How many have heard the advice to not go to law school if it’s not in the top ten? Or don’t go to law school if it’s not a free ride? Or just, don’t go to law school? As a reminder, there is a lot of general public opinion about who should go to law school and why. And very rarely does that general advice take into account the special circumstances many Latinas find themselves in when it’s time to apply. So when you hear advice that dissuades you from your goal, consider who is giving it to you and if you’re even the audience they’re considering when they offer this information.
And it’s because of that mixed-message that I want to talk about what really matters when it comes to picking what law school to apply to/enroll.
One. Credibility Matters. Obviously, rank is an important factor. If you get into a top ten school those resources, connections, and reputation will make a difference in your career. That’s because this profession is obsessed with privilege and being able to coyly say you went to school in Boston makes a good impression (deserved or not). But it’s true that usually higher ranked schools will have larger alumni base and more money to give for financial aid or for fellowships. That’s real. But, let’s imagine for a second that we’re not all the next Sonia Sotomayor, and instead you’re aiming for a successful career in your city. Will the rank of your school really matter? Probably not. Probably not after a couple years of practice when you’ve shown your talent and skills. Certainly a high ranked school won’t hurt, but it really will only take you so far.
Is the inverse true? Will a lower ranked school harm you? For sure, if you go to a school that just obtained accreditation or is on probation, it will raise some eyebrows and some doors will stay shut. But again, when you put in the work and showcase your skills and talents, that is what ultimately matters and what makes the difference in terms of creating a successful career. Remember, it’s the student, not the school. May I suggest in these situations that rather than rank you assess the credibility of the school (especially when it’s not as well-known). What are the alumni doing? What’s the bar passage rate? Is it well-respected in the city where you want to practice? That is what matters so focus on that.
Two. Money Matters. So, law school is expensive (ha!) and though many get financial aid, we still graduate with debt. Let’s remove the top ten from this equation, because in all honesty if you’re getting into a top ten school you’re likely getting really great financial aid. For the rest of us, ahem, is a higher rank worth more debt? Honestly, no. If I got into a school ranked #65 but school #74 is offering a better deal and is still meeting all the other things I need, why would I pay more for the other school? Though it’s 11 points down, the difference is really negligible in the long-run.
Let’s analyze further: I randomly picked those two numbers and right now Case Western in Ohio is #65 and Loyola Chicago is #74 (ha, random coincidence that is my law school). Ok, so if I want to practice in Chicago, get to make connections with the legal community, pay less in tuition, maintain alumni connections, it makes sense why I’d pick a school ranked #74 over #65, right? So my reasoning may not be the same as yours, and you may end up deciding Case is better for you, but don’t automatically assume the higher ranked school is the best option for you, especially if it’s more expensive. And this is especially true if you want a career in public interest where your income will struggle to help you pay off your loans.
Three. Location Matters. I’ve said this a million times, where you go to school impacts not just your well-being for three years, but also your ability to hit the ground running when you get your license. Again, if you’re in a top ten, you likely aren’t expected to practice in Boston or Ann Arbor or Charleston–one of the perks is the ability for that degree to travel easily. For others, if you go to a school located in an area where you don’t plan to practice, make sure it’s for a good reason and not just because of rank. For example, maybe the school has special programs or fellowships that other schools don’t offer. Maybe alumni have migrated to the city where you want to practice so it will be easy making connections. Whatever the reason, be able to point to it and know you’ve made your selection beyond the UNW report.
Again, the legal field loves feeling like they’re close to power and while the rankings have merit and are insightful, the salivating people do over them is gross. Don’t let the dysfunctional classist culture of the profession force you to make a decision that will put you in more debt or discourages you entirely from your goal.