Boalt Hall, Law Schools, Vanderbilt

The Decision: Top-20 Law School At A Discount, Or Top-10 At Full Price?

U.S. News will release its annual law school rankings next week. That means that a bunch of would-be law students will have another somewhat arbitrary look at which schools have the right to saddle them with lifelong debt, and which schools should be begging them to come with money.

So it’s time to fire up the ATL Decision Machine! You know how this works: you email us with the schools you are choosing between, we tell you what to do, you end up going to the highest-ranked school you got into anyway.

Usually, Lat and I give slightly competing reasons, but he’s on vacation right now, so mwahahaha. Today’s choice is interesting: two good schools, but only one is shelling out any money….

Our contestant has a tough choice ahead of him. Here’s his email (with some personal information redacted):

I’m currently a 0L trying to decide between Berkeley and Vanderbilt. Here’s some background. I’m a recent college graduate from Ohio now [working at a non-profit] in California (read hecka poor). I know I want to practice in the Bay Area when I graduate and I’m aiming for BigLaw.

I was accepted to Vanderbilt and offered an $80,000 package… It’s that or Berkeley at sticker (but luckily I’m in-state now). I can’t decide if Berkeley’s higher rank and proximity to my ideal practice area is worth the extra [money]. Any advice the ATL community would provide would help immensely!

Normally, I’d say, “If you can’t tell if you want to live in California versus Tennessee, you are an idiot who doesn’t deserve to live. ELIE SMASH!” But $80K is a lot of money. Vanderbilt is a very good school, and since Biglaw is such a crapshoot at this point, the savings are important.

That being said: the guy lives in California and wants to work in California, and it sounds like the only person he knows in Nashville is Connie Britton. Biglaw or no, the best way of ensuring you have “a job” when you graduate is to network in the community while you are still in law school. This guy already has roots in California, and maybe those roots will provide an acceptable back up job in case his Biglaw dreams aren’t meant to be. Or even if his Biglaw dreams are meant to be, he’ll be better positioned to find another job that is still in California after he realizes how terrible his Biglaw job truly is.

You can get into Biglaw in California coming out of Vandy. People do that. But choosing a law school isn’t all about what will happen if everything works out. You also have to consider the worst-case scenario. Worst-case scenario from Berkeley, he’s in debt for the rest of his life while doing landlord-tenant law in Oakland. It’s still in California! Worst case from Vandy, he has a lighter debt load, and more of an ability to hang his own shingle… a shingle in the Shenandoah that was recently “electrified” so he can work late and have enough light to scare off the raccoons. It sounds like the former is preferable to him than the latter.

Though, I have to wonder why our guy didn’t apply to or isn’t considering UCLA or USC Law? If he could get a nice package from those schools, it might give him a shot at what he wants, at a much more cost-effective price.

Final verdict: $80,000 can’t make up for 3,000 miles. Pay Berkeley its vig and try not to become an insufferable liberal who drives a Prius but makes $160,000 a year representing Shell.

Earlier: The Decision: Should A Minority With Asperger’s Even Bother?

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