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.

moneyThe 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. 

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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