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If I solo out of school, do I pick the cheaper law school?

by Carolyn Elefant on January 28, 2007 · 14 comments

in Questions & Advice, Solo Out of Law School

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Q:  I’m only applying to law school now, but I am hoping to open up my own general practice as soon as I graduate.  Here is my situation:  I am fairly sure that I will be admitted to a law school in the city where I am intent on living and opening my firm (School A), as well as another law school in the middle of nowhere and hours away from my preferred location(School B).  School A costs 27k per year and School B costs 11k.  Both schools are similarly ranked 3rd/4th tier.  Should I go to the school with less tuition (and thus, less crushing debt) or go to the school where I can establish a network (potentially allow me to make valuable connections for business)? I want to take on less debt  so I can take bigger financial risks opening the practice, but I also want that network and feel that I should know the area before I begin to set up a firm there.  More specifically, I would like to know whether having prior local work experience in law school, through an externship or clinic helpful to starting a practice, or can I just pack up and move to any city and start drumming up business?

A:  Nothwithstanding the difference in cost of roughly $50,000 (figuring 81,000 in tuition at School A versus $33,000 for School B), I believe that you should attend School A.  Here’s why.

First, School A offers the advantage of a city location (which happens to be the city where you want to locate, but I’ll get to that point next)whereas School B is located “in the middle of nowhere.”  When you attend school in a metropolitan area, you have access to many more job opportunities during law school, where you can earn money while going to school (you may not want to do so during your first year, but you can probably manage it as a second or third year).  Cities will have large and small firms, which hire students to work part time, as well as state or county agency offices and prosecutor and public defender departments.  As a result, a city gives you the option of finding law related jobs that you can take on during law school and cover living expenses and potentially, part of your tuition.

Second, and more importantly, as you anticipate, attending School A will give you access to externships and other opportunities during school that will help you build a network of mentors and potential referral sources.  School A probably has programs where local practitioners come to speak on different topics (and if it doesn’t, you can start one as a way to meet people) or judge moot court competitions.  These activities provide terrific opportunities to meet people who can help you out later on.  By contrast, at School B, you won’t have the chance to start building these relationships.  And when you move to your preferred City, you’ll have to start from scratch and break into networking circles that local grads have already created.  As Susan Cartier Liebel points out, anyone who’s sufficiently persistent can succeed at starting a practice (and here, I agree).  But you can also better your odds by positioning yourself early on in law school, instead of playing catch up.

Third, though you should never plan for failure, if for some reason, your practice does not go as planned, having attended School A will make it easier for you to get a job locally.  It is very difficult to find a job from a third or fourth tier school, but typically, these schools do well in placing graduates locally.  What will happen if you do in fact need to find employment from School B?  You will have few contacts and opportunities.  Also, though you want to go solo right away, you may decide that it could make sense to clerk for a judge for a year.  Again, with your School A contacts, you leave that option open.  However, I doubt that you will find a clerkship in City A having attended School B.

On the other hand, I realize that $50,000 in debt is nothing to sneeze at.  At the same time, over the long haul, it is not an insurmountable barrier either.  You can probably defer payment on loans for a time, and if need be, spread them out over a longer repayment period.   Examine the debt implications more closely, and also evaluate financial aid options.  Be aggressive in seeking out financial aid options; in your case, a $10k grant each year could make a tremendous difference.  In addition, some schools do provide loan forgiveness for grads who serve indigent populations.  Investigate whether School A has ever explored this option?

One selling point that we lawyers constantly harp on is that we should not compete on price.  Yet when it comes to evaluating schools, many prospective lawyers automatically default to the lower cost option, even though the higher cost one may offer more opportunities in the long run.

And now, readers, I open the floor to you and your opinions…Comment away!

