preLaw Magazine’s Best Value Law Schools

With tuition up and lawyer salaries stagnant, it?s more important than ever to choose a law school that delivers a good value. preLaw Magazine crunched the numbers to identify the cream of the crop for value.

Even though Jennifer Keegan had gone to Florida State as an undergraduate, she wasn’t ready to enter law school at the same university without looking around at other places. “I had a long list of 15 schools including private schools and schools outside the state, because I like trying new things,” she said. “But when I looked at all the factors – actual cost, the amount of career placement, the bar passage rate – I crossed many of the places off my list. FSU had all the things I wanted at an incredibly good cost.” She’s now a first-year law student at Florida State.

Kara Wilder, also a first year, was accepted at nine law schools she applied to and thought she wanted to leave Georgia for New York or California. But then she experienced sticker shock. Her first year at one of the other schools could have cost her more than $70,000. She chose Georgia State University instead, where she thinks she can save at least $30,000 a year in expenses. She also said Georgia State was ranked at about the same level academically as other schools she was considering.

More than ever before, law students should be concerned about the value of a J.D. Tuition and cost-of-living expenses have been rising quicker than entry-level salaries for lawyers. The recent recession has slowed hiring, making it a challenge for graduates with large debt loads.

To help prospective students, preLaw magazine has crunched the numbers to identify the best value law schools. This year’s list has 60 Best Value schools, with each assigned a letter grade of A, A-, B+ or B. The schools that received an A are also ranked – with Georgia State at the top.

Law schools make the Best Value rankings if they meet three criteria: Their bar pass rate is higher than the state average; their average indebtedness after graduation is below $100,000; and their employment rate nine months after graduation is 85 percent of the class or higher. We then weight the schools using the same three factors plus in-state tuition costs. (See sidebar on how we did the rankings for more details.)

Although most schools are publicly funded, 11 of the 60 schools this year are private, including Brigham Young University and Phoenix School of Law, a school that received full ABA accreditation in June.

The Best Value study is not designed to identify the schools where students can get their greatest return on investment. While such a ‘financial investment’ approach may be important for some, this ranking is designed for students who want a quality legal education at an affordable price.

The vast majority of law school graduates either work for a small, regional law firm or in public service. This ranking identifies the law schools that provide the best value for those graduates. For example, The University of Connecticut’s tuition is approximately $20,000, while Yale Law School, just down the road, is more than $48,000. The median private starting salary for each school ($120,000 for UConn and $160,000 for Yale) would suggest that Yale is a better return on investment. But that is only true if the student is interested in landing a job at one of the nation’s largest law firms.

But if the student’s goal is to work in the public service, then UConn’s median starting salary is $52,000, while Yale’s is $59,000 for public service. In that case, UConn is the better value law school.

Ranked at the top

The top Best Value Law School on our list for 2010 is Georgia State University College of Law, which ranked fourth last year. Second is Brigham Young University’s J. Reuben Clark Law School, which also ranked second last year, and third is University of Louisville’s Louis D. Brandeis School of Law. Most schools in the Top 20 are located in the Midwest and Southeast with some in the Southwest.

(Click here to see the preLaw Magazine Best Value Chart )

Almost all of our 60 Best Value schools are public, as they have been in the past. But due to rising economic problems in state government, funding for higher education is being cut, and new tuition rates this fall are sometimes higher than the figures used on our list. If you are an applicant lucky enough to live in a state with fewer budget problems, a public law school will generally cost less, and you’ll probably end up with less debt.

Even if you go out-of-state and face tuition that can often be double what in-staters pay, most public schools let students change to in-state status after the first year. That’s true at top-ranked Georgia State and at the University of New Mexico and Northern Illinois University, as well as others in our Top 20. At the University of Kansas and the University of Louisville, it’s much harder to be declared an in-state student, according to school officials. Florida State allows the switch and counsels students on how to do it, as there are strict rules to follow. If you’re interested in trying an out-of-state public school, check out policies carefully in advance so you won’t be disappointed later.

Lower tuition often means less debt to repay after graduation. Average indebtedness of Georgia State graduates in 2008 was $22,129, and only about 69 percent of the class borrowed. Debt is often a function, as well, of the cost of living in the area where you go to law school, which may be the case with many of our Top 20 law schools.

