Despite everything you may hear from your school, the rankings are important. A law degree from a so-called “name” school is a virtual guarantee of a good job following graduation. However, the rankings are also a good predictor of law school tuition. Therefore, it is important that you select a school that meets your career needs, but no more so than necessary.
For example, many good law firms recruit primarily local candidates. If you grew up in a city, have lived there all of your life, and plan to stay there forever, it maymake good sense to graduate from your local law school. Even if the school does not make the top 100 by any list’s standards, it may be a wise economic choice nonetheless.
Tuition for in-state residents at their local law school is often substantially less than private schools. If you do well, graduate near the top of your class, or are on Law Review, you will be able to land a good job with a good firm.
In addition, you should spend some time in introspection regarding your career plans. For example, if you are absolutely certain that you will spend your entire career in public interest work, it may make sense to attend a lower-ranked (and less expensive) law school. You should also be aware that some law schools will forgive a portion or all of your debt if you choose to practice in an area of public interest. Further, if your long-term plans contemplate a non-legal career, you may not need the credential of so-called “name” school. A mere J.D. will more than suffice for your needs.
On the other hand, if you are bound for the large, prestigious law firm life, you may need a “name” school degree. Many of the large, behemoth “national” firms recruit exclusively from the select pool of the top candidates from only the top schools. Further, a “B” student from Duke Law School will generally be more sought after than a “B” student from Local Law School. However, with tuition of private schools typically three or four times that of state schools, most students graduating from private schools will be forced to work for a large law firm, which pays a large salary.
The point of the foregoing discussion is to encourage you to carefully think through this important expenditure. As with any major purchase decision, you should carefully decide how much law school tuition you can afford and are willing to spend, in light of your career interests. You should assess the value you will receive for those tuition dollars.
For example, in Nashville, Tennessee, which is a mid-sized legal market, there are certainly a large number of Vanderbilt graduates practicing law. However, there are also a large number of graduates from the Nashville School of Law, which is approved by the Tennessee Board of Board of Law Examiners, but not accredited by the American Bar Association. This means that graduates may only practice law in Tennessee. However, the tuition at Nashville School of Law is approximately $4500 per semester, while tuition at Vanderbilt is approximately $16,000 per semester.
If your career plans don’t require a degree from a top-tier school, it may not make sense to spend top dollar for a law degree. As an investment, you may be better served with a lower-cost mid-ranged school. And while you're at it, to get the most out of law school, be sure and pick up a copy of my book, Law School Labyrinth- A Guide to Making the Most of Your Legal Education (Kaplan Publishing, March 31, 2009).