  • http://stayviolation.typepad.com/chucknewton/ Chuck Newton

    I do not necessarily agree with my good friend, Carolyn. I am a skinflint at heart. My position is that debt (and the amount of debt) affords you fewer options and opportunties.
    I graduated from a law school in Houston, Texas. I went back to my home town on the other side of Texas, which had no law school. I started from scratch and it was not an problem that could not be overcome.
    Relationships are important in law school. However, for the typical person these work primarily to help you decide what you want to do or practice when you get out. It helps you better define your interest.
    Here is the truth of the matter. Unless you have a parent with an established law practice or you are working for a corporation, very few people come out of school doing what they thought they would do going in. Law School, for better or worse, is a a giant survey course. Your interest is law. Your interest is private practice. You will find different areas you like and do not like in law school. I doubt very seriously that one law school over another in this catagory is going to offer you much help.
    I doubt you will have many problems finding work during law school even if the law school is not in a major city. The area has to be big enough to support a law school. A smaller town might not support some more specialized fields, like Carolyn’s practices. But, we have law schools in smaller areas in Texas and all of them do well in placing summer internships, for example, in larger cities if needed. UH, where my daughter will be attending, has a special program for placing summer internships in Washington, D.C. for those who are interested.
    I guess it goes without saying that you need to make sure your law school is ABA approved (at least provisionally). There will be many opportunities denied to you if it is not. You will have very limited options if it is not. If it is not ABA approved but is seeking approval, make sure the school is associated with a larger institution. However, this is still a gamble.
    I practice throughout the State of Texas, and run into lawyers with law degrees from all around the Country. Despite 9 (and soon to be 10 law schools) in Texas many students go out of state to school. I noticed, for example, that Susan Cartier-Liebel school of choice, Quinnipiac, has ads in the Texas Bar Journal offering substantial scholarships to Texas students who have certain grades and LSAT scores.
    I want to tell you it does not matter where you go to law school. This is especially true if you intend to go into some type of consumer or retail related type of solo practice. Consumers, especially, do not judge the law school. They judge the person and what that lawyer can do for them.
    This said, before making your final decision, I would seriously look at and track the bar passage rate of the law school you are attending. If the more expensive school has a much better bar passage rate over the lower priced school, I would agree with Carolyn. Any amount of money you spend is going to be too much if you have difficulty passing the bar exam when you get out. (And, do not trust the law schools statistics. Check the statistics from the Bar in the state in which both the law school exisit and the state you intend to practice). Third and fourth tier school sometimes do not have the best bar passage rates and that is why they are third and fourth tier. Some do and they are lower ranked for a other reasons. DO NOT go to a school that cannot properly prepare you for the taking the bar exam.
    You are doing right. Carolyn and I agree on this point. You are looking for information. That is good. Information is very important to making your decision.
    Lastly, you need to feel comfortable with the law school you attending. Please, go visit the law school. Take the tour. Mill around without a tour. Talk to the graduates. You should apply to both schools. If you get accepted to both, go to the meetings or tours held for the accepted students. So what if it costs you $100.00 or so to hold the seats until you can make the best decision. Believe me, you will get a feel for your situation in a very true sense doing this.
    Best of luck to you.

  • http://stayviolation.typepad.com/chucknewton/ Chuck Newton

    I do not necessarily agree with my good friend, Carolyn. I am a skinflint at heart. My position is that debt (and the amount of debt) affords you fewer options and opportunties.
    I graduated from a law school in Houston, Texas. I went back to my home town on the other side of Texas, which had no law school. I started from scratch and it was not an problem that could not be overcome.
    Relationships are important in law school. However, for the typical person these work primarily to help you decide what you want to do or practice when you get out. It helps you better define your interest.
    Here is the truth of the matter. Unless you have a parent with an established law practice or you are working for a corporation, very few people come out of school doing what they thought they would do going in. Law School, for better or worse, is a a giant survey course. Your interest is law. Your interest is private practice. You will find different areas you like and do not like in law school. I doubt very seriously that one law school over another in this catagory is going to offer you much help.
    I doubt you will have many problems finding work during law school even if the law school is not in a major city. The area has to be big enough to support a law school. A smaller town might not support some more specialized fields, like Carolyn’s practices. But, we have law schools in smaller areas in Texas and all of them do well in placing summer internships, for example, in larger cities if needed. UH, where my daughter will be attending, has a special program for placing summer internships in Washington, D.C. for those who are interested.
    I guess it goes without saying that you need to make sure your law school is ABA approved (at least provisionally). There will be many opportunities denied to you if it is not. You will have very limited options if it is not. If it is not ABA approved but is seeking approval, make sure the school is associated with a larger institution. However, this is still a gamble.
    I practice throughout the State of Texas, and run into lawyers with law degrees from all around the Country. Despite 9 (and soon to be 10 law schools) in Texas many students go out of state to school. I noticed, for example, that Susan Cartier-Liebel school of choice, Quinnipiac, has ads in the Texas Bar Journal offering substantial scholarships to Texas students who have certain grades and LSAT scores.
    I want to tell you it does not matter where you go to law school. This is especially true if you intend to go into some type of consumer or retail related type of solo practice. Consumers, especially, do not judge the law school. They judge the person and what that lawyer can do for them.
    This said, before making your final decision, I would seriously look at and track the bar passage rate of the law school you are attending. If the more expensive school has a much better bar passage rate over the lower priced school, I would agree with Carolyn. Any amount of money you spend is going to be too much if you have difficulty passing the bar exam when you get out. (And, do not trust the law schools statistics. Check the statistics from the Bar in the state in which both the law school exisit and the state you intend to practice). Third and fourth tier school sometimes do not have the best bar passage rates and that is why they are third and fourth tier. Some do and they are lower ranked for a other reasons. DO NOT go to a school that cannot properly prepare you for the taking the bar exam.
    You are doing right. Carolyn and I agree on this point. You are looking for information. That is good. Information is very important to making your decision.
    Lastly, you need to feel comfortable with the law school you attending. Please, go visit the law school. Take the tour. Mill around without a tour. Talk to the graduates. You should apply to both schools. If you get accepted to both, go to the meetings or tours held for the accepted students. So what if it costs you $100.00 or so to hold the seats until you can make the best decision. Believe me, you will get a feel for your situation in a very true sense doing this.
    Best of luck to you.

