Juris Doctorate (law school)

A Lexus or a Lemon, or: How to Pick Your Law School

It’s a question I tend to get on occasion: “I’m planning to go to law school, I’m thinking of going to X, Y, and Z law schools . . .” OR “I’ve applied to law school and gotten into X, Y, Z law schools, what should I do?”

For the civilian turning law student, the decision is obviously one that is personally important, and certainly important for professional development reasons, too. Picking a loser of a law school can result in all of the nightmare scenarios that appear in the news almost daily (e.g., poor job prospects, high debt, and plenty of regret and buyer’s remorse to go around).

Of course, picking a “winner” of a law school these days can still conceivably leave you in the same spot, but it will make your odds a whole lot better.

You’d think that with the rigors of getting through undergrad, studying for and taking the LSAT, and making sure you perfect your law school applications, picking the law school of your dreams should be the easy part. It isn’t. The advice provided below isn’t the only way to go about picking your law school, but hopefully it will show you where your priorities should be. This advice also assumes you’re going to law school for legitimate reasons (i.e., to practice law).

First, a couple preliminary points. The law school that is sending you shiny brochures and acceptance letters is not on your side. They are trying to sell you something. Therefore, treat the information you get directly from the law school with the same scrutiny you would treat statements from a used car salesman.

Yeah, this education ain’t the best in its class, but it’ll getcha from A to B. “A” may be a promising future and “B” may be un(der)employment and insurmountable debt … but yeah, she’ll getcha from A to B.

In fact, it is my hope that after you get the acceptance letter, you put the rest of the materials they sent to the side, and look at their sales pitch last.

Second, the U.S. News & World Report Rankings aren’t going to help you. Law schools have gamed them in the past, playing fuzzy math (perhaps to the threshold of fraud) and will continue to do so in the future. As such, the starting salaries and average employed nine months after graduation numbers are illusory at best, an outright lie at worst. Here’s how you handle U.S. News & World: after you buy it, take a black Sharpie and black out the salary and employment figures. Better yet, get a friend to do it for you so you don’t unintentionally consider the value of those numbers as you black them out. If you’re going to U.S. News & World at all, you shouldn’t let the elements of the rankings that are utter horse-hooey enter into your decisionmaking.

NOTE: While it may be true that U.S. News & World report is encouraging more candid disclosures from participating law schools, law schools are still self-reporting institutions. Expect the numbers on employment and starting salaries to remain disingenuous for some time to come. Sen. Barbara Boxer is also beginning to put the heat on the ABA to compel a change to disclosure requirements, but until the ABA takes a more active regulatory stance on law schools, or until the USG subsumes the ABA’s role as a regulator, you’re not going to see any clearer transparency in law school disclosures or the publications that distribute them.

With that out of the way, here’s my preferred way to go about picking your law school. Assume for the purpose of this exercise you’ve already received a few acceptance letters (or wait-list letters for that matter). Where should you go from there?

(1) Prepare a list of questions you seriously want to know about the law schools to which you are admitted. These questions should be regarding issues you consider to be of high-priority, e.g.: (a) How well will the law school’s strengths correspond with your strengths or interests?; (b) How many people at this law school practice the kind of law you are interested in practicing?; (c) How does the social and academic atmosphere at the law school measure up to your expectations?; and so on. The more detailed understanding you have for your expectations (both academically and professionally) from law school, the more pointed questions you can prepare.

(2) Track down actual students actually attending the law schools you are considering, and reach out to them. Unlike the law school that is trying to get you to throw $100k plus at them for the privilege of attending, current law school students have no vested interest in whether you attend or not. They’re also going to be able to give you a more candid perspective of what law school is all about and, more importantly, what the specific law school you are considering attending is all about. They have to live with their decision to attend that law school every single day, for better or for worse. Of course, some students are going to have extreme views about their law school on both sides of the spectrum. Some will be virtual mouthpieces for school administration (if they start rambling on about the “versatility” of the J.D. degree, they may very well be in this group). Some will be bitter at their law school experience to the point that their claims will be highly suspect (their response may will likely be laced with profanity). Many should respond somewhere in the middle.

With the vastness of social networking (think Facebook groups, Linkedin, law school student forums) and the fact that many law schools post photos of students involved in student groups, you should be able to find a handful of law students from each school you’ve been admitted to, and (respectfully) request them to answer your questions.

NOTE: Law students are busy as hell, so if you don’t hear from them for awhile, don’t hold it against them.