Brigham Young University, although private, receives funding from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to help keep tuition low, its law school dean James Rasband said. Less than 5 percent of the school’s 450 students are non-Mormons. “We are very welcoming to students of other faiths,” Rasband said. “But many of them find it difficult to adhere to our honor code requirement of no tea, coffee or alcohol. Our tuition this fall will be $10,580 for Mormon students-and $20,500 for those not of our faith. But even so, it’s an awfully good deal.”

Costly tuition vs. job prospects

But what about the old theory that the more costly the school, the more prestige it has, and the more likely it is that a law student can land a high-prestige, high-paying job? In today’s job market that may be less and less likely to hold true. “The amount of debt doesn’t drive the kind of lawyer you will become,” said Steven Kaminshine, dean of the Georgia State University College of Law. “You’re not compelled to take on debt. I understand that people often say you get what you pay for, but I think they also know that you can have a private school that is not of the same quality as a public one. That’s why we’re getting high-quality students. Why pay four or five or six times when you can get as good an education here?”

“Value is a total package; it means different things to different students,” said Jennifer Rosato, dean of the Northern Illinois University College of Law, a school that is new to the Top 20 list this year. Her school is the only public law school in the Chicago metropolitan area; all the other schools are private. “Our tuition is less than half that of the private schools,” she said. “And students now are really looking at what’s going to be their indebtedness. They can do well and get a quality education at NIU; it’s worth it.”

One benefit her school is proud of, as are others in the Top 20 list, is its small size. NIU’s law school has about 320 students in all. “We have a very warm atmosphere with 21 full-time faculty and professors,” Rosato said. “There are very small classes. Professors are always available; they know the students well, and they know them by name.”

Although low tuition and smaller debt are important to graduates, students’ ultimate objective is landing a great job. The Top 20 schools on our Best Value list stress that they work hard to help graduates find jobs and offer strong career services programs on campus.

Help in your job search

“We start talking to students about being proactive in their job search during their second year,” said Stephen Mazza, interim dean of the University of Kansas School of Law, which ranked fifth on our Best Value list. “They can’t wait until the last minute. The days of 100 percent getting a job at graduation are gone forever – if they ever existed.”

The KU law students who found jobs recently went to the same mix of the same private and public employment as ever, he said, but some are going to smaller law firms in places that wouldn’t have been their first choice. “But then again,” Mazza said, “the days of everyone graduating from Georgetown and going to D.C. or New York to the firm of their choice isn’t the case anymore either.”

Placement services are strong at Florida State University’s law school, which ranks eighth on our Best Value list. Dean Donald Weidner said his school, located in Tallahassee, has placement programs that target both full- and part-time students. A key tactic in placement is helping students interact with alumni who could help find jobs for them. Students are invited to all alumni receptions. Alums and sometimes various local bar groups do special sessions with students. “We’ve started what we call Networking Noshes with students, featuring a particular alumni or practitioner who shares box lunches with a group of students,” Weidner said. “We have increased interaction with various sections of the Florida Bar to introduce our students,” he said. “We’re very proactive in generating new opportunities, and we’ve made inroads with the national security agencies, including the CIA and FBI, in order to seek out opportunities.

“We’re in a capitol city of a very popular state, so we have a lot of internship programs and quite a few opportunities for students to get their feet wet,” he said. “We try to do everything we can to be welcoming to employers. We’re moving into video conferencing interviews to make it more cost-effective to interview our students. We have a resume referral service so employers can pick from a group of resumes.”

Do job interviews make you nervous? At Florida State, the school has students suit up for mock four-minute interviews with an attorney, after which their performance is critiqued by other lawyers. Then the student tries it all over again.

Because of changes in the economy, said Walter Pratt, dean of the University of South Carolina School of Law, his school’s career services department has been holding programs for students thinking of going out on their own to practice law. “Members of the state bar have come here to talk to them about opening their own practice,” Pratt said. “We’re trying to set up a monitoring system for young lawyers to give them advice, and we’re bringing in accountants to show them how to keep track of their finances.” Students considering opening their own practice can also ask questions like, how to market your law firm, what are the essentials to consider when opening a law firm, and anything in between so that they fully understand what it takes to run a successful law firm. Talking to the professionals gives them a real insight into how law firms work and it’s very beneficial for students choosing their career paths.

