I Want to Be a Public Interest Lawyer – How Should I Decide Where to Go to Law School? (Part 2)

In my last post, I talked about some of the factors that might cause you to choose a lower-ranked law school over a higher-ranked one: specialized curricula and a strong public interest program. Two additional factors you might want to consider are geography and financial aid.

Geography

Let’s say that you are from St. Louis and you want to move back there after graduation, The two schools you are choosing between are St. Louis University and Emory University, a better-ranked law school in Atlanta, Georgia, a place you have no interest in living after graduation. Which law school should you chose? How much does geography matter?

It is more important than you might think. With the exception of a handful of “national” law schools, most law graduates will go on to work in the region, if not the city, where they went to law school. Some of this is because many law students choose law schools close to home. But some of it is because you will have a much easier time getting a job near where you went to law school. The school and your professors will have more connections, there will be more alumni in the area wanting to hire graduates from your school, and you will know more people through your extracurricular activities or internships.

When I taught at the University at Buffalo School of Law, I met many students who had come from elsewhere and had plans to move back. I also met students from upstate New York who wanted to leave as soon as they graduated and never come back. Most of those people ended up in Buffalo. It was just easier for them to get a job in Buffalo than elsewhere.

This is even true to some extent for “national” law schools. If you have a choice between Stanford and Harvard and you want to end up in San Francisco, you should probably go to Stanford. The regional advantage matters.

Does that mean that it is impossible to move elsewhere after graduating? No, especially if you move your time horizon out. I have a friend from Colorado who went to Washington University in St. Louis. He applied to some jobs in Colorado but ended up taking a (very good) job in St. Louis. A decade later, he made the move back to Colorado. At that point, it didn’t matter as much where he went to law school because he was applying based on his experience and reputation.

So, you should consider geography in deciding where to law school. Ranking matters too (see my previous post), but geography matters more than people think.

Financial Aid

Financial aid is probably the hardest factor to discuss because everyone’s circumstances are so different. I went to law school at 25. I had no savings of my own and my parents did not fund my legal education. I also did not have children or other family to support and I didn’t have to work through law school. Everyone’s financial situation is different.

That said, I think there is one common mistake prospective law students make that is worth discussing. You may think that if you are planning on going into public interest, you should be more concerned about taking out loans. After all, your salary will in all likelihood be lower than if you went into the private sector. But this is not always the case.

Some schools provide scholarships up front to students they want to lure away from better law schools. Other law schools, including many of the highest ranked law schools, do not discount tuition much on the front end, but offer a loan repayment plan to graduates who take certain kinds of public interest jobs. These loan repayment programs mean that it may be cheaper in the end to go to a more expensive school that has a good loan repayment program.

For example, I went to Yale and took out $150K in loans. But Yale also has a very good loan repayment program and after 12 years, I paid off my last loan having paid roughly 20% of that amount with Yale covering the rest. I never felt like my loans prohibited me from taking a job I wanted. If I took a lower paid job, the program paid a higher percentage of my loans. If I had only looked at the price tag, I might have chosen another school that offered me a scholarship. But I paid nowhere close to that price tag at the end of the day.

There are a few caveats to this advice. First, if you are considering a school that has a loan repayment program, you will want to dig into the details of the program to make sure that it will apply to the work you want to do after law school. Some schools’ programs do not extend to all kinds of public interest work. If you want to go be a public defender, for example, but your school’s repayment program does not count criminal defense work as a qualifying public interest job, you need to know that before you decide to go there. And you’ll want to read the fine print to see how much of your loans the program will actually pay. Some programs are more generous than others. And many schools do not have a loan repayment program at all. But you should be taking these programs into account when evaluating financial aid as a factor in your decision-making.

Financial aid is important. If you have so many loans that you cannot survive on a public interest salary, you are more likely to to end up in a job you don’t like. And your individual circumstances may mean that you will have less disposable income that the average law graduate, which might make having fewer loans up front more important. But don’t assume you can’t go into public interest if you have student loans. It is possible for many people.

A good place to start is the American Bar Association’s guide to law school loan repayment programs. Then talk to the financial aids offices of the schools you are considering. They are the experts in the loan repayment programs their schools offer. That will allow you to make a decision based on the actual cost to you of going to a particular school instead of the sticker price.

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