Best Bang for Your Buck…Value Law Schools

What makes a law school a good value?

We ran the numbers on all 202 ABA schools and narrowed our list to 64 that meet criteria in bar passage, employment rates and tuition costs. The end result — North Carolina Central University is the best value law school in America.

Getting everything you want from a product for a low price isn’t an easy thing to do. People try to do it every day, from women looking for the perfect eyeliner to families trying to find their dream house – and hopefully having enough money left to actually furnish it. We have become a society that is only truly satisfied when we can get a good deal.

When it comes to finding a law school with a strong academic program, great employer connections and low tuition, the search is just as difficult. In order to ease the burden of searching for a law school that meets your needs without crippling you with debt, we’ve compiled the 2009 guide to Best Value Law Schools.

This year, we identified 65 law schools that carry a low price tag and are able to prepare their students for today’s competitive job market. All of our data came from the Law School Admissions Council’s “Official Guide to ABA-approved Law Schools” 2009 Edition.

North Carolina Central University School of Law topped this year’s list — as it did two years ago — followed by Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark School of Law and the University of Nebraska College of Law.

In determining what makes a law school a “best value,” we first looked at tuition, considering only public schools with in-state tuition less than $25,000 per year, and private schools with annual tuition that comes in under $30,000. We narrowed the playing field again by including only schools that had an employment rate of at least 85 percent within six months of graduation and a first time bar passage rate that was higher than their state average. We then ranked the schools, giving greatest weight to tuition, followed closely by employment statistics.

Our formula for ranking the schools did not focus on bar passage rates as much as employment statistics, and for good reason. While bar passage rates do speak to an institution’s ability to prepare students for the intellectual challenges of the practice of law, the current economic state prompted us to give more weight to law schools that produce highly employable students. Also, we considered the rising number of law school graduates who choose to go into more “non-traditional” work, much of which does not require them to take the bar exam.

Beyond high achievement statistics and low tuition, each of the schools we profile below have a few things in common — small size, strong clinical programs and an emphasis on fostering relationships within the law school community. These factors aren’t easily measured by numbers, but are sometimes the most important in determining the true value of a legal education.

By focusing on the individual experience of each student and rooting their education in practice-based knowledge, the following Best Value Law Schools have found a way to offer a high-quality education at an extremely low cost.

North Carolina Central University School of Law

The highest ranked school on our list is by far the lowest cost — but also has an impressive bar passage and employment rate. At just $5,709 a year for in-state tuition, North Carolina Central grads are carrying little debt into the working world. Eighty-seven percent of them are employed at graduation as well, and about as many are passing the bar exam on their first try — statistics that come as no surprise to Dean Raymond Pierce.

“We take ownership of our students’ success on the bar exam,” Pierce said. He cites the Durham, N.C., law school’s policy of giving midterm exams, high faculty involvement and academic programs as reasons for his students’ employability. Also, he said the law school’s focus on real-life practice through clinical programs, which 85 percent of students participate in, makes graduates of the school very desirable.

“I had a judge say to me once, �?Dean, we can always tell the Central Law grads when they walk into the courtroom because they always seem comfortable,’” Pierce said.

But providing a high-quality education at such a low cost is no easy task. It means giving up some of the luxuries other schools have, but Pierce said students don’t mind because they know they’re getting a great bargain. Also, the “aggressive pursuit and strategic use” of grant funding and a supportive base of alumni donors helps keep tuition low at North Carolina Central.

“We’re a no-frills law school,” Pierce said. “Given the genesis of this law school, a law school that was born in the days of apartheid and segregation, we have adapted to doing much with little. That’s part of the history of this school. That’s just the culture here.”

Pierce said North Carolina Central is a place that encourages and truly works to create success for all of its students, even if they aren’t coming in with the highest credentials.
“It’s a big family atmosphere at this school. We might not be taking in students with the highest LSAT scores in the nation, but we lead the nation in outperforming our input measures,” he said. “Statistics show we should not be able to perform the way we do. Well, we do, because we work hard at it.”

Brigham Young University J. Reuben Clark School of Law

The Brigham Young University J. Reuben Clark School of Law in Provo, Utah, is the second-highest ranked, and only private school, on our Best Value list. Interim Dean Jim Gordon said that the school is funded in part by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which keeps annual tuition at just $8,700 a year. Ninety-seven percent of graduates pass the bar, and 91 percent are able to find employment upon graduation.

“We provide a high quality legal education at a very reasonable cost, we have a strong faculty and the credentials of our students are very high,” Gordon said.

Though law school gives students the knowledge they need to be able to survive in the legal world, Gordon said that many BYU students come in with qualities that make them attractive to employers.

“Our students are highly employable. They find em
ployment across the country and internationally in a variety of employment settings, including judicial clerkships,” Gordon said. “I believe that employers find our students to be bright, mature and to have a good work ethic.”

BYU students are invited to participate in the Academic Success Program, which provides mentorship for any student who would like it. Topics addressed through the mentoring program include adjusting to the law school method of teaching and learning; effective preparation for classes and exams; life-school balance and selecting courses.
Gordon said that this kind of one-on-one learning helps provide a solid academic foundation for students, and also helps them feel socially integrated into the BYU community.

