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April 24, 2005

Choosing a public interest law school

A reader wrote in recently with a dilemma: He has been offered a “full-ride” scholarship at a school at the higher end of the top 50 in the U.S. News rankings, or no aid but admission at an upper top-20 school. He'd like to do international public interest law related to poverty issues. Which school should he choose? Also, more generally, what factors should he look at for each school to compare them and make this decision?

If you have any thoughts, please share. For starters, here's a slightly edited version of my response to this reader:

First: Congratulations! Getting a full-ride to a top-50 program is an awesome accomplishment!

Second: Knowing what I know now after two years of law school, I would definitely take a full-ride at a top 50 school with a very solid reputation in my desired area of specialty. No question. Why? Because my impression has been that school rank or prestige are probably helpful—even in public interest law—but the difference between upper top-20 and upper top-50 is just not worth the $90-$150k dollar difference involved in a choice like yours. That said, I really don't know what a PI employer (esp. one in international poverty law, for example) would do when faced with a selection of candidates from these schools. My guess is that, most things being equal, the employer would likely want to hire someone from the higher ranked school. Yet, it wouldn't be that simple because you've obviously already distinguished yourself enough to get this scholarship, and I bet whatever earned you that (your previous work in the field, I'm guessing) would also earn you special attention from employers.

So, another way to put this: You're clearly shoulders above the average upper top-50 student, which is why you got the scholarship. That distinction will show through to employers, so I would say your career chances at the upper top-50 school will be nearly as good (if not exactly as good) as at the upper top-20 school. If you were going into BigLaw, the choice would be much harder. But in PI law, my impression is that school rank just isn't that huge a factor. Your resume will be strong from either school so employers will give you a serious look, either way.The quality of your legal training probably won't vary much between the two. Graduating with zero debt (or very little -- I assume “full ride” includes room and board) is huge because it makes you more flexible -- you'll be able to consider a wider variety of jobs w/out making your heavy debt load a major factor in your career decisions. From where I sit, your choice is clear: I would choose the full ride at the upper top-50 school.

HOWEVER, I'm just a 2L and what do I know? Not so much. I'm just speaking for me. You may have different considerations. How do you feel about the possible debt you'd accrue at the top-20 school? Do you see any differences in the two programs (besides the obvious factors of cost and location) that make you lean one way or the other? You may have tried this already, but what if you did this: Remove cost from the equation; assume both schools would cost the same. Which would you attend and why? Now remove cost AND rank from the equation—which would you choose? Doing this will force you to focus on other, possibly more important factors, such as:

  • Classes: Look at the courses offered at each school and make a list of 8-10 courses you think you'd really like to take. Does one school have more classes that sound great? Also, call the registration people and ask how often your most desired classes are offered. Many schools list a number of courses in their curriculum materials that are actually only offered rarely. If that's the case, you may choose a school partly hoping to take one or two classes that won't even be offered in the two years you'll be there and taking electives (you probably won't get electives in your first year). The registration people should be able to tell you if this is the case.
  • Faculty: Then look at who teaches the classes that really appeal to you. Read their bios. Do any of them sound like people who have done things you want to do and/or who are connected to institutes, nonprofits, gov't orgs or NGOs that you'd like to get connected with? Look at what they've published; you may not be able to read much of it, but you could skim some of the papers and/or read abstracts (many are online via SSRN and other places). Are any of these people doing interesting work? Do any of them make you say, “Yeah, I really would love to know that person and maybe have him/her as my mentor”? In your first year, faculty won't matter nearly as much, so look beyond to the electives you'd want to take.
  • Journals: You may have no interest in being on a journal, so this may not be an issue. But if you have even a vague interest, you should look at the journals at each school and also at how you qualify to be on staff of one. If there's one that especially appeals to you (like the “Journal of International Poverty Law” or something), you should contact someone on that journal (phone or email or whatever) to find out how you could get on staff. Do they choose based on grades or writing competition, or both? If grades are a factor, how big a factor? How competitive is it? How prestigious is the journal in its field? Being on a journal in a subject area in which you want to work can be very fun and very helpful to your education b/c you'll read and write on specialized topics in that area.
  • Clinics: Clinics are important to PI law and if either school has a clinic or two that grabs you, you should give that school extra points. If there's a clinic that would let you do exactly what you think you want to do, that's a huge bonus. It'll look great to employers and again, it will be excellent training for you. If you want to go further with this, call the clinic director and ask to speak with students who are in or have been in the clinic. Then ask those students what they did in the clinic and what they are going to do for their summer jobs or careers, and whether the clinic was helpful or worthwhile, etc.
  • Career services: Does either school have someone one staff who is dedicated to helping PI students get PI jobs in summers and after graduation? GW has a person who does this as part of her job. This is nice, but it means that there's no one working full time year-round to maintain connections with public interest employers, research jobs and connections for you, and generally help you in your PI career building. In contrast, Georgetown has an entire PI office dedicated to this sort of thing. The more resources the school gives to this, the better it will be for you. In addition to what the career services office tells you, try to talk to students who are doing things you think you'll want to do. The career services people should be able to give you a couple of names you could email so you could ask about their satisfaction w/the school's career services, etc.
  • Summer funding: As a PI student, you are not so likely to find summer jobs that pay; therefore, it's good to know what grants will be available to you in the summers. For example, GW gave out $165k this summer, spread among approximately 50 people; at least 100 people applied for this pool, meaning only 50% who wanted funding got it. You should be able to find those kinds of numbers for each school. This shouldn't be a deal-breaker factor for either school, but it's one more piece of data that might help you make a choice.
Those are all the big factors I can think of now. I think if you gathered as much data you could get on these variables and tried to compare the programs, you should be on your way to making an intelligent and informed choice here. I don't know how much time you have, but even if you can only surf their websites and make a couple of calls for each school, I think doing so would be worth your time. Once you have some data on these points you'll have to make the choice about what the debt means to you. Before starting school, I figured the debt was no big deal. Perhaps that will prove to be true, but now it looks like a huge deal. Even if it doesn't affect my life or career too much, it weighs on my mind and adds a sort of general anxiety to the future. Living without that would be worth a lot to me, but that may just be me.

Posted 10:10 AM | Comments (14) | advice law school

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