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Experts Answer 6 Vital Law School Questions

Before committing three years and $150,000, aspiring law students need to analyze all the arguments.

Working as a paralegal first can give prospective students a glimpse at the day-to-day realities of being a lawyer.

Working as a paralegal first can give prospective students a glimpse at the day-to-day realities of being a lawyer.

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If your goal is to be a lawyer at a big firm, a part-time strategy might actually handicap you, since most large firms prefer to hire entry-level associates who have had a summer post with them or a comparable firm. Weigh how good a job a part-time program will do of putting you in front of employers and the employment data on record for graduates.

Going part time will not necessarily be any cheaper. At the Georgetown University Law Center, for instance, a full-time student's total tuition bill in 2012-2013 was $146,505 ($48,835 times three) versus a part-time student's $147,050 ($1,730 per credit hour, with 85 credit hours required to graduate).

5. What will raise the odds of finding a job? Now that the American Bar Association requires law schools to report more detailed employment data about graduates—such as how many landed full-time, long-term jobs that require bar admission—aspiring students can get a better sense of their prospects.

Such data are a significant component of the U.S. News Best Law Schools rankings; we surveyed the schools directly for this information at graduation as well as at nine months out.

Where you go will matter when it comes to the endgame—not only in terms of a law school's prestige, but also because of the connections institutions have to local clinical and externship opportunities and employers. At about 60 percent of all ABA-accredited law schools, at least 2 out of 3 employed 2011 graduates found jobs in the state where they studied.

Once you're in school, get set to do some serious résumé polishing. Developing skills like financial literacy, getting some project management experience, and adding specialized legal training can be deal-clinchers in the eyes of employers.

6. How can you cut costs and minimize debt? Most students borrow to pay at least part of the tab, but advisers say keeping the debt load to a minimum—and in line with a reasonable salary projection—should be a priority. Public law school graduates who borrow average about $75,700 in loans, while private law grads borrow nearly $125,000, according to the most recent ABA statistics.

Student loan calculators, such as the one at FinAid.org, can help you get a sense of the monthly payments, including interest, and what salary would be required to pay the money back over certain time periods. If scholarship offers don't meet your expectations, experts point out that this is an opportune time to try to negotiate.

Prospective students should also explore schools' loan repayment assistance programs, as well as those offered by the federal government and certain states. Those who work in certain public-interest jobs might qualify for total loan forgiveness after 10 years of employment and on-time payments.

More than 100 law schools offer their own version of loan repayment assistance programs, or LRAPs, according to Equal Justice Works (which writes a student loan blog for U.S. News). The University of Virginia's School of Law, for example, will cover 100 percent of the payment amount for public-interest workers making $55,000 or less annually.

This story is excerpted from the U.S. News Best Graduate Schools 2014 guidebook, which features in-depth articles, rankings, and data.