Law school is expensive and the choice of where to go is likely the biggest invesment decision that you have yet to face. Should you opt for a school near where you want to live and work or the school with a high ranking or big national name? How do you calculate the return on your investment? Will the regional schools get you where you want to go, or do you need a national law school to meet your career goals? In this show, representatives from different schools talk about the challenges – and the benefits – of getting your law degree locally or at a more national school, a consultant tells you what recruiters are thinking, and our guests give you tips for whichever path you choose to guide you to success.
- Sari Zimmerman, Assistant Dean, Career & Professional Development, UC Hastings College of Law
- Fran V. Bouchoux, Associate Dean for Academic and Student Services, Rutgers School of Law, Newark
- Susan L. Krinsky, Associate Dean, Dean of Admissions, Financial Aid & Career Development, Tulane University Law School
- Andy Cornblatt, Dean of Admissions, Georgetown University Law Center
- Brian Dalton, Director, Research & Consulting, Vault.com
Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process. I’m Diana Jordan. In real estate, they say the three most important things are location, location, location. But what about selecting a law school? How important is location? Are you weighing the benefits of attending a law school near where you live or want to work? Or maybe you’re convinced the benefits of a particular top name school with a national reputation are what’s most valuable. Which will benefit your career path more? Will a regional school get you where you want to go or do you need a national name on your diploma to land the job you’re looking for? In this show, representatives from different schools discuss the challenges and the benefits of getting your law degree locally and a consultant will tell you what the recruiters are thinking. You’ll also get tips for whichever path you choose – the regional or the national school, to guide you to success.
We’ll hear from Sari Zimmerman who is Assistant Dean of Career and Professional Development at UC Hastings. “Now is not the time to be passive in your job search. Now is the time to show initiative.”
And at Rutgers School of Law, Newark, Fran Bouchoux, Associate Dean for Academic and Student Services. “Whatever it may be that the student values, they need to visit the school and make sure that the school shares those values. That to me is much more important than the name, the titles or the size of the school.”
We’ll also speak with Associate Dean Susan Krinsky whose job is Dean of Admissions, Financial Aid and Career Development at Tulane Law School, Andy Cornblatt, Dean of Admissions at Georgetown Law School and Brian Dalton, Director of Research and Consulting at Vault.com, an online source of career information for law students and lateral candidates.
We start off by asking our guests to help define what students, faculty and law schools mean when they use the terms regional law schools and national law schools. Andy Cornblatt is the Dean of Admissions at Georgetown Law School. He says the U.S. News & World Report ranking guides the definition with the top 14 schools, followed by an in-between band of schools and then regional. “There’s nothing concrete about this. It’s just that sort of general sense that there are some law schools, again generally considered to be those 14 law schools that are considered to be really national schools. They draw students from all over the world and all over the country and place students all over the world and all over the country.”
Associate Dean Fran Bouchoux of Rutgers differentiates between regional and national schools this way: “the national school is focused on legal scholarship, research, teaching and academic values overall and the regional school may be more focused on preparing practitioners for a particular jurisdiction or a group of jurisdictions.”
Since Tulane draws only 15% of its students from Louisiana, Dean Krinsky considers her school national. She adds that regional or local schools tend to draw from their state. The graduates stay in that region and the faculty is less well-known. “Regional and local law schools have a mission to educate lawyers for their regions and localities and national law schools are not only looking at educating lawyers for the entire country, if not the world, but the scholarship coming out of their faculty is probably more nationally and internationally focused, and they are writing for a national audience. Their scholarship is picked up by courts all over the country.”
Meanwhile, Dean Bouchoux of Rutgers says that faculty will generally see a school as a national school if the curriculum is broad and preparing students for the legal issues of the day, not just focusing on the local jurisdiction. “Honestly, I think most faculty would see their school as a national school because most law school curricula are national in scope. Some schools will have more of a practice focus and may be specifically gearing their admissions recruiting in a limited geographical area. Those may be fairly characterized as regional but I think most schools would be better described as a hybrid of the two.”
