Law Schools, Rankings, Reader Polls

The Decision: Rankings Upheaval Complicates One Prospective Law Student’s Choice

Today is the first day of April. You know what that means (besides April Fools’ Day jokes). It’s almost time for prospective law students, the future members of the class of 2017, to decide where they want to go to school.

Last month, the highly influential U.S. News law school rankings came out (and the Above the Law rankings are not far behind). There was a decent amount of movement among the schools this time around — and deans around the country went into spin mode, of course.

Also spinning: the heads of prospective law students. One of them, confused by the latest ups and downs in the rankings, reached out to us for advice on his choice….

As regular readers of Above the Law, we field inquiries about which law school to pick in our column called “The Decision.” You can check out the prior installments here. If you want to send us your own scenario, please email us, subject line “The Decision,” providing us with as much information as possible about your choice (including the schools you’re looking at, how much they’d cost you, what you think you want to do with your law degree, etc.). We can’t use all the queries we get but we try to hit as many as we can.

Now, on to today’s scenario:

I graduated college in 2011 and currently work for a large labor union. (I worked at a large firm in D.C. previously for a little over a year and realized that big corporate law is likely not for me, but I’m not ruling anything out 100% just yet). I absolutely love D.C. and could see myself winding up here after I graduate; however, Boston is also a great city and I think I would be happy there as well. My choices are as follows:

I am currently trying to make a law school decision for next fall. I’ve narrowed my choices down to three (Washington & Lee, George Mason, or Northeastern), but am having a difficult time deciding, especially with the recent U.S. News & World Report rankings coming out (and the three schools all going down in ranking, particularly W&L).

Washington and Lee (was #26, now #43) offered me a $20,000 scholarship/year and their total cost per year is approx. 65k, after factoring in tuition, room & board, books, etc. George Mason (was #41, now #46) offered me $12,500 scholarship/year. Their total cost is also approx. 65k per year (unfortunately I live in DC and thus do not qualify for in-state). Lastly, Northeastern (was #86, now #93) offered me a $35,000 scholarship/year plus a $2,000/year stipend for co-ops. Their total cost per year is approx. 64k.

From a purely financial standpoint, Northeastern is the cheapest. However, will their low ranking and not being ranked amongst my peers (do not have grades; pass/fail classes and with honors/distinction for 2l & 3l) have adverse effects on finding a job upon graduating? Washington & Lee was ranked very highly and I really like the small school/tight-knit community feel; however, they took quite a hit in terms of rankings with the new U.S. News & World Report rankings and their employment stats weren’t so great (Lexington, VA is also not located where I would like to be). Lastly, George Mason is near D.C. (as opposed to 3 hours out like W&L) and I like their program, but the location means more expensive (most expensive of the 3) and I have been told the school is prohibitively Conservative/Libertarian and I’m not entirely sure what that means in terms of the student body, classes, professors, etc.

I am also on the waitlist at George Washington and BU, which while both ranked highly, will likely not provide me with much, if any, scholarship money if I do end up getting in.

I asked this person some follow-up questions:

1. What do you see yourself doing post-law school?

To be perfectly honest, I really don’t know just yet. I have been fascinated with the law since high school and have worked in a number of different legal fields, such as a DA’s office, a prominent defense attorney’s office in Albany, NY, and as a paralegal at [a Biglaw firm] (where I learned that most likely big corporate law does not interest me). However, I merely have some ideas of what type of law I might be interested in namely: family law, labor and employment, or the JAG program (all vastly different from one another, I know). I hope to figure out more specifically what I want to focus on and do after law school in law school.

2. What are your own political views? (Since you work at a union, I’m guessing pretty progressive.)

I would say that I’m a Democrat with mostly liberal leanings. I am certainly not ultra-liberal by any means, but I could certainly see upon visiting George Mason this past weekend where their reputation for being a conservative/libertarian school comes from and that is certainly something that would be challenging for me to get use to for 3 years of law school.

I actually don’t find this decision terribly difficult. I’d tell this person to do Washington & Lee.

If he were ultra-liberal and super-committed to public interest, I’d tell him to give Northeastern careful consideration. It boasts some very happy students, taking the #6 spot when we recently ranked law schools by current-student satisfaction, and it’s great at preparing students for public interest careers, boasting such alumni as Mary Bonauto of GLAD (whom I recently had the pleasure of meeting). But this 0L does note that Northeastern’s lack of true grades carries risks, and it is ranked so far below his other choices. For better or worse, overall ranking does matter when searching for employment.

That leaves Washington & Lee and George Mason. Not only is W&L higher-ranked than Mason, both before and after these latest U.S. News rankings, but it’s offering him more money too — $20,000 a year versus $12,500 a year. When you add in the fact that he (1) likes Washington & Lee’s “tight-knit community feel” and (2) has some concerns about GMU Law’s conservative/libertarian bent — to the school’s credit, it has a faculty full of right-of-center all stars, including a prominent pepper-sprayed pundit — going with W&L seems quite straightforward. Oh, and don’t forget that Washington & Lee took the #2 spot in our ranking of law schools by student satisfaction.

Am I missing something? Help this student out. Sound off in the comments, and take our reader poll:

This 0L should go to:

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Earlier: From J.D. to Food Stamps: The Personal Cost of Going to Law School
The U.S. News 2015 Law School Rankings Are Here: Smell The Prestige
Prior installments of The Decision

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