“Our students are very happy with the legal education they receive here,” he said.

University of Nebraska College of Law

The third-ranked University of Nebraska College of Law, located in the state capital of Lincoln, Neb., charges $9,018 per year for in-state tuition. Eighty-nine percent of graduates pass the bar exam, and 94.5 percent are employed after graduation. Interim Dean Anna Shavers said that Nebraska graduates are well prepared for life after law school.

“Employers consistently praise our students’ professionalism, Midwest work ethic and solid work product,” she said. Much of this is attributable to Nebraska’s clinical program, which includes a civil, criminal and immigration clinic where students can gain hands-on experience. Shavers said that this kind of exposure to real legal issues builds self-esteem and legal prowess.

“Students emerge well trained and with a level of confidence that comes from being able to say, �?I’ve done that,’” she said.

Shavers said that “excellent faculty” is one of the primary factors that contribute to providing a top quality education at Nebraska. Professors are encouraged to become both scholars in their areas of specialization and mentors to students.

“Our faculty is intensely involved in critiquing and shaping the law. This involvement carries over into the classroom,” she said. “Teaching the law to our students in an effective manner is a high priority for our law school.”

Close bonds are easily formed at the school, said Shavers, thanks in part to its small size and location off of the main University of Nebraska campus. Students are able to develop relationships with both faculty and classmates, creating a camaraderie that encourages success and support — and often lasts a lifetime.

“The University of Nebraska College of Law is a small school,” Shavers said. “This develops a strong sense of community that, along with the high quality education they receive, leads most of our graduates to say that they are extremely pleased with their education. Many say that the best teacher they have ever had was one of our faculty.”

University of Idaho College of Law

Located in the rural town of Moscow, Idaho, the University of Idaho College of Law comes in at number nine on our list of Best Value Law Schools. Idaho students pay $10,200 a year for in-state tuition, and have a bar passage rate of 88 percent and an employment rate of 92 percent.

“The college is quite competitive at the front end, so our students are highly capable of doing well in the law school curriculum and also passing the bar,” said Dean Don Burnett.

At Idaho, public interest work is a paramount concern. All students are required to be involved in pro bono work, and many students participate in the law school’s various clinical programs. This dedication to public service is why Burnett said it’s so important to keep tuition low.

“We are very much aware here that student indebtedness is a major issue, particularly in determining whether students have an opportunity to have the ability to take a job of choice or a job of necessity when coming out of law school,” Burnett said. “We want our students to be able to choose based on their values and reasons for going to law school in the first place, rather than just settling for a job that will pay the bills.”

Exposure to real-life practice situations makes Idaho students sought after by employers, Burnett said, pointing to their ability to get judicial clerkships as evidence of their preparedness level.

“The value of a degree from our school by employers is very high,” he said. “One of the barometers of that is what percentage of students graduating are given judicial clerkships, because judges tend to be repeat employers of our students.”

Burnett said that nationally, about 11 to 12 percent of students from a law school will be hired for judicial clerkships, but at Idaho, roughly 20 percent of graduates move into a clerkship.

Burnett also said that students have an opportunity to pursue a portion of their education in Boise, the state capital, which is perfect for students who want to live in a more metropolitan area than where the Idaho campus is located.

University of Nevada Las Vegas William S. Boyd School of Law

At number 11 on our list, the University of Nevada Las Vegas William S. Boyd School of Law offers a relatively low-cost option for students who want to study in Sin City, particularly for those who want to live there after graduation, said Dean John White.
Annual in-state tuition is $10,502, 80 percent of students pass the bar and 90 percent are able to find post-graduation employment. White says the law school’s location in Las Vegas has been a great help for students’ job prospects.

“Because of the growth and vibrancy of the Las Vegas economy over the last 10 years, many of our students have stayed in Las Vegas and have established a good relationship with employers here who are delighted with our students’ focus,” he said.

Preparing students for the daily responsibilities of a legal career is of paramount concern at UNLV, and White said that by graduation, students realize what it takes to be a successful lawyer. He points to the law school’s Alternative Dispute Resolution, legal writing and clinical programs as being able to prepare students for a variety of jobs. By combining professional skills with the rigor of academia, students prepare for the challenges of the profession.

“Obviously, the practice of law is called a practice because you have to develop your skills over time, but most employers are impressed with our students when they come out,” he said. “They’re great at client service and come with the conscientiousness of being a lawyer and being able to represent their clients.”

Though Las Vegas is growing by leaps and bounds, the law school has chosen to keep a more close-knit feel, and keep the number of admitted students fairly low. This allows students better access to professors and more participation in skill-building programs.

“We have a small law school, with about 40 students in the evening and 110 in day sessions. The school has a very small feel, and creates an atmosphere that is both very pleasant and exciting for our students,” he said. “They really feel as if they’re a part of something.”

This guest blog post was authored by Jennifer Pohlman and was published in the 2009 edition of Fall preLaw Magazine. You can click here for the digital edition of the magazine or visit the preLaw Magazine website for more great content about law school.