I’ve blogged about non-traditional ranking systems before and one of the best entities to do so is the National Jurist. They rank best law libraries, best law schools for public interest programs, and now they’ve ranked the best law schools for standard of living. Smart move. Of course, a rankings list of this type (taking into account tuition, debt, salary, and law graduates’ living costs (in the geographic areas the law schools tend to place in) can be difficult at best, faulty at worst. The National Jurist weeded-out some of the problems that occur inherently when taking law school data and analyzing it to rank schools. For example, it has been well-documented that law schools fudge numbers and report data that comprise less than 50% of the graduating class. The National Jurist tackles this problem by excluding several schools that do not have enough data available and/or not enough of the graduating class reported their salaries. Bottom line, take it for what it is and be a smart consumer. Check it out here: Best law schools for standard of living | the National Jurist.
Standard of living post law school graduation had weighed heavy on my mind when deciding whether law school was the right path for me. For many non-traditional students who are already established professionals, a benefit v. cost analysis is a wise idea. Regardless if corporate law or poverty law is your goal, it just doesn’t make sense to undertake a huge debt burden if you will end up worse-off than you were pre-law school. I had already been working as a paralegal for several years and earning a decent salary. At the time, I did not know much about law school scholarships and couldn’t have predicted that I would be headed to law school on a full-tuition fellowship. Additionally, my enthusiasm for public interest law caused me to caution against undertaking law school debt - which could potentially keep me from doing what I’m hoping to fulfill in the first place. I couldn’t imagine leaving a great job as a paralegal to undertake $100,000 in loans only to turn around and earn the same salary (or less). Moreover, there are many opportunities for paralegals to get involved in public interest and volunteer service, but I felt I wanted more. If I had thought for a second going to law school would prohibit me from doing what I wanted to do with my life, I would have stopped dead in my tracks. Luckily, things worked out in my favor, and I strongly believe this is my directive.
The ABA Journal has provided a useful tool which provides attorney salary data for any given county in the U.S. Additionally, the tool provides data including the number of attorneys practicing in a given area as well as population and growth. I think this serves many purposes: 1) Law students can get a more realistic idea of what attorneys earn and the “saturation” of a particular market; 2) Paralegals and other support staff can guesstimate what their bosses earn; 3) Attorneys can compare their salaries to the mean and median (resulting in either temporary euphoria or extreme anger).
Nevertheless, this is a great tool! Check it out at the ABA Journal website, here.
A week ago, Matt was kind enough to comment on my post Ever-Increasing Law School Tuition, which prompted me to checkout his blog, Law School Tuition Bubble. I was extremely impressed and enlisted his help in deciding which law school option I should take. In case you’ve been hiding under a rock the last several weeks, here’s my dilemma in a nutshell: Behind Door #1 I have a full-tuition scholarship to my Tier 2 state school in a city I would love to practice-in. Door #2 provides a 50% scholarship to a prestigious top-25 private law school. However, even with the 50% scholarship, I would be required to take out approximately $65,000 in loans over 3 years. Matt’s advice brought clarity to my decision-making and I know his insight will be extremely useful to those journeying down the law school path. Here is what Matt had to say:
Greetings readers, I am Matt “LSTB” Leichter, head of the think tank of one, the Law School Tuition Bubble, which is dedicated to analyzing and chronicling the tuition bubble in legal education. Law School Dreamer graciously offered me the opportunity to write a guest post on her blog regarding her law school choice.
First, some housekeeping. When people tell me they want to go to law school, my default response is, “Don’tGoDon’tGoDon’tGoDon’tGoDon’tGo.” Not because law school is miserable or unfun (I didn’t hate it), but because the return on investment (ROI) has cratered for a variety of reasons mainly having to do with the economy and an oversupply of attorneys. Unlike most prospective law students (0Ls), I feel Law School Dreamer’s circumstances overcome the presumption that it’s a bad move for two reasons:
(1) She has experience in the legal field, and
(2) She won’t pay sticker price for her law degree.
Why is prior experience important? So many reasons! One great criticism of 0Ls through new attorneys is that they “Didn’t do their homework,” when it came to why they wanted to become lawyers. This criticism responds to post-graduate disillusionment towards law practice. Law School Dreamer knows the legal profession and wants in anyway. If anything, more people should follow her path, and I believe prior experience should be a prerequisite for law school admission.
