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In this next edition of law school decisions, we are going to look at one of the classic mental showdowns that many law students face when picking where to attend: a top 5 school at full price versus a non-T14 school with big money. This is a very typical problem because most people with the numbers to get into a top 5 law school can get a BIG scholarship offer from a lower school. It’s a hard decision, but I think that in most cases there is an objectively correct answer. Here’s the question from our reader:

Question: I was accepted to University of Chicago Law with no scholarship and UT-Austin law with 60,000 plus in-state tuition. I plan on practicing in Texas (Houston/Austin/Dallas). Would you choose UChicago over UT?

So let’s talk about this purely as an investment: you want the most return for what you put in, right?. University of Texas recently topped a list of “law schools with the best return on investment.” However, there was a big problem with that study in that it only considered the median private sector salary. The median private sector salary is the same at both UChicago and UT-Austin — the big law market starting salary, or around 160K a year. UT students carried less debt on average, so they had a better ratio of debt to median private sector salary.

money

The issue for you: yes, you might be in the part of the class at UT that gets that big salary, but then again you might not be. UT-Austin only had 64.1% of it’s students employed in full-time legal jobs at graduation — compare that with UChicago, where 94% were employed at graduation, most of whom are drawing a six-figure big law salary. There is no question that UChicago (or any other top 5 law school) offers a better average return on investment than any law school outside the T5. 

UChicago took a look at your numbers and knew that even without giving you money, their school would likely be the best decision for you. They can have that confidence because the exit options are so good for their graduates. Lower schools, such as UT-Austin, try to pluck top students away with scholarships or big cash offers, but most often the decision still goes in the T5 school’s favor, and for good reason.

If you know you want to be a lawyer and practice in a big firm, you should go to UChicago. Particularly for those wishing to return to Texas to work, UChicago is an incredibly strong choice: when I went through OCI during the height of the recession (when legal hiring was at it’s weakest), everyone who sought a big law job in Texas found a position there. It’s not 100% assured, but it’s close: if you get median-ish grades at UChicago, you will get a big law job back in Texas. UChicago is ridiculously well-represented at large Texas firms. My girlfriend, for example, is at Baker Botts, and I can’t go to a firm function without bumping into a ton of other alum.

At UT-Austin on the other hand, you will probably have to be well in to the first half of your class to have a chance at Texas big law, and it’s still not a sure thing. A much smaller percentage of the the graduating class will get hired into big law, and many more of your classmates will be competing with you for these same jobs.

Now what if you want to go into a public sector or public interest legal position? UChicago has one of the best loan repayment assistance programs in the country. Basically, if you are in a qualifying public interest position they will simply pay off your loans. UT’s LRAP is not nearly as comprehensive. Also, something people don’t often realize is that hiring into public interest positions is intensely competitive. Students from top 5 schools really dominate when it comes to getting these jobs. Again, if you want to be a public sector or public interest lawyer, UChicago law is again the way to go.

If you are sure you want to be a lawyer, go to University of Chicago Law. 100% it’s the best choice in that case. 

Now, there might be a limited set of circumstances where UT is the better choice for an individual. If you aren’t 100% sure that you want to practice law, graduating with very minimal debt will ensure you a larger range of options employment-wise. However, generally you shouldn’t bother going to law school unless you are sure you want to practice law. The opportunity cost alone of the three years spent out of the work-force is usually reason enough to avoid law school if you aren’t planning to use the degree directly.

Now, feel free to seek other opinions —  Josh and I might be a little biased in favor of our Alma Mater, but U Chicago is just such a great school. If you’re a Texas resident and plan on being one for the rest of your life, it might be really nice to get out and live in a truly great world city for a while. In many ways, Chicago beats New York right now. For one thing, you can have a much higher standard of living with very little money. Also, the UChicago campus is a thing of beauty (see above image).

I know that staring down the barrel of full debt from a T5 is scary, but from an analytical standpoint, it’s the investment more likely to pay out. Income based repayment makes it so that even if you took a low paying job upon graduation, you will never pay off the full balance of your loans, so that safety net is in place no matter what.

Hope this helps! To others having difficulty with their law school decisions, ask in the comments and we will give you an opinion!

For more in-depth help with law school decisions, make sure you check out this very helpful cheap guide: The Law School Decision Game: A Playbook for Prospective Lawyers. In there, former admissions dean Ann Levine gives her advice on selecting a law school.

Another way to make the law school decision game easier on yourself is to boost your LSAT score. A successful june retake can result in increased scholarship offers from schools where you are already admitted. This may be a good play if you are in at your dream school but are afraid of the big price tag. Renovate your LSAT approach with the best new LSAT tool of 2014: our LSAT Mastermind Study Group. Check it out here: Join The Group

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19 Comments

  1. I’m currently looking at University of Houston and UIUC law as two potential places to go to for law school. They are both schools that have regional focus when it comes to their job market opportunities for fresh graduates. I’m wondering graduates of which university have an easier time breaking into their respective markets? Also, I’ve never been to Chicago so I wonder how safe the city is and are their any known barriers of entry for East Asians?