The benefits of going regional depend on where students want to practice, according to Vault.com Director, Brian Dalton. “From many angles, it’s to one advantage to go to a school where one wants to practice, sometimes even more so than going to a higher ranked school. If somebody was choosing between let’s say, Fordham and University of Alabama, even though Fordham might be higher on the US News ranking scale, if they want to practice in Alabama, the choice is obvious.”
Others say that when you go to a national school you benefit by that reputation and the name of the school. But Dean Krinsky of Tulane says how high up in the class you graduated is equally important. “A national school will have alumni all over the country, if not the world, who are loyal to the school and may be able to help current students get jobs or at least make contacts and reputation is important. Almost as important, or maybe even more important than the national versus regional or local dichotomy, might be the cost issue. Sometimes, but not always, regional and local schools might be less expensive than national law schools; that’s certainly not universally true. That’s another tradeoff that students might want to look at.”
When deciding between regional and national, Vault.com’s Dalton says there are two distinct camps: “lawyers who work for large firms that service large organizations and large corporations and then there’s everybody else, who works for individuals or small businesses, in small firms or as solos. And if you think of it as two hemispheres, really nobody crosses the equator. So if that’s the sort of work you’re interested in — the personal, client side — those opportunities are going to still be open to you at the regional level.”
There is a distinct challenge to attending a regional school. Vault.com’s Brian Dalton explains. “The biggest challenge is that the gatekeepers of BigLaw hiring have a pronounced preference towards elite schools and, under current economic conditions, the recruiting budgets are smaller, so now it’s even less likely that a major firm would visit a lower tiered school. So, as long as the aspiring JD is cognizant of that, then they’re making an informed decision. If they don’t realize that, and they think that there’s $160,000-a-year first-year associate position waiting for them, they’re misinformed.”
Students at regional schools may be more limited when it comes to getting jobs and course selection than at schools like Georgetown, according to Dean Cornblatt. “I work in one of those places so I think that’s the best way to go and I’m sure that people who work at the local and regional law schools think that’s the best way to go. I’m not saying one’s better than the other. I do think there’s a general consensus that the national law schools will give you more flexibility job-wise, more academic flexibility and, of course, they tend to be bigger, just in terms of how the world views them as a graduate from one of those schools versus as a graduate from some other school. I think there may be a difference there unless you are in the part of the country where your law school is.”
It’s not necessarily true that going to a top ten US News school will unlock all doors, Dean Krinsky says, not if you ended up in the bottom quarter of your class. “It’s very tempting to say, ‘Oh, well, if you go to one of the top 10 or 15 or 25 schools, then employers are going to be beating down your door and it’s going to be so much easier to get a job.’ But the fact is that I think people who take responsibility, take personal responsibility for their job searches, no matter what kind of school they go to are going to be better situated.”
Students who fall lower in the class can accentuate their value by participating in moot court or in legal writing competitions. Krinsky says she heard from one student recently who graduated with a low class ranking. “He took a paper that he had written for a class, got it published and ended up with job offers in Chicago – major firms in Chicago. He’s a terrific example of somebody who really realized that his grades are not going to get him on anybody’s first choice list so he set himself apart by getting himself published and ended up with some very good job offers.”
There are benefits for students who attend regional schools, says Georgetown’s Dean Corblatt. “Those type of schools tend to have—not all the time—they tend to have students who are more like each other and I think, if that’s something that appeals to students, and it does to many students, I think that’s a real plus. The other real plus, many of these regional schools are state law schools and there’s a financial component to this that one should not ignore. These state law schools, if you are from that state, are less expensive, and in some cases, considerably less expensive than the private bigger schools, than national schools are. They also tend to want to compete for the local folks in terms of scholarship opportunities, merit scholarships, etc. Some of the students may be better off getting a terrific financial aid package from a local law school and realize that they will have a good career opportunity in the general vicinity of that local law school and that may be a better way to go.”
