I saw a headline recently that said “Five Graduate Degrees that Don’t Pay Off.” I had a feeling that a law degree was on the list, so I clicked on the article. Sure enough, it was there, but a bit more specific. It said that a law degree from a fourth-tier law school wouldn’t pay off. This might be true for a lot of people, but I think it’s avoidable if you go into your fourth-tier legal education with a plan.
First of all, consider the type of job you want after graduation. If you are dead set on working in a big, high paying law firm, you might want to reconsider. They typically don’t take associates from fourth-tier schools. If you have a solid connection at one of these firms, it might make a difference as it might if you are #1 in your class, but generally it’s going to be a long shot. I’d suggest aiming for the top of your class during your first year and then transferring to a higher ranked school. Perception is reality at these law firms and if you look at the bio’s on their employees, most of them didn’t go to John Marshall, Thomas Cooley, NIU, etc. That doesn’t make their attorneys smarter or better, it’s just a fact of life.
Second, consider where you will live and work. If you go to a fourth-tier law school, stay in the same area to pursue your career after graduation. Rely on the strong alumni network. You are more likely to get an interview if someone at the firm went to the same school as you. Another benefit to staying local is that you can start working on getting that job while you’re still in school. Get experience early – real experience. Make connections and work with some lawyers and firms in town. When you apply for a job after school, you’ll have an advantage. Not that you can’t go to a crappy law school and then make a career in a place like Hawaii, but you are stacking the deck against yourself without a network in your corner.
Third, think about debt. Be realistic about your income after graduation. A lot of lawyers start out making $40,000 or $50,000 a year. When taking out loans for law school, don’t assume it won’t be a problem to pay them off. Find out what your monthly loan payments will be. Think about working for a few years and saving up before going to school. Unfortunately, your school isn’t likely to warn you about these risks. I’m surprised that the University of Illinois hasn’t opened up a Chicago campus. One of the biggest reasons people go there over a place like Northwestern is the cost savings. But most people don’t want to live in a cornfield for three years. If they moved the campus to Chicago they’d attract better students than they already do.
Fourth, make sure being an attorney is what you really want. If it is, then you have a better chance of finding job satisfaction. If you’re doing it for the money, there’s a good chance you’ll be disappointed with your options coming out of a fourth-tier school. That said, a law degree can open up a lot of doors, so if you have no clue what you want to do, getting a JD isn’t a bad thing.
I know great attorneys who attended lesser-ranked law schools. The school you go to doesn’t have to define your career, or your success. But don’t sit back and assume that a law degree will automatically take you places. Be realistic. The “worse” your school is, the better your plan needs to be.
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