job after law school and I can pay off those loans easily.” All too often this is simply not the case.
Sure, some graduates of law school land big law jobs making in excess of $100,000.00 a year—but it’s rare. So for the other 90% of the class that didn’t make it in the top 10% to land those big law jobs, let’s break down the numbers. Say you take out $100,000.00 to finance your legal education. And that’s on the cheap. Three years of $40,000 a year, plus an average of $20,000 a year in living expenses, we’re talking $180,000.00, realistically. But, we’ll say you’re one of the lucky few that managed to get out of law school with $100,000.00. Over 20 years, that’s going to cost you $715.00 a month. When it’s all said and done, you’ll have paid $180,000.00.
Choosing a school where you’d like to live. You’ll get this piece of advice, and although it’s worth a thought, don’t put all your eggs in this basket. Sure you want to go to school in the area you plan on practicing, but the simple fact is you probably have no idea where you want to practice when you’re applying to schools. And if you do, then your preference may be merit-less. So here’s my advice on picking a law school where you want to live. Choose one next to your family, friends and your overall acquaintance network. Someday those will be the people who get you a job.