According to Vault’s Dalton, the current legal job market is the worst in decades, yet the number of students taking LSAT remains high. He advises you to know what you want to do when you graduate so you choose the right school initially. “Unfortunately for those would-be law students whose options are limited to, or the preferences are, to go to a regional school to do personal client type of work, that part of the industry has been the part that’s been shrinking and where incomes have been falling, so if you’re talking about ROI for students at regional local law schools, the trends are not positive.”
The ROI isn’t always a matter of dollars and cents as we hear from Dean Krinsky. “You can find papers that people have written and speeches they’ve given where they have figured out mathematically that it’s not worth it to go to law school, that it will take you many years to make back what you spend, but I think that that completely discounts the satisfaction you get from a career and what your alternative was going to be.”
Assistant Dean Sari Zimmerman is at the Office of Career and Professional Development at UC Hastings. She says the term ROI may not be appropriate for law schools. “Because I think it fails to capture so much. For example, we have one of the nation’s best moot court programs in the country but how you value the opportunity to go to a school with that type of program? Could it help you get the job? Sure, it could. Will it make you a better attorney once you’re on the job, more comfortable with that first appearance before a judge or filing the pleading? Absolutely, it will. How do you value that in terms of return on investment? I don’t know.”
The ROI rests on the cost of tuition. Dean Bouchoux of Rutgers suggests applicants seek out law schools that have loan repayment assistance programs and research them. “The loan burden for students who attend the public law school is going to be substantially less than for those who attend a private school. I don’t think the distinction is between regional and national. I think it’s public versus private on that issue. One of the things that we’re fortunate for here at Rutgers is we have a loan repayment assistance program and that entitles students who are pursuing careers in public interest, who are making below a certain level, I think it’s about $50,000 per year, to qualify for assistance in loan repayment. Essentially, it’s a grant or a loan forgiveness, meaning that if they commit to public interest for five years, the loan assistance they get will be forgiven.”
Students should look at the benefits of regional schools in regard to recruitment and job placements, says Dean Zimmerman. “Certainly at Hastings, we have a very strong mock interview program. We offer it twice a year. The nice thing about having so many alumni in the area is that a school like Hastings can really draw on them and we like to bring our alumni back to interview our students so they get a very real-world experience. As I said, that’s the benefit of going to a school with a large alumni population in the area, is there are so many resources they can draw on, not only in terms of mock interviews, but also in terms of alumni mentor programs. We have one of the largest in the country, we have over 800 alums all over the world actually in our program but also in career panels and brown bags. There are always people in practice in a diverse range of areas that the school can call on to bring them on campus and then the students can actually see people who have been precisely where they were, doing exactly what they want to do.”
The biggest employers tend to hit the national schools, much more than regional, according to Dean Cornblatt. “The tradeoff is you’ll see more and more lucrative employers usually are coming to these national law schools, but depending on the law school, I don’t think that’s true with Georgetown, but you may feel a little bit like a number as you go through this. For students at regional law schools, you’ll see fewer of these national, sort of sexy employers but, on the other hand, you will see many more of the regional ones and, if that’s what you’re interested in and you want to stay in that area, you’ll have more opportunities.”
Students should start early, Dean Zimmerman says. Show initiative and seek out existing structured resources such as an alumni network program. “For example, we have students who want to go to New York or want to be in Europe or want to be in Asia, we really encourage them to get involved from Day 1 in the alumni mentor program to start cultivating relationships with attorneys in that market. They should also be looking from Day 1 on how to get themselves out there. So their first year summer could really be the time. Don’t wait necessarily until you’re a second year or later. Get yourself out to that market as early as you can and start cultivating your network in that city.”
Dean Bouchoux of Rutgers has a nuanced view on recruitment. First, she says, consider your goals. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that many of the large firms in the major metropolitan areas are looking to hire graduates from the Ivy League law schools and, for students who are not attending one of those law schools who have a goal of practicing in a large firm, you should think about where alumni had been placed from that school, which law firms recruit at their school and think about how to get to those law firms even though they are not at the Ivy League school which may be the first choice of the law firm.”