Smaller schools can sometimes do better when it comes to placement. Kevin Washburn, dean of the University of New Mexico School of Law, sixth on the Top 20 list, said that since his school has only 340 students and 115 third years, “It’s also easier to help place students in jobs. In helping students get jobs, said Rasband of Brigham Young, his school draws on the help of a huge network of attorneys from all over the country. The school also has a nationwide externship program.

Whether we’re talking about Georgia State, Kansas, Northern Illinois, New Mexico, or any of the Top 20 law schools, most students find their jobs in the region where they went to law school, as is true of most law schools. What that means is that when you choose a law school, it might be well to consider whether it’s in an area where you want to spend a few years, if not your entire career. That doesn’t mean you’re locked in, of course. “Students from KU go all over the country,” Mazza said, “But historically, we’ve had a connection with Kansas City where many of our students work for law firms. But as the economy has contracted, we’ve had to expand our geographic area. “Most of our graduates stay in New Mexico,” Washburn of New Mexico said. “Out-of-state students often end up staying here.”

About 70 percent of the University of South Carolina law school graduates stay inside the state; 30 percent go outside for their first jobs, Pratt said.

What has helped in job placement at the University of Louisville is the school’s requirement that every student have 30 hours of public service as a condition for graduation, said Dean Jim Chen. “A significant number have made connections that led to jobs when they were in those public service positions,” Chen said. “Someone might have a public service placement in Legal Aid and then might later become a staff lawyer there. Or students might work in a divorce clinic and find out that they have skills in family law which leads them to work in a firm specializing in that area. The objective is for them to get out of the classroom and engage with a community network of alumni.” He also said that the school’s students generally stay in the area after graduation, taking jobs in Louisville, Nashville, and Indianapolis, for example. “But a significant number do go far, far away – Delaware, Pennsylvania, Alaska and to markets across the United States,” Chen said.

What about passing the bar?

The bar passage rate for first-time test takers is above the 90th percentile for almost all the Top 20 schools, with Georgia State students scoring slightly above the 94th percentile. But law school officials are quick to point out that since they choose a great first-year class to start with, students are likely to study hard, catch on quickly and do well on the bar. Although classes sometimes include discussions of questions of law that might be on the locally administered bar exams, schools do not offer bar review classes and generally expect students to take those reviews on their own. “I would say our strong performance on the bar exam is a reflection primarily of the students that we admit,” said Kaminshine of Georgia State. “They’re mature and have a strong, broad overall program. We have no special bar preparation courses. We give our students a terrific foundation, and they have a significant work ethic. They consistently perform at the top of the state.” “Our expectation is that all our students will pass the bar exam,” said Mazza of the University of Kansas. “But we want them to be well-rounded lawyers who can go beyond answering multiple choice questions on an exam correctly.”

Chen of Louisville echoed that view. “We have a highly competitive admissions process, and we wind up with a class that’s very carefully chosen,” he said. “They have the ability to succeed in the practice of law.” But even so, Louisville and other schools point out that they provide a high quality learning environment with outstanding and friendly professors who are dedicated to the success of their students – on the bar exam itself and in a lifetime of the practice of law.

How we did the rankings

Law schools make the Best Value rankings if they meet three criteria: Their bar pass rate is higher than the state average; their average indebtedness after graduation is below $100,000; and their employment rate nine months after graduation is 85 percent of the class or higher. We then weight the schools using the same three factors plus in-state tuition costs.

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.

For bar pass data, employment and tuition, we used the most current data from the ABA, which can be found in the current Official Guide to Law Schools. For average indebtedness, we used data from U.S. News & World Report.

While bar pass data is difficult to compare, due to students taking the exam in different states, we use the average state percent and compare that to the actual pass rate. Thus, a school with an 80 percent pass rate, and 78 average state rate, will fare better than one with an 85 percent pass rate and an average state rate of 85.

There were five law schools this year that missed the bar passage cutoff by less than 2 percent. These schools would have made our ranking otherwise and so we have assigned them a B- in our grading system.

Six schools that were honored last year did not make the cut this year, including the top-ranked school, North Carolina Central University. Unfortunately, North Carolina Central’s law school saw its employment rate drop from 87 to 82.6 percent. At the five other schools that are also not on the new list, the bar pass rate dropped below the state average.

This feature story was authored by Rebecca Larsen and was published originally in the Fall 2010 issue of preLaw magazine. Click here for the digital edition of the Fall 2010 issue or visit the preLaw Magazine website for more great content about law school.