As Students Scrutinize Law School Value, How Do Colorado’s Schools Stack Up?

The importance of where someone chooses to get their law degree goes beyond how good the school looks on a résumé. Choice of law school can signal what type of job a student may want, where they want to work and their financial considerations. The six-figure price tag of a law degree plays a role in school choice, but what other factors do prospective students look at?

Schools can vary a lot from one another in the statistics they produce in students going to work for, say, big versus small law firms, or how many graduates clerk for federal judges. According to data from Law School Transparency, on average 9.9% of 2018 graduates from Colorado’s law schools took jobs at large law firms, compared with 28.4% of Yale graduates and 58.8% of Harvard graduates. 

Similarly, fewer than 2% of 2018 Colorado law graduates went on to federal clerkships, compared with 34% Yale graduates.

Law School Transparency has also found two-thirds of students stay in their law school’s state for their first job. 

Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, said making an informed decision about where to go to school means sifting through a lot of information, and no one type of data tells the whole story about a school or how it stacks up against other schools. 

“Previously, there were no real questions about the value proposition of attending law school,” he said. “And that’s changed over the last eight years. Because of that, we’ve seen enrollment plummet.” There’s scrutiny on whether law school is worth the costs at all, and prospective students also decide whether to save for at least a few years before going back to school for a law degree.

As comprehensive as the available data is, McEntee said reflection on his own time choosing a law school has made him realize employment statistics alone aren’t enough to base a decision on. What if, for example, a prospective student gets into Northwestern, the University of Chicago and DePaul? The first two will look better on a résumé, but what if the student doesn’t want a career in BigLaw that those schools emphasize? It may be a better personal choice for them to get a degree from DePaul that will cost less.

 “If I were to try to use LST’s own resources to figure out what I’m going to do, I’m not really that equipped to make that choice still,” McEntee said. 

He said Law School Transparency aims to encourage prospective students to choose law schools based on the type of job they think they may want.

McEntee said a few different factors motivate students looking at law schools known for providing a pipeline into BigLaw. Some are drawn in by the high salaries large law firms offer, and others drawn to the complex transactional work they can have the chance to do.

Higher rates of federal clerkships at the most elite law schools compared with mid-tier schools probably has to do with the scarcity of the positions, McEntee said.  

“Judges, just like the other elite employers, are being as picky as possible. And what they do when they’re being picky is they look to class rank, ellipses and law school attended.” 

He said ideally, students would use the website’s resources most in the late summer and early fall months when they are working on their law school applications. But based on Law School Transparency’s website traffic patterns ticks up “in April and May, and this because people are using it to decide among the schools they already picked more than they are using it do decide which schools to apply to.” He added practicing lawyers tend to use the organization’s resources to dig into available data behind law schools that have especially bad reputations. 

Research by the Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System also tangentially implicates the significance of choosing a law school. IAALS manager Zack DeMeola said as part of the organization’s 2014 Foundations for Practice study, they asked practicing lawyers what types of experiences and achievements they look for that can tell them whether law graduates have the characteristics and practical skills for lawyering.

“Survey respondents told us that they’re looking for people with practical experience, and that came in a variety of specific ways. 

Previous legal employment or exposure to legal practice was ranked pretty highly in all of that.”

He added hopefully the study’s findings prompts law schools to look at their curriculums to evaluate whether they focus on teaching the skills lawyers have said are necessary in practice.

The legal profession’s “obsession with prestige,” as McEntee put it, impacts how students’ view each other’s law school choices. He said a fellow student at Vanderbilt University had chosen to take a full ride at the school over instead of choosing Yale for his law degree. Despite Vanderbilt’s ranking at 18 among the U.S. News & World Report’s top law schools for 2019, the student’s choice was “a huge deal,” McEntee said.

Despite any surprise over his classmate’s choice to forgo Yale, McEntee said it’s becoming more common for law students to choose regional schools, especially for cost reasons, over schools with national name recognition. 

The increased availability of data about employment after law school has on one hand has democratized making an informed choice. But on the other hand, McEntee said, the sheer amount of data can be overwhelming. 

“It’s that effort of weighing information that is so difficult, and what makes it so easy to say, ‘U.S. News says this, so I’ll just go with that, because how else am I supposed to make sense of it?’” 

—Julia Cardi, [email protected]

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