Future 1Ls, this one’s for you!
I thought I would share my thoughts on the factors rising law school students should consider when choosing a law school.* I think there are three things that you should consider once you have made the choice to go to law school: 1) finances, 2) school location, and 3) practice areas and settings.
I believe very strongly in graduating from law school with a minimal debt load, even if you plan on going into BigLaw and getting a great salary right out of the gate. I graduated with a low debt load (about $30,000) and paid it off relatively quickly (within 3 years). I was able to do that by thinking about debt load and debt management before I ever set foot in a law school.
I choose to go to a lower ranked school because it made the most financial sense for me (I went to the University of Denver Sturm College of Law and got a fantastic legal education, and I do not regret it one bit). I started with a 1/2 scholarship and was able to pick up additional scholarships after the first year. I did about 1/4 loans and about 1/4 out of pocket. My husband and I made a really aggressive plan for paying off my loans, and we stuck to the plan.
When you’re planning for law school, start thinking about debt management and the impact it will have on your career and personal life choices. You will unquestionably have more options and flexibility if you can keep your debt load low. For example, I took a 2-year career break to be a stay-at-home mom after the birth of my second child, something I always knew that I wanted to do. I have since returned to practicing law, but I do so on a part-time basis so I can still care for my young children. Neither would have been feasible options for me if I hadn’t already paid off my student loans. So, that is my pitch for choosing a law school that gives you a healthy scholarship package or in-state tuition.
For the vast majority of students, it makes a ton of sense to go to school where you want to practice. Consider that something like 75% of lawyers in Colorado went to either CU or DU for law school--that may be an urban legend, but it holds up in my experience. That’s a tight legal market to try to break into.
You might have compelling reasons for choosing to go to law school somewhere outside of the area you anticipate practicing in. That is fine, and I am certainly not going to tell you that you’ll never get a job. But, if you know that you’re going to live and work in one state or region, the local contacts that you’ll make through law school will be invaluable in your job search and networking. I still call up law school classmates practicing in-state to discuss a legal theory, brainstorm, or just to pick their brain.
If you want a SCOTUS clerkship or a BigLaw practice, going to a T14 school is probably going to be important. If you plan on having a solo family law practice, a T14 law school education is probably not so important. I am not making a value judgement about either option. Just remember that law school is a vehicle to help you reach your professional goals and some schools may be better suited for your goals and plans. I am here to say that that you should not believe anyone who tells you that you must go to the most prestigious law school that you can get into.
Finally, keep in mind that life plans and professional goals do change and you’ll want a broad base of professional experiences to draw from. Clinics, law reviews/journals, internships, moot court, and other activities will help round you out as a student and future lawyer. Law schools will offer a wide variety of extracurricular options, most with a substantive focus or practice-readiness component. Although I don’t think these should be primary considerations in selecting a law school, they are important.
I hope this is helpful. Good luck future 1Ls!
*This post started off as a thread on my professional Twitter page, @COfreelancelaw. Thanks to everyone who commented on, liked, and retweeted the thread. I love the growing legal community on Twitter. If you're not on Twitter as a lawyer, you're really missing out!