What do you look for when you shop for a law school? The school’s sizzling social life? The wow-factor of its physical facilities? The size of the financial aid package it offers? Or how the school ranks in U.S. News & World Report?
The first two items are throw-aways. But should there be any ambiguity when it comes to weighing financial aid packages against the school’s prestige? I don’t think so, but the headline in The National Law Journal, ” Pedigree Still Matters to Prospective Law Students ,” almost suggests—surprise!—that snob appeal continues to dictate choice of law schools.
Duh. If anything, brand name law school should matter more than ever. That should be obvious given the tight, competitive legal job market out there.
But perhaps we need to repeat the obvious again, because only about “40 percent would choose a top-tier law school at full cost rather than a less prestigious institution offering a scholarship,” according to NLJ. (Test-prep company Kaplan Inc. surveyed more than 600 prospective law students.)
Here are the detailed findings in the Kaplan survey:
- Mid-tier school that offers some aid: A plurality (46 percent) would rather be accepted by a mid-tier law school that offers a half-scholarship.
- Top-tier law school that offers zero aid: 39 percent would prefer to be accepted by a top tier law school, even if they receive no financial aid.
- Lower-tier law school that offers full aid: 16 percent would prefer to be accepted by a lower ranked law school and get a full scholarship.
I don’t mean to scoff at financial aid but I find it hard to believe that someone would give up the chance to go to a top 10 law school for one ranked 30 or worse. Sure, I understand there are compelling reasons to go to a local school—when you have family obligations or you just know you want to spend the rest of your life in Toledo. Generally, though, no one will tell you it’s a smart career move to give up Harvard or Chicago to go to law school in Ohio.
That said, I know the choices are seldom quite that stark. (Are people saying they’d rather get into a mid-tier school that offers some scholarship because they don’t think they can get into a top-ranked school in the first place?) So it can make sense to go to a school that’s ranked five notches lower if it’s giving you a bundle of money.
But where should you draw the line? Should you go to a school that’s giving you a lot of moolah when it’s ranked 10 or 15 notches below one that giving you zippo? Well, I guess it depends how much you need the money, how confident you are about getting top grades in the lower-ranked law school and how much you really want to be a lawyer—any type of lawyer.
Truth is, there is a correlation between the rank of the school and your earning power. “Statistics show that, generally, the higher a school is ranked, the higher a graduate’s starting salary and career opportunities are,” says Jeff Thomas, executive director of Kaplan’s prelaw programs.
So here’s where I stand on all this: Going to a top 10 or T-14 trumps everything else—regardless of the scholarship offered by lesser schools. For schools ranked from 15th to 25th or 30th place, I’d weigh the financial aid a bit more heavily. Any schools from 31st to 50th place, I’d ask whether the scholarship is really worth the time and effort.
For law schools ranked beyond the 50th place, I’d seriously explore other professions.
And if you’re even considering law schools beyond the 100th rank (or not ranked at all), you’re being irresponsible. And you probably shouldn’t be in this racket in the first place.
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