Law Graduates’ Standard of Living

July 12, 2011 at 9:41 pm ($, Choosing a law school, Financing Law School)

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.

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Law School Grading Curves

May 24, 2011 at 8:15 pm (Choosing a law school, Financing Law School, Law School Grades)

Grading curves. It’s been a term I’ve heard thrown around but paid little attention to until now (since the fact I will be a law student in less than three months is suddenly dawning upon me!)  Admittedly, I should have paid closer attention to law school grading policies during the decision making process. It may not have swayed my decision from one school to another, but comparing curves could potentially help in analyzing the differences and similarities between schools. It is also possible that the curve could yield insight on the student body competitiveness of a given law school.  There is a very helpful and comprehensive list of Law School Grading Curves on this wikipedia page.  It really wasn’t until I visited this page earlier today that I saw the differences between schools. Fortunately, “Dreamer School of Law” has a terrific grading policy (no mandatory curve) and my scholarship is contingent on maintaining “good standing” and a 2.0 GPA. But some of the schools I was considering are very harsh. Interestingly, the admissions officer at one particular law school claimed there was no grading policy, mandatory curve, or ranking. Yet, according to the wikipedia list (and cited source) their policy is among the most steep.

A current law student could probably comment more heavily on this than I, but my understanding is that the law school’s grading policy is very important. It can make the environment more or less competitive (or even incite competition), it can make it more difficult to maintain a merit scholarship, and (for those schools who have a mandatory flunk out curve) it may mean a discontinuation of law studies even if the student maintained relatively decent pre-curve grades but managed to fall in the bottom 10% of the class.

The wikipedia article warns of the following:

“The main source of this competition is the mandatory curve you will likely encounter once you enter law school. The curve affects the class rank, affects the chances of making law review, affects the chances of scoring that big job/externship.”[1] Some law schools set their curve lower to retain scholarship funding.

Photo Credit: NYT

An enlightening NYT article has created a lot of buzz among prospective and current law students.  It turns out, a lot of law schools award far more merit-based scholarships to attract prospective students than they actually intend to pay.  (Scam artists, I say!)

For what its worth, I received a total of 5 full tuition-scholarships. Of those, two had very low stipulations (maintain a 2.0 gpa and remain in “good standing”). Of these two, one was offered from a T4 (but locally respected) law school and the other is the Top-25 I am attending this fall (a/k/a “Dreamer School of Law”) – I demonstrate this to reflect the fact the law school’s USN&WR or tier does not automatically correlate with grading policy (so make no assumptions).  The other three had strict requirements and were nonrenewable if I were to fall below the mandatory status: One scholarship, to a T4 law school in a big city required I remain in the top-third of my part-time class (!), the remaining two (at T2 schools) required I maintain a minimum 3.0 gpa (which computes to roughly top-half of the law school class). I, like everyone else entering law school, assume that I will find law school challenging but still be able to hold my own (and certainly not fall below the top-half). But the truth is, not everyone can be in the top-half, top 1/3, etc. thus the scholarshiped half, 3/4, etc. risk losing their merit-based scholarships.  This is detailed in the article, which is a must read for any prospective law student. A summary of articles recently written on this topic can be found at the Tax Law Prof Blog.

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It’s Not Over ‘Til It’s Over

May 7, 2011 at 11:51 pm (Choosing a law school)

I paid my seat deposit and looked forward to attending a certain law school in the fall (on a full tuition scholarship). I made this decision based on a number of factors, including an assessment by Matt Leichtner.

Remember my absolute dream school? The one that was a complete reach but offered a half-tuition scholarship? It was the very last school I heard from, right after Grandma’s funeral.  I had notified the school that I would not be able to attend because of financial constraints and my concern in undertaking too much debt (which could keep me from using my law degree as I intend to).  I had assumed weeks ago that I wouldn’t hear anything further from this school and essentially struck it from the list. I even began searching for housing in the city of my future law school. Things have since changed . . .