Regional and national students are not competing for the same jobs, Vault.com’s Dalton explains. At the same time, he says, Vault.com surveys indicate that just because you’re in a lower tiered or a higher tiered school does not mean your career services are inferior or more plentiful. “That’s one thing that is a real point of emphasis on our [Law School] survey – is the quality of the career services and how effective students feel that career services, sort of ‘have their back’ in getting the best possible job coming out and the cases vary. There’s a broad spectrum of feedback that we get and so that information is available and it’s really an important consideration for a would-be applicant.”
In the current competitive job market, the largest firms have restricted their hiring criteria so there’s a greater focus now on grades and credentials, Zimmerman says. She says now is not the time to be passive in the job search. Now is the time to show initiative. “Certainly what we would tell any student is that this is the most important thing. You can’t afford to be just a paper candidate in this market. If the only way an employer knows you is through your résumé, you’re not memorable because you’re just on black and white. And so what all career offices across the country are telling their students, and I don’t think we’re any different at Hastings, is that students really have to devote far more time to 1) cultivating relationships with attorneys who do the work that they themselves want to do and 2) independently and proactively reaching out to employers. I genuinely say you need to be a polite stalker and the students who are landing the jobs at the firms or at in-house are really those who either went to a continuing legal education course and met an attorney or they took advantage of a school’s mentor program or they volunteered in pro bono and worked side-by-side with attorneys or they independently reached out to the employer and followed up repeatedly.”
And evaluate your employment prospects at a particular school – alumni networks really matter. UC Hastings is the largest public school west of the Mississippi, Dean Zimmerman says. “You have this ready-made community of attorneys and, if you want to be successful in the job market, you need to think about building your own personal board of directors. And if you have this ready-made community out there – people who share the same law school connection with you – these are people you can more easily reach out to. And so you want to think about reaching out to people like your law school community, people within your college community, people who go to your church, to your temple. If you’re active in intramural sports team or some professional association, now is really the time to be active, to be involved and to get out of the house to get away from the computer to really get face-to-face with people.”
So keep your professional goals in mind. Dean Bouchoux says if you go to law school in one area and your goal is to work in another, you have to figure out how to network in that other area. Rutgers has been around for more than a century and has alumni around the country. For example, “I open up an email from an alum who graduated a few years ago. He thought he originally wanted to practice in the New York area and, lo and behold, for personal reasons, he needs to relocate to Florida, so his question just naturally is, ‘are there alumni in Florida I can speak to about relocating there?’ And, of course, because we have alumns there, many of whom are still in close contact with the school, in fact, who are actively involved in alumni networks with the school, we were able to refer him to a number of people who will shepherd him through the legal community in Miami and the Palm Beach area. You have to keep in mind that life will take you in different places and if you have those kinds of opportunities, you want to make sure there’s a network in place to help you navigate it.”
Stay in touch with alumni, Dean Krinsky says. The law schools meet with alumni in responsible positions to see what they need in new candidates and the school can adapt their curricula. As for the students, mock interviews teach skills. A career counselor can highlight your strengths. She says recruiters can be very choosy. “They want the very best students and they want absolute loyalty and so often, firms will want to talk only with people who have some connection to their geographical area. If, for example, you are going to law school in Nebraska and the firms are in Lincoln, Nebraska, they’re probably going to want to look first at people who have a connection and the obvious connection is that you went to law school there. If you are going to school in California and you want to live and work in New Orleans, well, you really better have something to show those employers so that they won’t be skeptical of your interest in New Orleans – so you went to high school here, you went to college here, you have a significant other who has a job here, etc. and the same thing with Tulane students who want to go work in San Francisco. You need to either have lived in California or have gone to school in California or have some connection to the area.”
Rutgers’ Dean Bouchoux offers this advice. As a student, you should ask good questions about where alumni are placed and how, through the career services office, you can connect with those alumns. “I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to find out where alumni are placed and I want to give you one quick example. Here at Rutgers, we have more than 100 alumni sitting on the bench. I’m probably underestimating that by a large number. In a state like New Jersey, where the law clerkships open up every year, virtually any student who’s interested in a clerkship as a stepping stone, is going to have that opportunity because there are so many well-placed alumni who are connected to the school. That’s just one example. You’re going to find that in law schools that have emphasized public service, that there might be people well-placed in the government or public interest organizations.”