    On the question of barrier of entry for East Asians does Atlanta have any known issues? I have also been looking at that state too(UGA),
    Please share your insight, thank you very much.

  2. Similar dilemma. I am set on working in Houston, Texas and am trying to decide between UT, Virginia, and CCN (though I’ll most likely be WLed from Chicago and accepted into Columbia and New York). I wonder if my background and field of law will change the odds of getting a biglaw position in any way. I am an EE major going into patent prosecution, and will take the patent bar before my 1L summer.

    • Well, its now 2021, so you have already found out that Chicago will cause you to be dragooned into pat lit (which is a sentence of eventual unemployment) because the margins for pros are too small; it would have been better if you were doing IP to go to UT with the lower cost. That way you could have joined a good boutique with lower salary but more certain employment; also I cannot imagine spending 3 years in Chicago instead of Austin. Chicago is a cultural backwater, (for the record, I went to UT and think there are three livable cities in the US: Boston, Austin and Portland) certainly has better food than Austin, but thats it. Also the patent firms/groups in Chicago are starving, no tech there. In IP generally, as long as you go to a top 30 law school no one cares any more because the tech degree is what matters; your law school degree will be considered your girly degree.

  3. Hello Evan.

    I know you already commented on this, but Id like to add on with my current circumstance. I live in Southern California and Im considering UChicago and UCLA. UCLA’s offer exceeds tuition, so they offered more than a full ride. UChicago offered me about a third of tuition cost. I definitely want to come back and practice in Southern California, but cant decide which would be a smarter career choice long term. UCLA would simply eliminate the hassle of moving far, traveling, loans, etc. but its hard to give up such a prestigious school. Please share your insight. Thank you so much

    • Melissa,

      This is a tough one! Sorry I didn’t see it until now. UCLA is a solid school, but UChicago’s employment prospects are much better.

      Looking at the jobs data from the Class of 2014…
      UCLA: Biglaw + Federal Clerkships = about 40% of the class
      UChicago: Biglaw + Federal Clerkship = about 75% of the class

      Overall, about 80.5% of UCLA grads end up with FT, LT law jobs vs. about 91% of UChicago grads.

      If you’re the “big law or bust” kind of person, then UChicago is probably the right choice… but if you’re willing to trade some of the potential upside return that you’d stand to gain by attending UChicago in order to lower your downside risk (no debt, no move), then UCLA makes alot of sense as well.

      Keep in mind that I’m pretty biased toward UChicago… but crunch the employment numbers yourself & see where that leads you.

      There’s no right answer here… Your career goals & risk tolerance are ultimately going to determine which school is right for you. Let me know what you decide in the end!

      Good Luck!
      Josh

  4. I asked this in a comment yesterday but felt this page was a better place for it. I have a full tuition scholarship at Wash. U in St. Louis. However, I have also been accepted at U Chicago but received no scholarship money. I’m a splitter, so have not garnered any $$ in the T14, despite many acceptances. I worry about not getting median grades at U Chicago and taking it at full price. I also worry about having to work 5 years in BigLaw to pay off the debt. Do you think it would be worth it, even if I can’t hit median at Chicago?

    Thanks so much.

  5. What would you say for a large scholarship at Virginia (90K) versus a small one at Chicago (15k). I am currently negotiating with Chicago, but have to decide whether to place my deposit for UVA next week. I also am waiting to hear from Columbia and Stanford. To many, UVA seems like an obvious choice, but considering Chicago has been a bit of a dream school for me, I find myself conflicted. Any advice?

    • I have to say I would side with the people who are saying UVA. 75K is a big price cut. I imagine the typical CBA here goes way in UVA’s favor, but, no one would be left shaking their head if you chose Chicago. I for one applied only to schools in big cities because that’s the only place I’m happy. Preferences do matter, especially in the era of income-based repayment.

      The question is a bit academic though because my guess is Chicago will up their offer. Please let me know what they do.

        • Chicago did not end up giving me any additional money. I guess I am back to evaluating what $75k and the difference in living expense means to me. I will likely choose UVA at this point.

  6. Family member deciding between Wake at $10,000/year and UNC Chapel Hill at 22,000/year and wants to practice in NC. Your thoughts?

    • Those schools are pretty much dead even in terms of ranking and job prospects, so I would just take whichever one is cheaper. However, 12K a year is not a huge huge difference, so if they have a huge preference for Chapel Hill, they should not feel bad about going there. I’m assuming that the figures you gave are total tuition cost per year at each. If it was the same price at each, I would definitely prefer Chapel-Hill. I’m convinced that public schools are going to dominate the future of legal education, so UNC’s reputation should be stable over time.

  7. Law School California on

    Similar to this article, I have a full ride to USC or UCLA, and acceptances from Chicago and NYU with small scholarships. I know I want to practice law at a big firm in Southern California, what would you recommend?

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