A reader recently asked us for an opinion on this one:

What about full price at Harvard vs. a full Scholarship at UVA?

Where should she attend?

Harvard (Full Price) or UVA (w/ Full Scholarship)

First, I want to say congratulations on having those options. You clearly won the law school admissions game. However, just because you are faced with only great choices, it doesn’t make the decision any less hard.

I won’t hide the ball here: there is no clear right answer. You will have to weigh in the balance your personal preferences, and even then it’s going to be a tough choice.

Employment Considerations — Harvard vs. UVA

So where to begin? One thing that could dictate a clearly in favor of Harvard is if you have a substantial interest in law teaching. Overwhelmingly, law professors draw a pedigree from Yale, Harvard, Stanford or UChicago law schools. While the possibility of being a law professor isn’t totally foreclosed if you go to University of Virginia, it’s so remote that you really wouldn’t factor it into your future plans (note: becoming a law professor is always a long shot, so bear in mind that you have to always cultivate other options).

At a greater level of generality, Harvard is going to be the better launching pad if you are planning to take the legal world by storm. You’re in a better position to secure elite clerkships and jobs at the very top firms. There is also no denying the cachet that attaches to a Harvard law degree, which will follow you throughout your career. In terms of lay prestige, a Harvard Law degree is of course without peer, so you have a lot of options even if you wish to leave the law later on.

Even if you aren’t the most ambitious person in the world, Harvard may still be the better choice: if you know 100% that you are headed for a big firm job and that you’ll be happy there, I say go for Harvard. Harvard’s placement into big firms is second to none. With UVA, a much larger percentage of the class is going to find employment outside the nation’s largest firms.

You should carefully dive in to the hiring statistics for both schools. UVA has top-notch placement, obviously, but they have propped up their hiring stats a little: 94.5% of students were hired into full-time legal position following graduation, but some 14% of them were headed for school-funded positions. Students towards the bottom of the class likely have to do some legwork to procure jobs, something that even the slackers at Harvard (to the extent there are any) don’t have to do very often.

If on the other hand, prestige isn’t a major consideration for you, UVA may be the winning ticket. If you go to UVA and get hired into a firm paying market price (a very likely outcome) but don’t have the debt hanging over you, you’ve definitely won from a financial perspective. That brings us to cost considerations.

Cost Considerations

Obviously, not carrying debt comes with a whole host of options that you just don’t have when you’ve got big loans to repay. Going to Harvard Law in this case is like slapping on the proverbial golden handcuffs: yes, you can do almost anything job-wise, but you are kind of stuck taking the high paying jobs if you want out from under that debt any time soon.

If some part of you thinks that you might finish law school and suddenly want to explore Asia for five years, obviously you should go to UVA. You could basically pretend like law school didn’t happen for a while, and you won’t have creditors lurking outside your door. That kind of freedom is, truly, something you can’t buy. Some people care deeply about having that freedom. Some people on the other hand wouldn’t miss it at all and know they want to be working anyways. You have to decide which kind of person you are.

Bear in mind that with Income Based Repayment (IBR) and Harvard’s LRAP you have options even if you don’t want to take a private sector job. Loan repayment assistance (LRAP) is a program whereby your school pays your loans if you take a low-paying public-sector or public interest job after graduating. Harvard’s LRAP, like the others at top schools, is basically awesome: it has no enrollment window, high ceilings, and you can come and go into it as you please. In other words, you don’t have to do the golden handcuff routine, even at Harvard. Public interest jobs and the like will be open to you and you won’t have to starve to do it.

That said, if you know for sure you are going the public interest route, I would certainly recommend going to UVA. You will be more or less as attractive to potential employers in that sector, and not having debt at all beats loan repayment assistance any day of the week.

Other Considerations

Because it’s such a close call (and there is no wrong answer), I think your personal preferences can and should play a huge role in the decision. Do definitely visit both schools and both cities and get a feel for where you would be happier. This is three years of your life we are talking about here, so you want to be some place you are happy.

UVA of course is known for a great laid back atmosphere and a collegiate feel. Harvard is known as the academic center of the universe. Even though you didn’t provide the info, I suspect you have definite ideas about which one will be a better fit. Feel free to weigh that heavily in your choice.

To give yourself a little more grounding before making your final choice, this is a great book for soon-to-be 1Ls: The Law School Decision Game: A Playbook For Prospective Law Students. One of the most helpful bits in there is a chapter that gives you a solid idea what big law is really like, so you can get a clearer notion whether that’s a good fit for you or if it’s your idea of hell.

Again, congratulations on the great cycle! Let us know what you pick, and why. It will be extremely helpful to others in the same position.

To others struggling over law school decisions, let us know in the comments or use the new Q and A feature, and we will be happy to weigh in! Best of luck.