Choosing a Law School: Part II

choosing a law school

The importance of scholarships

by Ryan R.of Parliament Tutors - This is the second in a three-part series.

Money, money, money! Law school is an expensive endeavor with the vast majority of law school’s sticker prices in excess of over forty thousand dollars per year, not to mention the cost of living that can run as high as an additional thirty-thousand dollars per year. Moreover, because grades influence employment prospects coming out of law school more than they do in any other graduate program, it is rare for students to work full time while in law school. In fact, many schools go so far as to prohibit students from working during their 1L year as a way of ensuring they put their studies first.

Are scholarships really so important?

If you’re on a ten-year repayment plan, each $10,000 you take in student loans generally corresponds to a scheduled repayment of roughly $100 per month. This means if you’re taking out $200,000 in loans, you may be responsible for repaying $2,000 a month, which is more than many home mortgages. This means that even if you’re making a $100,000 salary coming out of school, your income will generally become $76,000 before any income taxes are taken into account.

How do I get a scholarship?

Over half of students at the majority of law schools benefit from scholarships ranging anywhere from a couple thousand dollars a year to full tuition. Scholarships are generally merit-based, and predicated on your LSAT and undergraduate GPA with some additional considerations made to students with unique cultural and ethnic diversities and/or stellar resumes.
Schools are quick to throw scholarships at students who possess LSAT scores and GPA's well above their medians, and it is exceptionally rare for a school to not offer a scholarship to any applicants who are even a fraction of a point above their LSAT and GPA medians. Common sense would indicate that the further one ventures down the USNews rankings the more money they will receive, but empirical research indicates that this is not the case. With the exception of Yale, Harvard and Stanford, who do not offer merit based scholarships because the higher ranked schools tend to have more money, law schools are generally inclined to throw more money at the applicants they desire.

Is money the only important factor to pay attention to on a scholarship offer?

Perhaps equally important to the financial amount of a scholarship offer are the strings attached to it. For example, if a student gets a full scholarship predicated on being in the top 10 percent of the class, it would be risky to presume that their education will be free.
A recent 2011 New York Times article detailed these aforementioned contingent scholarships. Second, third and fourth tier schools, particularly the for profit law schools have a tendency to attach difficult to meet requirements for students to keep their scholarships. To add insult to injury, rather than dividing their incoming class into sections randomly or according to alphabetical order as many schools do, a great number of these “scholarship contingency” schools actually purposefully group all of their scholarship recipients into one group in order to ensure that as few students keep their scholarships as possible.
So while placing in the top third at a school where your numbers suggest you’ll fare better than the average student may not seem too difficult, you may find yourself being curved against only those students who are also well above average at that particular school. Therefore such students tend to face a double edged sword in that not only are these schools going out of their way to try to prevent them from keeping their scholarship, but are also having their class rank impacted, which will also impact their odds at landing with the firm of their choosing. Because transferring is also predicated on grades, students at these institutions typically find themselves going into their 2L year with the choice of either paying full price to continue their legal education or dropping out of law school.
Other scholarship contingencies include GPA stipulations such as maintaining a 3.0 or 3.5 throughout the duration of the program. For a student applying with a strong GPA, sustaining a particular GPA may not seem too difficult. However, it is important to note that law school grading is curved, and not analogous to undergraduate grading. If your scholarship comes with a GPA stipulation, make sure to call the law school, and ask what the average GPA is so that you’ll be able to gauge the true implications behind the fine print.
It is important to note that some schools provide stipulations that are not out to force students into paying more money in the long run, but only to ensure that the students will remain focused on their studies. If a school’s average GPA is a 3.3, and your GPA stipulation is a 3.0 then that school is likely only trying to ensure that you won’t completely slack off. Likewise, many school’s place stipulations such as “good standing” on their scholarship offers, which means that all a student has to do is not fail out of the law school, or egregiously break the school’s honor code.
Fortunately, not all schools place difficult requirements on their scholarships. Indeed at the most competitive and well respected law schools, scholarship contingencies are non-existent as these schools are more reliant on alumni donors than their tuition costs to make their money. Personally, I cannot think of one top-50 law school that places any contingency more extreme than “remaining in good standing” or not being grossly below average on their students.

Should I take the larger scholarship or the higher ranked school?

This is the most personal question in the law school process, and there is no entirely right answer. One thing to keep in mind is what kind of law you would like to practice, and where you would like to practice that sort of law. If your goal is big law or landing a top clerkship then school ranking is very important. As a student’s odds of landing a big law position coming out of NYU or Columbia is anywhere from ten to fifty times higher than coming out of Brooklyn, it would likely be more prudent to take the former at sticker price over the later with a full scholarship.
If, on the other hand, a student is looking to work in the public interest and/or is particularly risk adverse, then it may make sense to take the money and run.

Final Thoughts 

One last thing to pay attention to in regards to financing your legal education is the cost of living at a particular law school. Because it is rare for a law school to pay for any student’s rent or food. The cost of living at any school tends to run up sixty-thousand or more over the course of attaining your JD, which may hamper the benefit of bypassing a school with superior job prospects.
Lastly, many scholarship offers can be negotiated, and the best bargaining chip to have is a higher offer to a similarly or superiorly ranked school so apply to a wide range of schools.
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Ryan R. is an LSAT Tutor with Parliament Tutors.  He has been a New York Tutor with Parliament for three years.
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