(3) Track down lawyers in the family, lawyers who are your friends, lawyers who are doing the kind of thing you want to do.

Everyone knows a lawyer. You can’t swing a dead cat in this country without hitting a lawyer (and subsequently getting sued for aggravated assault with a kitteh).

Assault wit kitteh is strikt liability.

These friend and family lawyers may not be in the midst of law school, but they still operate in the legal marketplace, and they are still informed by their law school experiences. Any friends who are recent grads can spell out their job hunt experience, and hopefully help you set proper expectations as you head to law school. If any of these friends are alums of a school you are considering, seek out school-specific information. If they are school alums AND are practicing the kind of law that interests you, pry them for school-specific and career-specific guidance. For friends who aren’t recent grads: they’re advice may be less helpful, but they will have the perspective of what older, hiring lawyers might be looking for in a candidate. They should also be aware of the state of the legal market, and can tell you how many cold calls and resume letters they’re getting each month from unemployed law grads and attorneys. They can clue you in on the type of candidate getting hired, and the kind of money those candidates might be getting for their background and experience.

Most importantly, if you are finding that lawyers don’t do the kind of thing you want to do, please ask yourself why you are committing yourself to law school, and reevaluate your approach to your career. Please.

4. Visit the “scam” blogs. Seriously.

The financial collapse in 2008 had lots of unintended consequences for the market in legal education. Perhaps the least intended for law schools was that many of their brightest students, students who had worked themselves to exhaustion while in law school, were now facing unemployment. And some of them were  a little angry about it. The angriest have launched themselves into the blogosphere, playing a “Paul Revere”-type figure to prospective students, and often falling on deaf ears.

If they have something bad to say about a school you’re considering, they’ll say it.

And you owe it to yourself to investigate the worst things that can be said about the institution you are considering to call your alma mater. Start be looking for your school in a blog the likes of Third Tier Reality, a few other “scam” blogs, and if anything you read significantly concerns you, run it by the law students and friend lawyers you reached out to above. If anyone is in a position to put perspective on an angry blogger, it’s them.

The scam bloggers are the appropriate counterbalance for your prospective law school’s admissions brochures. Just like the law schools, you know what the scam blogger’s slant is going to be before you get started. The only difference is that the scam blogger isn’t asking for $100k and three years of your time.

5. Google the shit out of your law school.

Law schools make the news all the time: find out the reasons your prospective law school is making the news. Skip this step at your own peril. Skipping this step would leave you in the dark that Thomas Jefferson School of Law is getting hit with a class action suit for fraud, that “beloved” professors at Emory think the student body should be happy enough to “move to Nebraska” and join a firm where they “won’t make the big bucks”, and that George Mason’s School of Law has announced to the world that receiving an A on their transcript is completely F#$%ing meaningless.

Keep in mind, this is only news within the last couple weeks.

6. Now (and only now) should you give that glossy brochure from the law school that admitted you a good look.

Look at what the law school is promising you with a heightened degree of scrutiny, and compare it to everything you’ve heard from steps 1-5. How close does the school’s sales pitch match what you heard from their students? From family/friend lawyers? From their sworn enemies? How does the law school look in light of any recent news on it? Be skeptical. Be demanding. Remember: look at them like you’d look at a used car salesmen: if something sounds strange or doesn’t add up, you’re best not to ignore it. You will likely have an admissions contact once you get your acceptance letter– seek a reasonable explanation from them. Don’t disclose the sources who prompted your concern, especially if those sources are current students: just approach the admissions office out of position of legitimate curiosity.

Gauge any answers you get. Are they direct? Dodgy? Did they even answer your question? If the line sounds fishy and you established friendly relationship with a current student of the school, run it by them. The administrator may tout the school’s programs/clinics/fellowships, and so on– find out how easy they are to get, and how helpful they really are. They may try to show off the numerous law journals and moot court teams– take the same approach. They may brag about their curriculum in a specific area of the law– take the same approach. If that school’s  particular strength area of the law doesn’t interest you, ask about the area of the law that does. Who are the professors that teach that area of the law? What did they do prior to becoming a law professor? What do your current student contacts have to say about them? You get the idea.

I hope.

7. Are they giving you money?

If the answer is no, and their appearance is lackluster, send them to the bottom of your priorities list. If the answer is yes, and they’re providing the kind of education that matches your personal objectives, move them up. If they’re somewhere in the middle, you’ll have to use your own personal discretion.

