Top 20 Best Value Law Schools: A Short-Sighted List?

by Vault Education Editors | September 30, 2010

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This week, the National Jurist magazine released its list of the Top 60 Best Value Law Schools. The magazine compares schools based on a number of factors, including tuition, average student debt at graduation, bar passage rate, and employment. However, although it's important to consider cost when choosing a law school, the National Jurist's methodology is somewhat short-sighted. "Tuition and indebtedness are the most heavily weighted criteria in our computation--accounting for approximately 45 percent each. Employment is approximately 7 percent and bar pass rate is 3 percent. As a result, law schools with lower tuition tend to rank better. But because many schools have similar tuitions, the employment and bar pass data help differentiate an A school from an A- school." So unless your low tuition and indebtedness can compete with those schools, your bar passage rates and employment at graduation won't matter. If you're a top-flight but expensive school like, say, Harvard or Yale, you won't even make it through the first round of cuts. Above the Law are particularly vexed by the Best Value Law School ranking. Elie Mystal points out that the tuition cutoff for schools is tremendously arbitrary. "It insults the intelligence of prospective law students to say that there is an arbitrary tuition figure beyond which the law school isn’t a good deal." Touche.

As National Jurist acknowledges, the ranking does not take into account a school's return on investment (ROI). The amount you can make over the course of your career can vary significantly based on your job prospects: are you going to a career at a small, local law firm or at a multinational BigLaw firm? I doubt I need to tell you which one pays better over the course of your career (ahem, BigLaw), but guess where they recruit? Not at the schools on the Best Value list. So if BigLaw's your plan, it's in your interest to spend the cash on a top school. However, as National Jurist is quick to remind us, if your goal is to work in public interest, attending a Best Value school makes sense. In public service, the average salary is fairly flat across the board, no matter where you earned your degree. In addition, law schools are grouped by tier and evaluated that way by law firms. So if you're choosing between schools in the same tier--with the same job prospects--it makes sense to choose the less expensive one.

So if you're comparing two schools in the same tier and you don't want a flashy BigLaw career, attending the Best Value school makes sense. Moreover, law school is ultimately a local, vocational school. If you know you want to practice in Atlanta, for example, rather than taking on a ton of debt to attend a hoity-toity school in the Northeast, you'd likely be better served going to the cheaper, local, Best Value school in or near Atlanta. Not only will it have connections at the firms and organizations you're likely to apply to, but it will also teach to the Georgia bar exam. Bonus!

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