As to cost? Well, I semi-seriously jest that I’m the national expert on law school tuition, but to prove my cred, I’ve gathered the last seven years of law school tuition data and posted them on the Internet; inside there’s even a link to tuition projections for private law schools in five and ten years from now. I’ll continuously update these data. In short, due to multiple factors (lax and antiquated accreditation requirements, unlimited federal lending, non-dischargeability of student debt, lack of gainful employment for young Americans, cultural over-hyping of the legal profession, a U.S. News rankings arms race, and juked graduate employment stats) tuition is skyrocketing out of reality. While income-based repayment (IBR) is now an option for law students who cleave to the federal loan system, essentially, law students won’t have to pay for an education they can’t afford, dumping the costs of a poor legal market on taxpayers. I emphatically do not recommend people go to law school thinking IBR will save them! Some legislators have grumbled about doing away with the program even though it’s only a couple years old.
So, to Law School Dreamer’s situation: She’s choosing between two law schools located in the same state that she already lives and works in, and I add that compared to others her state has an unusually low ratio of attorneys per capita (something else I’ve calculated that 0Ls should look into). One is a U.S. News Tier I private law school offering a 50% scholarship provided she merely maintain good standing. The other is a Tier II public law school offering a full tuition scholarship requiring her to maintain a fairly good GPA. She is interested in government work.
My thoughts? Go with the Tier II public school.
(1) U.S. News ranks law schools along a unitary national standard, which naturally (but reasonably) prejudices towards older law schools. Both of the schools in question were founded in the 19th century, so neither is a fly-by-night operation brand new law school. Law School Dreamer is making a local decision, so the real question is to compare the two law schools in her state. How does one do this? The quick ‘n’ dirty intra-state law school ranking system is to go to the state’s highest court’s website and see where its judges received their law degrees. Doing this for Ms. Dreamer, I found that more than one justice went to the Tier II school, and oddly, none went to the Tier I private school. She’s in good hands. (Amusingly, someone from a local Tier III-IV private law school sits on the court as well. Ha!)
(2) Public law school tuition is increasing more rapidly than private law school tuition with the benefits of residency diminishing. For instance, University of Virginia and University of Michigan are pretty much private schools and cost as much. Every three years or so, public law school students get savaged with very high tuition increases (like 25%). The beauty of the full tuition scholarship the Tier II school offers is that the sunk costs are far cheaper than those of the Tier I school, where she’s guaranteed to pay, like, $25,000. This gives her a year to try things out and reassess if she loses the scholarship. Even if she sticks to it, she’ll probably still pay less than the total of the Tier I school: $50,000 vs. $65,000 by my estimate.
(3) Importantly, law schools are cunning institutions, and maintaining a certain grade point is harder than one might think. For example, a few years ago, St. John’s University in Queens, NY, was called out for placing all its scholarship students in the same class sections, forcing them to compete with one another. Law schools grade on a curve, so St. John’s system ensured that many students lost their scholarships after their first year. This is something for Ms. Dreamer to be aware of, but again, she gets a free year that allows her to stall for time. Lest readers take me the wrong way, I’m not assuming she’ll lose the scholarship, just hedging for it. Law School Dreamer has a good chance of doing well and getting a free legal education, which would be pretty awesome.
(4) As for the Tier I school’s prestige? Because the market is so awful for graduates, the on-campus interviewing opportunities simply aren’t worth as much as the U.S. News ranking would suggest.
There are perils to be aware of in the future.
(1) Everyone is happy ROI has entered the legal education lexicon. Ms. Dreamer’s “I” is (a) living expenses and (b) opportunity cost from not working at her old position (unless she can stay part time or something). It’s as low as the “I” can get without a stipend. The “R” though…the “R” though. The legal sector is not growing. It won’t start growing any time soon. The government sector will only be hiring if the state’s budget is secure, and after an $8 trillion housing bubble burst, states are seeing shortfalls in expected property tax revenues and lost income and sales tax. Government lawyers are not immune (except high court judges and attorneys general).
(2) To expand on the previous section, much of the “R” requires a successful 1L year. In a crunched legal market, employers get to decide who they’ll hire and they prefer what I call “Top5%MootCourtLawReviewRequired.” They don’t like students in the bottom 85% of their classes. Anyone who does not perform well in their first semester (i.e. 3.0 or less) should consider walking away from the whole endeavor because it’s hard to prove to employers that you’ve made a comeback. Moreover, even stellar students or those from stellar law schools (e.g. First Tier Toilet !) are having difficulty securing employment. Law School Dreamer’s prior legal experience makes her look a lot better to employers than her classmates, which would complicate her post 1L decision to continue if she loses her scholarship.
