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Prospective Law Students Should See Case for Caution

Given the changed legal landscape, it's key to choose your path with care.

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Washington and Lee University School of Law in Lexington, Va., has retooled its third year to make it much more practical. Bankruptcy law students approach a mock struggling business from either a debtor's or creditor's perspective and perform the work a lawyer might to resolve the company's case. Similarly, those enrolled in entertainment and sports law courses simulate negotiations with "artists" or "athletes."

Another way to gain an edge among all the green law grads (and save up some money for tuition) is to postpone law school for a year or more in favor of working first. "It'll give the student some more maturity," says Bob Williams, a partner who oversees associate hiring and training in Los Angeles for Sheppard Mullin, a firm of 578 lawyers worldwide.

[Get more tips for paying for graduate school.]

Students who approach law school with a clear sense of how it fits into their professional aspirations will be best prepared for the career planning ahead. "You're not going to feel like you threw your money down the drain" if you go in with a purpose, offers Mike Angstadt, 25, a 2011 graduate of the Law School at Pace University in White Plains, N.Y., who decided on law as a way to channel his passion for environmental policy.

Besides getting involved with the Environmental Law Society and earning a certificate in the field, Angstadt interned with the state Department of Environmental Conservation and snagged an externship working at the United Nations for the island nation of Grenada on climate change issues. Now a staff attorney for the city legal department of Portsmouth, N.H., Angstadt is part of a team that handles environmental issues and land use planning, among other matters.

Though a job in the public sector might come with a smaller paycheck, you may be able to benefit from Uncle Sam's largess. The government's student loan forgiveness program, which went into full effect in 2009, will discharge remaining qualifying federal loans after 10 years of full-time public interest work and 120 monthly payments. Some states and schools have their own loan forgiveness programs as well.

Anyone can limit the damage from the outset, of course, by aggressively researching scholarships or opting for an in-state public education. And just as cost and curriculum are important factors in choosing a law school, location is often critical to networking and work opportunities. Many firms interview for their area offices at local or regional law schools in addition to the most prominent schools.

Budding barristers who make such informed choices early are less likely to be left later with a J.D. but no job.

Searching for a law school? Get our complete rankings of Best Law Schools.