When Choosing a Law School, Think Regionally!

One sound bite I use a lot when counseling prospective law students is to “put the end at the beginning.” Before thinking about program specialties and clinical opportunities and academic profiles and acceptances rates and anything else that might determine your selection of law schools to which you will apply, think about the end game. Picture graduating, taking the bar, and going off to work. Seriously, do it, even if it feels weird.

The reason it might feel weird is because the law school process is very insular, especially compared to other graduate professional programs like medical school and business school. Just look at the applications: MBA and MD programs ask students specifically about their career goals and prospects, while law schools simply present a personal statement that allows you to write about whatever you want (and in most cases, you should be writing about something besides career goals). Even the process by which law schools admit students is focused entirely on what will make for a good law student – almost no thought is given to whether the candidate will make for a good lawyer one day. So law school applicants can be forgiven when they lose sight of the end game (the legal profession), choosing instead to focus entirely on the law school part of the equation.

Part of putting the end at the beginning is understanding career prospects and the recruitment process that while occur while in school. Law school is very hierarchical in the sense that attending a top school can lead to an easier path to prestigious job opportunities. Attending a truly elite school can often take some of the pressure off of finding a BigLaw job and it has the added benefit of creating a truly national job search. Virtually everyone attends on campus interviewing processes at programs like Harvard, Columbia, and Chicago, and while some firms are cutting back on their level of recruitment, graduates of elite institutes can still expect to meet with recruiters from law firms based all over. A Chicago grad will not only receive the opportunity to meet with Chicago-based firms, but also firms based in other cities, major market branches, and even satellite offices. When I interviewed during OCI (on campus interviewing) at Chicago in the fall of 2005, over 25 L.A. firms were on the docket.

However, the harsh reality is that most law students will not have the chance to attend a top five, ten, or even “T-14″ law school and the even harsher reality is that the current legal recruiting climate is narrowing the options available to students and graduates. All of which puts a premium on planning ahead and thinking about which city you want to work in when you graduate. If you can’t go to one of the truly national law schools (a group that is growing smaller every year), then you simply have to consider the regional recruiting implications of your school selection process. Emory is a fine law school but you won’t find 25 firms from Los Angeles on campus for recruiting and you won’t even find that many from New York. D.C., sure, but expect a heavy dose of Atlanta. Students at Texas can expect to see a lot of firms from Texas.George Washington grads are going to get most of their offers from D.C. area firms. This is just the way things tend to work when the job search becomes more regional in nature.

Once students understand this basic consideration, the next question becomes obvious: “What region of the country do I want to live and work in?” For many, the answer is easy – they want to be close to family, to return to their roots, be near a spouse’s job, and so on. For other students, however, the possibilities are endless. They can and will go anywhere for the “right” opportunity. Usually, that means going to the school they perceive to be the best. However, let me offer another regional consideration, one that puts the end at the beginning: think about the value of law firm employment.

Assuming you go on to study law at a regional school, have access to regional recruiters, and land a job with a law firm in that region, you are going to be looking at some basic factors that speak to the value of that work experience. For instance, practicing law in New York is known to pay the biggest bonuses, but also demand (often by far) the longest hours. It is not uncommon to hear of junior associates billing 2,400 hours a year. And while the bonuses may be bigger in the Big Apple, the base salaries are often similar to those in other major markets. Consider that cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and D.C. all pay “New York salaries” yet have cultures with lower billable hours. There are certainly still sweatshops in those cities and you must pick a firm carefully, but billing a lot of hours in L.A. or Chicago looks more like 2,100 than 2,400. And the pay is just about the same. So those cities start to look pretty good. And to take it a step further, you can easily research cost of living and see that Chicago is an absolute steal compared to Los Angeles (and, of course, New York).

So if you are a law school applicant considering “regional” schools in New York, L.A., and Chicago, you also want to consider the value of your job when you graduate. For pure return on investment, Chicago blows the other two cities out of the water. This analysis also extends to somewhat smaller markets like Portland, Dallas, and Denver – firms don’t pay quite the same salaries, but the billable hour requirements are usually far lower and the cost of living is a fraction of the bigger markets.

Obviously, the ability to secure employment in the first place and to do so at a firm that allows for interesting work and a good environment for professional development is all necessary for any sort of value calculation to do any good. But when you are looking at regions of the country to practice law, don’t just think about the schools themselves or which city you might want to live in for three years – really think long and hard about where you can get the most value out of your legal practice once you graduate. Where you go geographically will make all the difference when it comes to maximizing the return on your significant investment.

Adam Hoff is the Director of Admissions Consulting and Research at Veritas Prep. He is a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School and Pepperdine University, where he served as the Associate Director of Admissions. Adam oversees Veritas Prep’s law school admissions consulting services to ensure that Veritas Prep clients are successfully poised for admission to their select law schools.You can hear more from Adam on strategic tips for your law school application in the Law School Podcaster episodes, Law School Application Strategy: What You Can Do Now To Help You Get Accepted and “Law School Per
sonal Statements and Letters of Recommendation: Where to Begin