  • http://www.legalandrew.com Andrew Flusche

    I don’t think I can compete with the advice from Carolyn and Chuck, but I’ll give it a stab.
    Perhaps my story will provide a little insight into your choice.
    I grew up in North Texas, went to undergrad in Dallas, and planned to practice there. I came to law school here at UVa, but I always planned to go back to Dallas to practice.
    Now I’m a 3L, and I’ve accepted a job here in Virginia! I’ve gone from the big firm track to public interest. I’m excited as heck about my job.
    What’s the point? I wouldn’t have gotten this awesome job if I had gone to law school in Texas. I’d probably be going to work for Big Law, sifting through piles of documents.
    I hope that helps. Good luck in your decision!

  • http://www.legalandrew.com Andrew Flusche

    I don’t think I can compete with the advice from Carolyn and Chuck, but I’ll give it a stab.
    Perhaps my story will provide a little insight into your choice.
    I grew up in North Texas, went to undergrad in Dallas, and planned to practice there. I came to law school here at UVa, but I always planned to go back to Dallas to practice.
    Now I’m a 3L, and I’ve accepted a job here in Virginia! I’ve gone from the big firm track to public interest. I’m excited as heck about my job.
    What’s the point? I wouldn’t have gotten this awesome job if I had gone to law school in Texas. I’d probably be going to work for Big Law, sifting through piles of documents.
    I hope that helps. Good luck in your decision!

  • http://www.susancartierliebel.typepad.com Susan Cartier Liebel

    Carolyn,
    (While I posted your response and this on my blog, I thought I would do so here as well.)
    You and I will have to agree to disagree on this one. I appreciate the journey you took, the value of your degree from Cornell and the opportunities it has provided to you, especially in your practice area, energy regulation. However, I work with solos everyday and listen to the obstacles they believe will prevent them from succeeding. Never has one of my clients or students said, “if only I went to a better law school” or “I lost out on a great client because I didn’t go to a top tier school.”
    They do however, bemoan their debt service and the incredible strain it has placed upon them in all manner of their existence, not just opening a solo practice. Yes, law school loans are the price of admission as are loans in any business one would choose to open. But there is no harm, only good, that can come from having less debt especially when the advantages you suggest exist by going to a more expensive higher ranked law school do not necessarily play out for the majority the way you seem to believe..even in this particular student’s area of interest. Again this opinion is based upon my experiences. If starting a solo law practice right out of law school is your chosen career path, best to start this career path with less debt, not more. (Also, and “cheap” doesn’t always translate to lower ranked.)

  • http://www.susancartierliebel.typepad.com Susan Cartier Liebel

    Carolyn,
    (While I posted your response and this on my blog, I thought I would do so here as well.)
    You and I will have to agree to disagree on this one. I appreciate the journey you took, the value of your degree from Cornell and the opportunities it has provided to you, especially in your practice area, energy regulation. However, I work with solos everyday and listen to the obstacles they believe will prevent them from succeeding. Never has one of my clients or students said, “if only I went to a better law school” or “I lost out on a great client because I didn’t go to a top tier school.”
    They do however, bemoan their debt service and the incredible strain it has placed upon them in all manner of their existence, not just opening a solo practice. Yes, law school loans are the price of admission as are loans in any business one would choose to open. But there is no harm, only good, that can come from having less debt especially when the advantages you suggest exist by going to a more expensive higher ranked law school do not necessarily play out for the majority the way you seem to believe..even in this particular student’s area of interest. Again this opinion is based upon my experiences. If starting a solo law practice right out of law school is your chosen career path, best to start this career path with less debt, not more. (Also, and “cheap” doesn’t always translate to lower ranked.)