8. Are they a regional law school, or do they have national reach?

You may or may not care about this. If you plan living in Toledo, Ohio the rest of your life, maybe you’ll be happy with the University of Toledo. But if you want to move out and get a job under the California sun, your “Made in Toledo” J.D. isn’t going to get you any special favors. Plus, even in Toledo, you’re going to be competing against lawyers from law schools that are nationally recognized.

Unless the money and quality of education are REALLY good, and you REALLY want to stay in your area, prefer the nationally recognized law schools to the regional ones.

9. Look at where you list stands, think about it really hard, sleep on it. If you wake up without any new questions or reservations, you will know the law school that is right for you.

And make sure you do all of this within the deadlines needed for you to issue a final acceptance. Naturally, you can start steps 1-4 before you’re even accepted.

Of course, this isn’t the only way go about picking a law school, it’s just one way. But, the steps here should put the right kind of information in your hands, and keep you from being led astray or entering the school-house gates with the wrong expectations.

Regardless of how you go about picking a law school, I encourage you to do so in a way that keeps your eyes open, your expectations realistic, and your concern for your own future and career development very real.

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Law School Just Got More Expensive

Not the greatest news for prospective students or Rising 3Ls: President Obama’s new budget includes revisions that will cause interest to accrue on graduate school loans while you are still in school.

Post in full at Huffington Post, available here.

Additional commentary from Above the Law, available here.

Law School Tuition Increases from 2005-2011 (c/o Law School Tuition Bubble)

Law school is not an endeavor for the faint of heart. Not only does it present tremendous challenge, high levels of stress, and inordinate amounts of work– it also costs a shit load of money.

At least with IBR, you can aspire to be crushed with debt for only a quarter of your lifespan. Yay?

I usually prefer to let my colleague’s website speak for themselves, but last month Mr. Leichter over at the Law School Tuition Bubble has provided an excellent resource for the cost-mindful prospective law student.

This resource contains charts documenting tuition changes for every law school in the country, by state, over the past five years.

The page is available here, and is well worth reading. Enjoy!

Demystifying Student Loan Reform; Income-Based Repayment (IBR) for Law Students

 

This is a post beneficial to many – not just JETs with J.D.s. But, since law students are the ones graduating in the largest numbers with work (or lack thereof) providing insufficient revenue to pay off their student debts, understanding the mechanics of what IBR is all about may not just be helpful, but necessary.

But first: because I’m an anal-retentive law school type, a DISCLAIMER: I’m not here to provide you legal or financial advice as to whether IBR is right for you (or whether you should go into law school and take on a massive amount of debt in the hopes that IBR will take care of all your financial worries). For that, please consult your conscience, or some kind of financial adviser.

Enough of that. Now onto the good stuff.

Why You Shouldn’t Expect a Student Loan Bail-out

There are plenty of folks out there hoping for some kind of student loan amnesty — a hope that, in some way, their student loan debt, acquired in a down-trodden economy with few job prospects, will evaporate by some magic act of the state. A quick look at the cost of such a bailout, however, is instructive. The average law grad carries around $100,000 in debt. There are currently 200 ABA-approved law schools in the United States. (This is a low-ball number as it does not count non-ABA approved schools. I’m looking at you California.) While each school admits different numbers of students each year, for my calculations I’ll assume 200 students per class. (I also consider this a low-ball since plenty schools clearly have more. See, for example, Northwestern, Ohio State, George Washington University, and the list goes on).

With those numbers, the low-ball cost to bail-out one graduating year’s worth of law school students is…
$100,000 x 200 schools x 200 students per school = $4,000,000,000.00. That’s billion with a “B” in case you’re bad at counting zeros. By comparison, that’s the low-ball estimate for the costs incurred by the BP Oil Spill.

Expand this number to include the entire “Lost Generation” of law students graduating between 2009-2011, and you are asking for a $12,000,000.00 bailout, c/o of the American taxpayer. This calculation doesn’t even entertain the risk that a law student loan amnesty would open the door to other unemployed students: undergraduates who graduate underwater; grad students. When you consider the financial implications of bailing them out, the numbers skyrocket.

I’m sure bailing out newly minted degree holders in the aftermath of the financial crisis carries with it a certain degree of moral superiority, at least compared to bailing out Wall Street bankers. But face it: it’s just not going to happen, and unemployed 20-somethings have a lot less political pull.

IBR may be the closest thing the student community will ever get to a bailout– so it’s worth your persual, especially if you are entertaining the thought of taking on law school debt.