I received a phone call last week offering me a full tuition scholarship at my absolute dream (and reach) school. I am so excited to be attending a top law school and one that I never would have dreamed I would have the chance to attend! Receiving this surprising (and awesome) offer proves two things 1) God is guiding me in this journey and 2) my fate is mapped out and I have to just go with it.

I look forward to studying law at “Dreamer School of Law” in just a few short months!

Cheers!

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Its Here! USN&WR 2012 Law Rankings

March 15, 2011 at 6:29 pm (Choosing a law school)

I don’t buy into the hype of chosing a law school solely based on its USN&WR ranking; especially considering there are only very slight numerical differences between schools that are ranked in the 30’s from those ranked in the 50’s and 60’s. Nevertheless, it’s still exciting to see where each school lands within the rankings. Aside from the rankings themselves, viewing the online edition of the rankings allows me to see an insane amount of information about each law school and compare stats side by side.  This year a few changes and additions were made; including best schools based on Law Firms (though the methodology in this seems a bit sketchy) and best schools for Healthcare Law. (Hint: one of the schools I will most likely attend has been ranked in three of the specialty rankings!)

This year, USN&WR has decided to rank beyond the Top 100 and rank 75% of all law schools – those schools which are assigned a numerical rank are now called the “first tier” (I doubt this will catch on). The remaining 25% of law schools are now known as the “second tier” (and just like the old school 3rd and 4th tier) are listed alphabetically.

As Above the Law reports, there are not a lot of changes between schools in the rankings except the “Top 14″ has been pierced. As some of you already know, the Top 14 is called the Top 14 because it is comprised of the same Top 14 law schools year after year. This year, however, Texas has broken into this coveted group of 14.

Online access to USN&WR costs $19.95 and can be purchased at www.usnews.com.

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Seat Deposits

March 1, 2011 at 1:39 am (Choosing a law school, Relocating for Law School)

Paralegals Always Have an Emergency Preparedness Plan

Paralegals Plan. It’s what we do. If you are a paralegal and not already thinking twenty steps ahead (and in at least ten directions) then I would guess you are in the extreme minority of us in the profession.  In my six years working as a paralegal, my planning-ahead has saved my job and the derrière of my supervising attorneys a number of times. I am literally rewarded for stressing out over many variables that may or may not happen. But having an emergency preparedness plan for everything from a scanner breaking down in the middle of a CM/ECF filing to my boss’ wrinkly-crinkly shirts (even in court) has surprisingly kept me sane.

Seat deposits ruin who I am as a plann’n ahead kinda gal! While I fully understand the need of law schools to firmly compile their entering law school classes in enough time to admit students off the waitlist and be rest assured they will fill all seats by the time law school begins in August – I, the super duper neurotical planner without a crystal ball have a hard time knowing in April that all will be well in August.  This is even more difficult for non-traditional adult students with a lot of “baggage.” No, I don’t mean kids, though those can apply here as well.  What I really mean is the fact that relocating for an established adult is a big pain. For one, its been over ten years since I lived in small quarters with dollar-store silverware, a few cooking utensils, and paper plates (seriously). In fact, I would guess that my current closet is about the size of my first apartment.  I by no means live an extravagant lifestyle, but I have a lot of stuff! In addition to my “stuff” I have pets.  I also have a husband, with a ton of stuff.  He suffers from duplicating-junk-disorder. Every time I turn around, it has duplicated ten-fold! So how will I know that he will find employment in our new city, that we will find suitable housing, and that I won’t absolutely lose my mind between now and August.  Of course, I have no plans of backing out of my law school plans if things don’t fall into place but some sort of reassurance of a backup plan or escape hatch if all goes south would make me feel a little more at ease.  All planning must go out the window. But can I let go?

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Guest Post from Matt Leichter, Law School Tuition Bubble

February 10, 2011 at 12:28 am ($, Choosing a law school)

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.

Reasons:

(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.