  • http://www.counseltocounsel.com Stephen Seckler

    Success is much more dependent on your ability to be persistent than where you went to school, etc. (David Maister has a great podcast on the subject–see http://davidmaister.com/podcasts/5/47/ .)
    Having said that, it is pretty clear to me after 10 years in the search business that strong academics gives you a big head start professionally. Of course, what you end up doing with those advantages in the long run will rest on your drive. But why not give yourself every advantage possible and choose the school where you will develop a better network, etc. I think the additional money spent in the short run will pay itself back quicker than you might think.
    I also question why anyone would want to go directly into solo practice without spending at least a couple of years working for someone else. There is so much you learn in the first few years of practice from working at a firm. While it is certainly possible to learn what you need to know about capturing your time, managing client expectations, dealing with conflicts of interest, getting paid, etc. (including the substance of what you need to know to adequately represent clients)working for someone else is a much more efficient way to get this foundation.

  • http://www.counseltocounsel.com Stephen Seckler

    Success is much more dependent on your ability to be persistent than where you went to school, etc. (David Maister has a great podcast on the subject–see http://davidmaister.com/podcasts/5/47/ .)
    Having said that, it is pretty clear to me after 10 years in the search business that strong academics gives you a big head start professionally. Of course, what you end up doing with those advantages in the long run will rest on your drive. But why not give yourself every advantage possible and choose the school where you will develop a better network, etc. I think the additional money spent in the short run will pay itself back quicker than you might think.
    I also question why anyone would want to go directly into solo practice without spending at least a couple of years working for someone else. There is so much you learn in the first few years of practice from working at a firm. While it is certainly possible to learn what you need to know about capturing your time, managing client expectations, dealing with conflicts of interest, getting paid, etc. (including the substance of what you need to know to adequately represent clients)working for someone else is a much more efficient way to get this foundation.

  • http://adrianpritchett.com/ Adrian

    Is one choice of law school really in the “middle of nowhere”? Or is the student accustomed to a major metropolitan area and underestimating a smaller metropolitan area? I’m a 2L at the University of Georgia in Athens, and while I admit the difference in kinds of opportunities between this medium-sized city and Atlanta are like night and day — no IP botiques, numerous nonprofits, or biglaw in Athens — there are still opportunities here. The big cities are good precisely because of all the opportunities OUTSIDE of solo or small firm practice.
    The price of the metropolitan law school will not be compensated by working a job. How many hours can you work while going to school fulltime anyway? (If fulltime studies are the case.)

  • http://adrianpritchett.com/ Adrian

    Is one choice of law school really in the “middle of nowhere”? Or is the student accustomed to a major metropolitan area and underestimating a smaller metropolitan area? I’m a 2L at the University of Georgia in Athens, and while I admit the difference in kinds of opportunities between this medium-sized city and Atlanta are like night and day — no IP botiques, numerous nonprofits, or biglaw in Athens — there are still opportunities here. The big cities are good precisely because of all the opportunities OUTSIDE of solo or small firm practice.
    The price of the metropolitan law school will not be compensated by working a job. How many hours can you work while going to school fulltime anyway? (If fulltime studies are the case.)

  • elguapo

    I basically agree with Ms. Liebel. I went to a top 5 law school and now I’m a solo. Nobody ever asks me where I went to law school.
    It does intimidate my adversaries a bit, but frankly that works against me sometimes. Often it’s better if your adversary thinks you’re a bumbling fool.

  • elguapo

    I basically agree with Ms. Liebel. I went to a top 5 law school and now I’m a solo. Nobody ever asks me where I went to law school.
    It does intimidate my adversaries a bit, but frankly that works against me sometimes. Often it’s better if your adversary thinks you’re a bumbling fool.

  • Andy

    From reading these posts you would think that the cost of law school is all about the same, and not about the quality of education. I went to UVa and after my clerkship this year in Colorado, I intend to start a solo practice out here. Nobody cares about UVa here and for starting out I would have been much better off going to C CU or DU. But the intellectual experience of UVa was worth the price, even if in the end it does not pay off financially. You should go to a law school where you will learn to love the profession. And for most people that means studying with the best students and professors they can find. If it were all about the money, then why go into solo practice in the first place.

  • Andy

    From reading these posts you would think that the cost of law school is all about the same, and not about the quality of education. I went to UVa and after my clerkship this year in Colorado, I intend to start a solo practice out here. Nobody cares about UVa here and for starting out I would have been much better off going to C CU or DU. But the intellectual experience of UVa was worth the price, even if in the end it does not pay off financially. You should go to a law school where you will learn to love the profession. And for most people that means studying with the best students and professors they can find. If it were all about the money, then why go into solo practice in the first place.

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