But what if you land at a regional school and you decide you want a job in the global or national work force? Dalton says it’s an uphill battle, but there is a way. “The one plausible path towards that goal is to, as a 1L, get all A’s and I mean all A’s, and then transfer to Columbia or Michigan because your odds aren’t good. You’re not going to get the look that you’ll get at a school where there’s an OCI (on-campus interview) relationship with a national or global firm. And also, if your father was a managing partner and there are certain types that will be helpful to you too, some kind of unusual connection, but that’s an up-hill struggle.”
Ask the right questions. Dean Krinsky says she coaches a lot of students to not go for the short cut but to ask more detailed questions. ‘On the admission side, for example, prospective students will say, how many applications did you get and how many people are in your class?’ Well, that’s an interesting piece of information- but probably a better piece of information is ‘how many offers of admission did you make?’ That fact tells you a lot more about your chances than the spread between number of applications and the number of people on the class. So that’s an example on the admission side. On the career development side, rather than ask the question, ‘now, how many firms from Boston recruit at your school?’ What you really want top know is several pieces of information. ‘How many of your graduates were interested in going to Boston and how many ended up going there?’ ‘What kinds of jobs do they have?’ ‘How long did it take them to get those jobs?’ ‘What kinds of services do you offer students who might want to go to a city where you don’t have a huge alumni presence?’ You really want to get quality information rather than quantity information.
Value tops all other considerations when choosing a law school, according to Dean Bouchoux. “Every school emphasizes certain values and the students should really think about what values are important to them. Is it a commitment to social justice? Is it diversity? Is it law reform? Is the commitment to corporate and business law? Whatever it may be that the student values, they need to visit the school and make sure that the school shares those values. That to me is much more important than the name, the title or the size of the school.”
The rankings may lead you to rely on one kind of shorthand. Dean Zimmerman says, don’t do it. “Now more than ever because of the state of the market, you need to be thoughtful, first about your choice regarding attending law school. Is it right for you? Really think, first and foremost, about what do you hope to gain from the experience? Is it just getting a great education, which law school does provide? Are you thinking of it as a stepping stone to a social justice path, to a private sector path? And really evaluating in depth how specific schools line up with your goal. Do they have alumns in the city or cities that interest you? Are there alumns who have done that particular type of practice? What academic support does that school offer? If you’re interested in environmental law, are there enough environmental law courses? How many environmental law faculty are there? What opportunities are there for practical experience which is more important than it ever was before, to make yourself competitive. You really need to dig beyond the labels, beyond the easy shorthand and ask lots of questions and do research and read, read, read. I really think that everyone who’s thinking about law school should do at least a couple informational interviews with attorneys. They could contact their local bar association. They could contact a local law school. They could go on to a database such as martindale.com and look up attorneys by region and area of practice. But now, more than ever, you need to do your homework. You need to be thoughtful.” Zimmerman says it’s a true partnership between the student and the law school experience.
These days, applicants are smart to take a long hard look at the value law schools offer. For many, that means weighing the value of national versus regional schools. For some prospective students, it will always be all about the name, the rank or reputation of a school. For others, it’s an advantage to go to a school where they want to practice, take the bar exam and live. In deciding what‘s right for you, our guests tell us that it helps to try to understand your career prospects and the recruitment process that occurs while in school. Focus on graduating at the top of your class and if you fall short, consider boosting your marketability by getting published in prestigious journals. Go beyond the list of employers who recruit at the law schools you’re considering and evaluate the alumni networks of the schools, the career services the schools offer and what’s being done at the school to enhance career services in today’s competitive job market. If you can think of the end game now and picture where your law degree might lead, it can help you select the right school for you.
For more information, a transcript of the show or to sign up to receive more law school podcasts, visit http://www.lawschoolpodcaster.com. Look for us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and insight into the world of law school. I’m Diana Jordan with Law School Podcaster. Thanks for listening. Stay tuned for more shows as we explore another topic of interest to help you succeed in the law school application process and beyond.