Choosing Law Schools: Cost v. Ranking

law school admissions Mar 21, 2021

You’ve finally been accepted into several law schools and then comes the tough decision: which to choose? Prestige and financial cost are at the center of this decision, and oftentimes weighing this scale of values for law school differs significantly from that of undergraduate colleges. How does one weigh which law school will open the most doors without leaving behind insurmountable debt? When is ranking the driving factor in your choice? When are future payout and scholarship funds the driving factor? When does it make sense to say yes to a state school, and when does it make sense to say no to Harvard? 

The value of a law school is contextual, and I am here to help you navigate this decision because the world of rankings and tuition costs remains complex. The highest-ranking law school might not be the best choice for you and your career, nor might the law school that covers your full tuition. Below I have outlined three factors to consider when deciding whether to take the bigger scholarship package at a lower-ranked law school, versus a smaller aid package at a prestigious law school. 


1) Figure Out What Type of Law You Want to Do

Having an idea of the type of law you hope to practice post graduation will prove extremely helpful in your navigation of law schools and their respective financial packages. Do you want to work in a big firm with a six-figure salary on day one?  Or are you interested in public service? You might even want to practice law that doesn’t fit into either of those categories. Here’s how that will impact your law school decision…


Working in “Big Law” 

“Big Law” refers to large law firms that pay entry-level lawyers a market rate salary - currently 190k, plus bonuses. These firms are usually located within large cities like DC, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. If you like the concept of working long hours at a big company, or think Big Law might be where your interest lies, then your law school decision will be based more on ranking than on cost. Firstly, you will be earning a high-income immediately after graduation and will not have to worry too much about the time it takes to pay off loans. Secondly, these Big Law firms tend to exclusively recruit from top-ranked law schools. So if you are weighing a school in the top 25 versus a school below 50, and you know you want to work at a big law firm, lean towards the top 25 route. You want to get familiar with Vault which ranks law firms similar to how law schools are ranked. 

It is important to note that these large firms do not recruit nationally nor inclusively. They will only be going to highly ranked schools in large cities. Sometimes, it is possible to connect with these firms at a lower-ranked school located in a big city like NYC. Though it provides less connections and privileges than top schools, opportunities exist. If you choose, however, a lower ranked school in a smaller city, then you will have to work extremely hard and hustle to make into a Big Law firm. 


Working in Public Interest Law

If you know big firms aren’t for you and you’re more interested in serving the public... guess what? Ranking matters here too. If you want to work for the top public interest law firms- ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, Equal Justice Initiative- they only hire from certain schools. Those are big names that want to pull from big name law schools. Despite a lower salary working in public interest law, there is still a financial benefit available to you through public service loan forgiveness programs (PSLF). Usually, this means working in public service for 10 years for all your student loans to be forgiven. In this case, ranking may weigh higher than cost given the access to top public interest firms and loan cancellation.


The In-Between

There are a lot of jobs in the legal field that are not Big Law, nor are they considered public service. Many legal jobs that do fall into this category pay modestly, and therefore students pursuing these careers have to be extra intentional about the law school they choose in respect to its ranking and cost. Using my personal example, I knew I wanted to practice family law. Family law does not fall into the public service category and exempted me from loan forgiveness. This did not mean I had to choose a lower-cost law school - I still went to Harvard. Despite getting full tuition covered at UVA, I considered my potential cost and outcome at Harvard. I received max financial aid from Harvard because Harvard Law is a need-based school, but it still left a really big financial gap for me to cover with loans. On their website they had a calculator where I plugged in factors like expected salary and undergrad loans, and found that Harvard would be paying back almost 80% of my loans. At the end of the day, if you’re not the one paying back these loans, it’s basically scholarship money. So despite it not being a “full tuition” offer, it was comparable to the non-tuition costs I would have accumulated at UVA. And if I’m going to be paying the same, well, I’m going to Harvard. 

I went into Harvard because they had what they call their low income protection plan. It's really a version of a LRAP. An LRAP is a Loan Repayment Assistance Program. This type of program is based on income, and you can opt out anytime. I always tell my students, when you're looking at how much money a school is giving you, and you're comparing those financial aid offers, you need to both compare front-end aid and back-end aid. What does that mean? Don't just look at the money that they're giving you up front, look at the money that they could potentially be giving you at the end. I wasn’t interested in Big Law, nor did I choose a law practice that was public service. I weighed my options, did the math, and made the more valuable choice. 

2) Consider How Much Debt You Already Have

Some of you have left undergrad with a $100,000 of debt. You do not need to get another $200,000 of debt. That is going to be a bad decision, it doesn’t matter if it’s Harvard. Don’t do it. Think really hard about these scholarship offers, because it’s two-fold, you need to be making enough money coming out of the law school you choose. Don’t take any nook and cranny school that offered you a full ride. Check the median salary of their graduates - you can go to the pre-law platform and do the wizard and it will show you. So if you are coming into law school with $50 - $100,000 of undergrad debt, don’t pick a law school with a median salary of $45k. Be strategic. Pick a school that has a median salary that matches your outcomes and what you need to pay off, and balances the scholarship money that you need. This is a numbers game; all about numbers and budgeting. Make a budget sheet and everything: compare schools and financial offers between both law schools and what other students are receiving. If you’re coming into law school with less than $20k of undergrad debt, this is less of an issue. 


3) Find Your Cultural Fit 

Look at the trajectory you’re going. If you’re thinking of going into public office, that sort of path, the pedigree, unfortunately, is what will open the door for you. The legal profession is very conservative, it's still an old boys club. So you need to be thinking about what is going to arm you, to disarm some other folks so that you get the seat at the table that you didn’t need to fight for anyways.  

This is why it’s important to take note of the cultural environment of your law school choices. It’s still a conservative boys club, but sometimes the investment and being able to be in the room is worth it. When comparing two schools that are both nationally ranked, you really have to think about what’s going to shape you and give you more opportunities. Some names may weigh more than others but make sure you're getting the clinical experience, the hands-on experience, the professional interaction. Dig down into the legal education that you’re going to be receiving because you cannot make a wrong choice at that point. 

You need to go where you cup is going to be filled; where you’re your truest person. I talked to professors, I talked to student groups. I needed to make sure that I was going to be in a place where I would feel comfortable to grow into myself for the next three years. Because what you don't want to do is go to a place that's going to demoralize you and beat you down for three years. You're not going to come out a better attorney.


On a closing note...

I absolutely believe that which law school you go to is not an indicator of how smart you are, how intelligent you are, or how great of an attorney you will be. Malcolm Gladwell and his podcast, Revisionist History, actually did a really great exposé on law firms and where they get their attorneys from, and actually showed that the attorneys from the top ranked schools did not do any better than the attorneys from mid rank schools. Choose what is best for you after measuring and weighing all your factors. I am rooting for you, and am here to help with all your application and financial aid negotiation needs. Please don’t hesitate to contact me. 


Have questions? Feel free to contact me at [email protected]. Want personalized guidance on your law school journey? Enrollment in my law school application boot camps is now underway. Don’t hesitate to secure your spot today

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