Income-Based Repayment, and how it works

Eligibility

First: IBR only works for non-defaulted federal loans through the FFEL and Direct Loan programs (Stafford & Grad PLUS, for example), and only those loans are used to determine eligibility. So, if you’re in danger of defaulting on that $300,000 you took from Fat Tony that you gambled away in Vegas, sorry: no IBR for you.

Second: In order to be eligible for IBR, you have to be in a “partial financial hardship.” You have a partial financial hardship if the monthly amount you would be required to pay on your IBR-eligible loans under a Standard Repayment Plan with a 10-year repayment period is higher than the monthly amount you would be required to repay under IBR. That means you’re going to have to look at your individual situation to find out whether your current debt-load would be better under IBR than the Standard, and if you are eligible, determine if IBR is a better situation for you.

Reduced Payments

If your non-defaulted FFELS/Direct Federal Loans and your debtload meet the requisite criteria, IBR allows qualified borrowers to cap their monthly payment at an amount that is intended to be affordable based upon income and family size, and will be less than what you would have to pay under a 10-year Standard Repayment Plan. Whenever you hear President Obama talking about not having to pay more than 10% of your income in student loan payments, it’s reduced payments such as IBR that he’s talking about.

But reduced payments aren’t the only benefit. If you make consistent payments under an IBR plan for 25 years and meet certain other requirements, any remaining balance will be cancelled. If you work in public service and have reduced loan payments through IBR, your remaining balance after ten years in a public service job could be cancelled if you made loan payments for each month of those ten years. That’s right — loan forgiveness for consistent payers.

The Downside

You know there has to be one. But compared to the downsides of selling your liver for quick cash, the downside to IBR is not so bad. First: more of your payments are going to be going towards your interest, and not your principal amount. As a result, you’re going to put less of a dent into your principal. There’s also a mechanism in the loan repayment process whereby, if your payment doesn’t cover all the interest, unpaid interest capitalizes INTO the principal amount.

Second, because you’re paying more in interest and your principal is either remaining the same, or, possibly growing: your ultimate forgiven indebtedness after 10 or 25 years is going to be a larger number.

If it’s all disappearing, you’d think it wouldn’t matter, right? But, forgiveness of indebtedness counts as taxable income under the internal revenue code. So, if after 25 years, the government forgives your $100,000 law school debt in total – you now have $100,000 worth of taxable income.

Another drawback is that you’re going to have to submit paperwork to your debt servicer every year, indicating your income, so that they can recalculate your IBR payment for that given year.

—–

Resources

This post is just an overview of IBR, but I don’t want to provide you with just an overview. There are a great number of resources out there to help answer questions and flesh out IBR better for you than I can.

The Federal Student Aid Website has a quick explanation of IBR, and an IBR Calculator available for your use.

They Federal Student Aid site also has a document addressing the most common questions raised about IBR. There is a lot of great information there, including the mechanics of applying for IBR.

Here is a transcript running down the various other methods of student loan repayment, including IBR, that while quite lengthy, goes through things in great detail.

Finally, a fellow colleague of mine over at The Law School Tuition Bubble has also provided a couple of posts regarding IBR that are well worth reading.

Stand Aside U.S. News, Crowdsourced Law School Rankings

Up to now, the primary resource for prospective law students looking for school rankings has been U.S. News & World Report. Exclusive reliance on its rankings is something U.S. News & World cautions against, but that caution sounds no different than S&P or Moody’s saying: “Our ratings of various securities are the best in the industry, but don’t make them the only thing you rely on when making an investment decision.”

In short, rely on us, but don’t really rely on us.

Well, perhaps now U.S. News doesn’t have to worry about being relied on nearly as much. A group called the Conglomerate is taking web user’s votes on law school rankings. The website is hardly scientific, and the voting scheme is more like voting on hot or not. (I can’t even believe that website is still up. You’re welcome.)

But really, is consulting it any worse than consulting a magazine that ranks people according to statistics everyone knows are gamed by the schools, statistics that aren’t adequately audited in any accountable manner, statistics that no reasonable person should trust as a representation of reality?

Conglomerate’s Crowdsourced Rankings are here.

Great Above the law Commentary is available here.

98% Employed at Graduation… but not really

File this one under “know what you’re getting yourself into.”

If you’ve ever wondered how law schools can report a 98 – 100% employed at graduation rate in the midst of a recession after law firms had recently terminated the employment of thousands of attorneys, today’s Above the Law offers the closest thing available to a smoking gun here.

