It's a fashion faux pas that Fordham Law School student Kevin Manz hasn't been able to overcome in four years. Having to work a full day and then scuttle off to law school at night, Manz can't help showing up at the office wearing a suit and carrying a book bag. "I've tried every which way to avoid it," he says. "There is no other way to carry that many law books and a laptop to and from without doing it in a school bag—it looks ridiculous."
Manz's dilemma captures the time-crunched lifestyle of the part-time law student. Weekdays after work, Manz heads to Fordham's Manhattan campus overlooking Lincoln Center for hours of legal instruction. He reads case after case whenever he gets the time, which often sucks up his weekends. And he endures the occasional jab from colleagues ("Where's your lunchbox?") when he straps on his backpack to do it all again. "The people I've met at Fordham night school are such unbelievably high-energy people," says Manz, 28, who started law school while working in business but now works as a law clerk at Cravath, Swaine & Moore. "A lot of them work in careers where it is very unusual to leave work at 5. I'm always the first one out of the office, but it comes at a price."
Part-time programs are available at scores of law schools across the country. Our rankings list 87 of them; one, Thomas M. Cooley Law School in Lansing, Mich., even has more part-time students than full-time. Not all areas of the nation are equally well served, although if you live near Washington, D.C., you'll find no shortage; five of the six top-ranked schools are within 40 miles of the U.S. Capitol. Typically, part-time programs are four years instead of three; some give students the flexibility to switch into their full-time programs.
What these schools have in common is that they're tailored for the working professional. "These are people who are out there working and can't afford just to leave their jobs and go to full-time law school," explains Andrew Cornblatt, dean of admissions for Georgetown University Law Center. Many choose this route for financial reasons; others, like Manz, want to keep current with their industry. "What I can tell you is, I have learned so much outside the classroom in the last four years in addition to what I learned inside the classroom [that] to give that up definitely would have hampered my development as a professional," Manz says.
Burning the midnight oil. Another thing these programs have in common: They're not easy. Not even close. "You don't fall into evening school," says Fordham Law School Dean William Michael Treanor. "If you're working and you're going to law school at night, you really want this." Part-time classes usually run Monday through Thursday evenings, often with Saturday and summertime options for students who want to lighten their nighttime load. "We try to be very accommodating for the evening students, and so we try to schedule classes in such a way that they can go to class fairly easily and work full time," says John Attanasio, dean of the Dedman School of Law at Southern Methodist University. "Evening education is not easy, period."
Fordham students interviewed for this article said they have less time for family and friends—and forget about free time on the weekends. Even though they attend school in the heart of New York City, as Evening Division students they don't have a lot of time to enjoy it. But they also know the key to success: striking a balance between work, school, and—because part-time law students are often older than their full-time law school peers—family, too.
The biggest drawback of part-time legal education is that students have less time than their full-time peers for extracurricular activities—and fewer opportunities to gain practical experience before graduation, which can make them less appealing to employers. "It's definitely more difficult for us to get legal experience in, though I think the expectation will be different for evening students," says Susan M. Stern, an architect enrolled in Fordham's evening division. "I think it's important to have something to put on your résumé that is specifically legal, but I don't think it needs to be a full-time gig by any means." Fordham offers several nighttime clinics to help students beef up their résumés.
In Dallas, when Southern Methodist's law school reinstated its evening program five years ago, it did so with the local legal community on board. Administrators stressed that their part-time students could work full time; many secure full-time legal jobs long before they graduate. Schools with evening programs help with the burden by doing the little things—keeping their administration offices open later, scheduling extracurricular activities, even having a monthly pizza night so students can socialize. At Fordham, the Law Review and other organizations have spots reserved for Evening Division students. Even at schools that don't reserve spots, part-time students still find ways to play a pivotal part.
Fun mix. Part-time programs attract students with a variety of educational and professional backgrounds, some of whom are pursuing law as a second, third, or even fourth career. And admissions decisions are based not just on grades and the LSAT but on professional experience, too. "It's a really interesting, fun mix of students," says Georgetown's Cornblatt. "These are people with narratives, stories, real biographies." With this mix, classes often have a vibe of their own—students aren't shy about sharing their perspectives. Says Treanor, Fordham's dean: " You can really have this incredible richness—you can have in a classroom a doctor, an investment banker, and a schoolteacher, and a police officer, and a journalist. So, when you're teaching, you really have these people who can say: 'This is what I'm working on,' 'This is how it actually happens.' " Classes are also taught by a mix of tenured faculty and adjunct professors; the adjuncts' legal experience is often unique. For example, Fordham students have taken an insider trading course with an attorney involved in the Martha Stewart flap. Another thing to think about: Achieving high marks may be less important for the average part-time student. "The pre-occupation with grades is slightly less in the evening than it is during the day," Cornblatt of Georgetown explains. "It just has a different atmosphere to it."
So, while the idea of going to law school while working full time is daunting, for many who have tried it, it has been not only doable but enjoyable. And it's not just the school but the students who make success possible. "I found in general we were very supportive of each other," says Stern. "We all know we're in the same boat and are very reliant on each other."
Fordham classmate Paul Marks sums it up: "I think the whole school shares notes."