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Ever-Increasing Law School Tuition

February 1, 2011 at 1:47 am ($, Choosing a law school)

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/

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5 Stages of Grief and Applying to Law School

January 26, 2011 at 12:06 am (Applying to Law School, Choosing a law school)

Now that I have heard from all of the schools that I applied to, (including one very exciting surprise acceptance from a Top 25 school) its time for me to make a decision.  I am the least decisive person I know.  I evaluate both sides of the argument, weigh the pros and cons, envision what the decision may mean in terms of financial consideration, stress, or even what opportunities may later open up based on any given choice.  I follow this process for the tiniest of things, what toothpaste to purchase, whether it is worth driving another mile to the next gas station in the event their gas is cheaper, and yes of course – what law school to attend. 

Nevertheless, I am struggling.  I’ve narrowed it down to two law schools; one which I have been offered a full-tuition scholarship (which was also my original first-choice) and the one which is a Top 25 school that I have dreamed about attending since I was a little girl but have only received a 50% scholarship to. The trouble with both of these is that  I would be equally happy attending, but each school would provide dramatically different (but not necessarily more desirable) opportunities. 

Throughout this entire process, many feelings and hopes have changed. But one that has remained is anxiety.  First, I was anxious about studying for the LSAT, taking the LSAT, and waiting for my score.  Second, I was anxious about my personal statement, letters of recommendation, resume, and getting everything out to schools early but still flawlessly.  Third, I was anxious about hearing back from schools I applied to and constantly checking status checkers.  Of course, the anxiety grew incredibly once the status checker indicated a decision had been made.  Fourth (and presently), I am anxious about making the right decision. I don’t want any regret.

Applying to law school is not for the faint of heart or emotionally unstable. Which brings me to my final point: this process is similar to the 5 Stages of Grief. Allow me to further explain:

  1. Denial.  Denial that I aced the LSAT, that the law school adcomms will like me.  Denial that I am worthy or good enough.
  2. Anger.  Angry at the LSAC for taking so long to run my scantron sheet through the machine. I mean really!? How long does that take!?  Of course, there is also anger that law school committee decisions are not made within 24 hours of submitting an application.  That’s not unreasonable, right?
  3. Bargaining. You bargain with yourself; “If I scored a 155, there is no way I’m going to retake – but I doubt I scored that high.” Or, “Dear Capitol City School of Law, pleeeeeeeze consider my other offers because I reeeeeeally want to attend your school.”
  4. Depression. Offers come in and weighing the pros and cons, etc. of each is depressing. Of course, receiving a bad LSAT score can be as equally depressing, too.
  5. Acceptance. You accept things the way they are and realize that though this decision has the ability to greatly impact the rest of your life, your husband’s life, your non-existing children’s lives, your grandchildren’s lives, etc., you accept the fact that April 1 (seat deposit deadline) is around the corner and time is ticking.  

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Last, But Certainly Not Least

January 21, 2011 at 1:57 am (Choosing a law school, Personal Thoughts)

The day of my Grandma’s funeral had been bittersweet.  I was truly mourning her death but also celebrating her life.  I was able to spend many hours with her before she passed. I thought to myself how fortunate I was that I had no regrets about my last moments with her.  When I returned home from the funeral, I became regretful. 

I had received my final law school response.

There is just one law school in this nation that my Grandma would have been particularly delighted if I was admitted.  I applied really to spare myself the “what if?” question. But I knew there was no chance I would get in. While my GPA is above the 75th percentile for “Prestigious School of Law,” my LSAT is about 10 points below their 25th.  Getting waitlisted would have been an honor.  It is afterall, a top 25 law school. Because I grew up just 2 miles away, I always admired from afar but always knew (or so I thought) that I would never feel what it would be like to be a part of that institution.   And, I’m in. . . With a 50% scholarship.

I just wish that this could have come just one week before, so I could tell Grandma.  Whether I will go, I am unsure. On several visits I have felt inferior, out-of-place, and in comparison – poor. I also do not know how I would ever come up with the other $25,000 per year needed to cover tuition, books, and fees.  I am still committed to doing the work I feel I am called to do and do not want to lose sight of this by crippling debt.  On the other hand, a degree from this school may open many more doors than any other school to which I have been accepted. The question is, are those doors anything I want to walk through anyway?

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Thank you! (After all!)

January 7, 2011 at 6:36 pm ($, Choosing a law school)

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.

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