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Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Monday, April 14, 2008

Henderson & Morriss: Regional Law Schools May Be Better Deal Than Elite Schools

William D. Henderson (Indiana) & Andrew P. Morriss (Illinois), What Rankings Don't Say About Costly Choices: Some Students Should Consider Lower-Ranked Schools That Offer More Grants, Better Opportunities (National Law Journal):

Based upon our combined 21 years of experience as legal educators and our empirical study of rankings, we think students rely on law school rankings as a rough guide to their future employment prospects. Yet the U.S. News rankings would be far less influential, and produce fewer bad choices, if students had better sources of information. Providing prospective law students with better information is the purpose of this special guide. ...

For the vast majority of students who are not admitted to top tier national law schools, these figures lead to a simple conclusion: Slavishly following the U.S. News rankings will not significantly increase one's large-firm job prospects. And the excess debt that students incur is likely to undermine their career options. Drawing upon our research and detailed data made available by the NLJ, ALM Research and the 2008 ABA-LSAC Official Guide to ABA-Approved Law Schools, we offer some additional information to help prospective students decide whether to enroll (or not) in law school, and where. ...

For most prospective law students, the most important question is whether law school is worth $100,000 in debt plus three years of lost earnings. In purely financial terms, elite law schools offer a high degree of certainty: Although corporate law is not everyone's preferred calling, the $160,000 per year salary plus bonus provides ample earning power to pay off student loans quickly. For many students at elite schools, the lure of money, prestige and power is overwhelming. Yet, even among highly ranked law schools, large firm jobs are available to a relative small proportion of students. ...

For many prospective lawyers, the best strategy may be a careful evaluation of the regional job market in the area of the country where they want to work. If they are not competitive for admission into a national law school — or are sure they are not interested in corporate law — they can use their entering credentials to negotiate for a substantial tuition discount. By focusing on price rather than rankings, they will have the financial freedom to pursue jobs that will build valuable professional skills and mentoring relationships, or leave the law altogether, without debt, to pursue other life ambitions. Further, if prospective law students still want a shot at large corporate law practice, their best bet may be to focus on regional schools in major legal markets that will provide them with substantial scholarships. Virtually all large firms routinely interview at regional law schools in close proximity to major branch offices while ignoring higher ranked schools farther away.

The table at the end of this article summarizes the top 25 law schools based on full and half-to-full tuition scholarships and grants. In today's competitive law school environment, the numbers (LSATs and undergraduate GPAs) that will get someone admitted to an Ivy-League school with $120,000 in debt can get the same person a free ride at one of the Tier 1 schools in the table. Likewise, numbers that would get someone into the bottom of the U.S. News Tier 1 (at $100,000 in debt) can get that person a full ride at an excellent regional school with a strong alumni base in his or her dream city.  [Click on chart to enlarge.]

Nlj_scholarships

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Comments

Your post implies that attending a regional school precludes one from working for an elite law firm. That's not true. I chose to attend a regional third tier school (which appears on your list of scholarship granters above) after being offered a free ride. Top grades and a law review editorship landed me a good clerkship which led to a position with Sullivan & Cromwell and six years in "big law". Sure, making that leap from a lesser-regarded school requires outstanding grades, but then again, the competition to attain them wasn't as intense. While no one should attend such a school thinking a big law firm birth is a certainty, neither should they completely discount the possibility when making their decision.

Posted by: Stewart | Apr 14, 2008 10:43:06 AM

I have met Andy Morriss in the past; nice enough guy. But I would take this with a HUGE grain of salt. As a former member of the hiring committee at a big law firm, I recall the doube-Ivy hiring partner who used to ask "How high is up?" when discussing people coming from second tier schools. Does that mean they would not be good lawyers? Not necessarily. But finding talent is a dicey game and the SAFE bet is to go with the person from the bottom third of a top 25 school over the top student at a second tier school.

Posted by: B-Rob | Apr 14, 2008 3:46:50 PM

I hope the methodology factors in the fact that a lot of the schools listed offer exploding scholarships. The scam is that a lot of scholarships are offered to try to lure people in who have good stats for the law school rankings, but the scholarships are renewable on class-rank criteria, and it's virtually guaranteed that the scholarships will not be renewed for a substantial number of 1L recipients. It's a cruel game to rope people into full tuition because they probably cannot transfer up if they missed the targets, and they might have lesser opportunities at these schools than at the school they turned down with the idea that they were getting a free ride.

Posted by: Full Debt Graduate | Apr 14, 2008 5:33:22 PM

So what you're saying, Stewart, is that although you were lucky enough to get a decent job, you were still left with a crushing inferiority complex and need to justify yourself? That sucks.

Posted by: John | Apr 14, 2008 6:08:22 PM

BYU only charges about $8k/year for most of its students - I'd say that's a pretty darn good scholarship right there.

Posted by: mmmbOOYA | Apr 17, 2008 6:52:44 AM