(3) Plenty of people find that they could get work more easily before they received their juris doctors and that the degree reduced their options in the market. Also, as Nando of the filthily genius scamblog, Third Tier Reality, says, “DO NOT ATTEND UNLESS:…YOU ARE FULLY AWARE BEFOREHAND THAT YOUR HUGE INVESTMENT IN TIME, ENERGY, AND MONEY DOES NOT, IN ANY WAY, GUARANTEE A JOB AS AN ATTORNEY OR IN THE LEGAL INDUSTRY.” Likewise for Law School Dreamer if she has to leave her current position there is no guarantee that she can get it back if she can’t beat the market.
(4) The legal education system is on the verge of a crisis. LSAT takers are dropping, and I believe applications will drop as well. Tuition can’t increase forever when there are few law jobs for graduates. To quote law professor Maimon Schwartzschild “Rising costs may at some point provoke resistance, if not rebellion, among law students, their families, and the public.” Those who read my blog know that I advocate student resistance to tuition increases, and while being a part of such a movement is exciting for students, it’s NOT a reason to go to law school (unless you’re some kind of crazed revolutionary, which would be pretty awesome).
In all, Law School Dreamer is ahead of the curve, but she only gets one free year for certain and deserves a better market than the one she’d graduate into. However, given that: (a) her investment reasonably low, (b) don’t get me wrong, she’s just as likely to keep the scholarship as not and if she does she wins, (c) she has prior experience in the legal field (something employers love and something that makes networking or opening her own practice (if necessary) easier), and (d) she’s fully aware of the risks, the worst case scenario is that she has to reassess after one year.
When I began my pre-law school journey four years ago, I paid close attention to the cost of tuition; only to see it rise year after year. Just how much has it gone up? Check out this ABA spreadsheet which examines the cost of tuition from 1985-2009 (which includes the % increase from the immediately previous year). Most shockingly, public school for in-state residents have seen the highest tuition-hike (in 2009 it increased 10% from 2008). Private school, on the other hand, increased in 2009 (up 4% from 2008).
And check out this New York Times Article on law school tuition inflation, which states that law schools utilize “Enron-type accounting standards.” Yikes! Buyer Beware!
UPDATE: For additional reading and insight on law school tuition, I encourage you to check out Matt Leichter’s blog, The Law School Tuition Bubble: http://lawschooltuitionbubble.wordpress.com/
I previously said thanks, but no thanks to my first-choice school when they sent my acceptance letter with no scholarship consideration (and no indication that scholarship offers would be forthcoming). So I compiled a well-thought-out email indicating that their law schools was and remains my top-choice school but that I would be unable to turn down the opportunity to attend another law school on a full-tuition scholarship.
This morning, I received an email with my full-tuition scholarship offer. I am elated and couldn’t have asked for more.
The only down fall in this is that I had mentally eliminated the first-choice school from my list and began to focus on the things I really loved about my 2nd choice school, Capitol City School of Law. I would make myself feel better by saying things like “oh so what I didn’t get in to my first-choice, second-choice offers x that first-choice doesnt’ have . . . so there!”
Regardless, I will most likely be attending my first-choice school, free of charge, next August.
Last week I pondered whether I would have to turn down an acceptance to my first choice school if they didn’t offer any scholarship money. Or, alternatively, whether I would choose to turn down the opportunity to go to law school sans the cost of tuition in order to go to my first choice school. (See Love v. $$$). Having the official, mailed, acceptance letter in my hands really brought a lot of clarity. I have been so extremely fortunate and blessed to have three law schools which want me to go to their schools so badly they are willing to grant me full-tuition scholarships. Ultimately, I want to attend a school that truly wanted me to attend as badly as I want to be there. Needless to say, my top-choice school just wasn’t willing to show me the love. I received my very flat, thin, acceptance letter. On first glance I quickly skimmed it looking for indicators of money. No dollar signs, no decimals, no zeros. So I read it again, slowly. Nothing. Sifted through the paperwork. Nothing. And then came clarity. I folded up the letter, pushed it back into the envelope and said, thanks, but no thanks.
I received an email yesterday from my numero uno choice school . . . I’m in. No indication, however, of any financial aid offer. That information, I *hope* will be provided in the official acceptance materials that are on their way via snail mail. Perhaps it is a bit premature for me to be assuming that I will have to choose one of the schools I could go to for free over the school I really love, but I just have a feeling that since this school was a reach, I will likely not be offered any scholarship money. I would be very happy at any one of the schools I have been admitted to and the opportunity to go for free is a huge factor for me. However, statistically, this school is “better.” Their bar passage rate is above the state’s average, their employment rate is on-par with other Tier 1 schools, and the location would be terrific for me. But is this all worth taking in an additional $75,000 in debt? Together with my undergraduate loans, my monthly loan payment would be over a grand a month. Yowza! I guess I will just have to wait and see what I’m faced with. Stay tuned . . .