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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FAFSA

March 2, 2011 at 1:46 pm (Financing Law School)

If you are an undergraduate student or looking to enter law school next year and haven’t yet filled out your FAFSA (the “Free Application for Federal Student Aid), drop everything and do it now! In order to receive Stafford loan money (the $20,500 afforded to graduate students at a low and sometimes subsidized interest rate) you must complete the FAFSA.  Additionally, some law schools have specific scholarships reserved for those who exhibit financial need (as determined by the FAFSA-generated expected family contribution amount). Many law schools set a deadline of March 10, though others have a “priority deadline” of February 15th. I realize this all may be routine for those who have already received financial aid or federal Stafford loans to finance their educations; but I know many of my readers are fellow non-traditional students who may not otherwise be familiar with how the Stafford loan program or need-based financial aid works. 

It is easiest to complete the FAFSA form if you have already filed your taxes but you can also use your 2010 wages and W-2 information. You will need your law school’s federal code and you can enter up to 10 schools you may attend this fall. A handy list of law school codes can be found here, or you can use the search tool integrated into the FAFSA form. The FAFSA form is filled out directly on the website and submitted electronically.  Best of all, the form took me just 20 minutes to complete.  The website for filing out the FAFSA is: www.fafsa.ed.gov.

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