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!