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3 Tips to Make a Wise Investment in Law School

Use data to make the right choice and leverage acceptances to get more scholarship money.

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Is law school worth it? This question has long burdened potential applicants, but amid recent headlines warning of a nightmarish job market and skyrocketing student debt—according to the American Bar Association the average public law student borrows more than $71,000 and law students at private schools borrow $91,000—today's applicants have more reason than ever to seriously ponder this question. 

Ultimately, there is no correct answer, experts say. Rather, it's up to applicants to determine their best answer by having a firm grasp on career goals and deciding whether a given school will likely be the bridge to those goals. To understand the latter, applicants must be pro-active and request a full range of employment, salary, and scholarship data from law schools, says Kyle McEntee, executive director of Law School Transparency, a group that hopes to make law school data easily accessible to all potential law students. 

[Get more advice from law school admissions officials.] 

Foul economy or not, he says, using a full complement of data to weigh your risk is a necessity. While U.S. News offers some school-reported employment data that can serve as a foundation, the newest data, which is most pertinent to an individual's needs, is accessible only by requesting it from the schools themselves.

"People should be able to look at the information, evaluate their own risks, and then decide if the investment is appropriate for them," McEntee says. "It doesn't matter that the economy is terrible right now; it matters that there's some really significant investments that people are making...The rest is up to them to say, 'Okay, I have a 20 percent chance of getting a job that allows me to pay back all this debt in a comfortable manner. Do I still want to take that risk? Do I believe I'll be in that 20 percent? Do I have some other fallback option?'" 

[Read about U.S. News's push for more transparency among law schools.] 

McEntee offers three tips that applicants should use to make the best decision: 

1. Use your acceptance to get the data: You can request data before you've applied, but once you're accepted you have a better chance to get the information you need, he says. Schools can offer an array of job placement and salary data for the class of 2010, whittled down to intricate detail.

If you're only willing to work in New York, for instance, ask how many of that school's 2010 graduates got jobs there. If you want to pursue environmental law, see how many got jobs relevant to the field.

"It's a very important part of the picture for prospective students to see just how well the class of 2010 did," McEntee says. "If you have an acceptance in your hand you're going to have an easier time getting information from that school." 

[Read about potential changes in law school salary and employment data.] 

2. Leverage your acceptances for scholarship money: McEntee was accepted to Vanderbilt Law School, Cornell University Law School, the University of Texas—Austin School of Law, and the Washington University in St. Louis School of Law and parlayed those acceptances to financial reward. He told the schools where he'd been accepted and how much scholarship money other schools were offering him; in essence creating a bidding war.

Given that they're peer schools, the institutions were willing to up their respective scholarship offers as they competed for his commitment. "I leveraged my scholarship at one of the schools to get money out of another school, and I used that money to get money out of another school," he says. "I maximized the amount of money I was able to squeeze out." 

3. Understand the nuances of a scholarship: Many undergraduate scholarships reward academic achievements made in high school, and maintaining the scholarship requires that a student clear low hurdles or none at all in college. This typically isn't the case in law school, McEntee maintains. Knowing what strings are attached to a scholarship, and your likelihood of meeting those benchmarks, will help you determine a scholarship's actual value.