This story should be mandatory reading for anyone considering law school, and it’s message is simple: don’t trust the ratings– seek out and talk to actual law students and lawyers before you enter into this three year commitment.

Personal Statements: Don’t be a Law-o-phile

It’s law school application season, and there are plenty of applicants out there anal-retentively tending to their personal statements in attempts to make themselves sound like the beacon of light that law schools are searching for to join their class, maintain their ranks, and get all those fancy entry-level BigLaw jobs that haven’t been shifted to India.

So what makes for a good personal statement, anyway? Well, for applying to law school, you would think it would be saying how much you love the law, dream about the law, sleep with the law under you pillow, live, breathe, eat, drink, and piss law. All the time. Everyday.

As JETs, you should already know better, but if you don’t Yale Law School’s associate dean has kindly stated the obvious for you.

Reflect back on that moment when you first applied to JET. You had to write a personal statement, right? What did you write about?

I would like to imagine that after a little bit of internet research (or a few moments thought), you came to the conclusion that writing about your deep and profound knowledge and interest in everything Japan might be a red flag to recruiters. If the rosy expectations you expound on in your personal statements are going to clearly clash with reality, what’s going to happen when your expectations don’t match with reality? For example, if you spend half of your personal statement expounding about how you adore Japanese technological innovations, and ignoring (or not realizing) that you might have to live in a small apartment with no central heat and keep your toothpaste in the fridge to keep it from freezing, I might be nervous as a recruiter to how you might react when you find your placement doesn’t have flying cars and robots all over the place. Linch-pinning your personal statment to anime and manga interest has been a known red flag for years. Talking about your lengthy research project on the existential questions raised by Super Mario Bros. 2 being a near duplicate of Doki-doki Panikku would similarly be ill-advised.

So, too, with the law.

Lawyers don’t want to work around people who live and breathe the law anymore than your JTE would want to constantly hear about your opinions on DBZ or the anything else Japan-obsessive. Much like a Japan interest is almost implied in your application to JET, so too an interest in the law is implied merely by the fact your applying to law school.

Why waste a whole page gushing about your interest in the law, when you can cover the genesis of your interest in a short paragraph, and then spend time actually explaining your background, adaptability, work ethic, and academic strength: things that will actually help you succeed in law school, and help make the law school you go to end up looking good?

The entirety of the article from Yale’s associate dean is here, and is well worth reading. While I would love to pretend the advice is nothing more than Yale elitism, which some of the commenters have done, I cannot do so in the face of what I consider to be legitimately helpful advice.

Oddly enough, the one consistent piece of advice I have heard from law professors is this: if you want to stand out on your personal statement, say you’re coming to law school for the money. Almost every other applicant out there is so busy trying to sound like a resurrection of Atticus Finch that no one ever brings up the desire to come to law school to actually increase their earnings potential.

Other advice for personal statements can be found here.

And here.

And sample statements here.

Interview Advice from the Top 14

tie-690084It’s a tough market out there, everyone knows. And, with a tough market comes a tougher job interview. With On-Campus interviews looming — it’s time to see what the Top Fourteen law schools have out there for interview enhancement:

With a significant percentage of law clerks whose work gets questioned or reversed, Yale Law school has a sizable list of sample interview questions for you to consider.

Harvard Law School emphasizes certain characteristics in finding a public service job — the advice seems to be applicable to any kind of interview, however.

Stanford may want to unseat Harvard and Yale, but they don’t have much available online for interviewing.

Columbia gives us a link to 50 Worst of the Worst (and Most Common) Interview Mistakes. This includes helpful advice such as don’t light up a cigarette or bring your mom to the interview.  Wow.

University of Chicago keeps all of its resources behind a login. Boo.

NYU provides a list of resources you can consult in your search for legal employment.

UC Berkeley keeps everything behind a password wall as well.

UPenn Law too.

University of Michigan has resources in interview preparation, questions to ask, and what to do if you get a call-back available.

The University of Virginia follows the pattern of keeping their interview tips blocked to the public.

Duke has a fairly lengthy page of interview advice here.

Northwestern keeps most of its stuff blocked, but does have some interesting info available on various legal markets across the country, certainly helpful.

Cornell has some brief interview advice available.

Georgetown has taken the password protection route, too.

Enjoy. After all, if you interview well, you not only get to walk away with a job, but you can say the current unemployment rate isn’t in part a result of your lousy interviewing skills.