Taking a risk on a new law school?
February 22, 2007 11:49 AM   Subscribe

How significant is prestige and tradition when it comes to law school? I know that the answer is "very," but of course there's

I have just been accepted to the law school at Drexel University with a very sizeable and tempting scholarship (almost the whole tuition, which is unheard of in law schools, if I understand correctly). This is all well and good, but although Drexel is a relatively well-respected university in the grand scheme of things, the law school is brand new. This means that it has no track record, no statistics, and worst of all, no ABA accreditation (although they insist that they will get it before the inaugural class graduates in 2009). Is this a risk that I should be taking?

Here are the some other things to consider:

-For comparison's sake, my other choices (those who've accepted me) are Temple, Rutgers and Villanova (yes, I'm trying to stay in Philadelphia). Although I'm otherwise a great candidate for Penn, the most prestigious of the bunch, my LSAT scores left something to be desired, and my chances of acceptance there are slim to none.

-Drexel seems to have a lot to offer, including a full-time faculty of ivy league educated professors, yearly job/internship placement as part of their co-op program, and, of course, incredible financial assistance.

-I am interested primarily in public interest law, so money is actually an enormous issue. I won't be able to pay back hundreds of thousands in loans on a pro bono salary.

Any opinions on the matter would be incredibly helpful.
posted by timory to Education (17 answers total)
In choosing a law school, a lot depends on where you want to practice. If you want to practice in Philadelphia, then going to a local school should be fine. If you're wanting to have wide-open job opportunities, then an Ivy League school would be a better bet.

With regard to the accreditation issue, I suspect that Drexel would have little problem getting accredited. But you'd still be taking a chance in starting at a school that lacks ABA accreditation. Your ability to get licensed as an attorney is extremely limited if you don't go to an ABA accredited school.

As a selling point of Drexel, you said it "includ[es] a full-time faculty of ivy league educated professors." Most law schools these days have a ton of ivy league educated professors. Given the law school teaching market, I'd be shocked if a school wasn't full of Ivy-educated professors.
posted by jayder at 12:02 PM on February 22, 2007

I worked at a new law school that, when I started, was not ABA accredited. I think that for the type of work you would like to do, Drexel would be a great choice. ABA accreditation, while not a rubber-stamp process, is one that has fairly clear requirements and a framework for completion. I would not worry about the lack of accreditation preventing you from taking the bar, as the school should have conditional accreditation by the time you graduate and it will become clear very quickly whether there will be any issues gaining full accreditation.

The co-op program should help to mitigate some of the problems that lawyers from brand new schools have networking and finding employment. The school I worked at used its mentor externship as a way to connect every student with a practicing member of the bar, and these relationships bore significant fruit in terms of job placement, etc.

Some things to consider - is Drexel putting the necessary resources into the new school? Some things the ABA looked favorably upon in my school's case were the committed, top-notch faculty, brand new building, library holdings, and technology infrastructure. The ABA does not want to see things done half-assed. I would also take a look at the people coming on who will run the career development office, auxiliary programs, etc. Their experience and connections with the local bar will be invaluable.

My email is in my profile if you have further questions.
posted by Coffeemate at 12:05 PM on February 22, 2007

Coffeemate: They have a brand new building and state of the art facilities, it seems, including a new library. I will be going to the information session soon, which I hope will clear up some questions, too.
posted by timory at 12:15 PM on February 22, 2007

I was just curious so I went to the website and looked, only 6 of the 14 full time faculty have JDs from Ivy League schools. A bunch of them went to fine schools, no doubt about it, but make sure you're double checking their marketing comments because they have an interest in selling the program badly. In fact, I would be really careful about reading between the lines - the risk of ABA accreditation not being in place when you graduate has a huge downside - you need to protect yourself since the normal quality indicators (graduates, rankings, reputation) are not there yet. The free education may be very costly.
posted by dness2 at 12:16 PM on February 22, 2007

timony, I'm also in the midst of the law school application process.

I'd advise you not to underestimate the value of an enthusiastic alumni network in finding summer and permanent employment. Being a brand-new program, Drexel's well-connected alums will be harder to come by than those from Temple, Rutgers or Villanova.

I wouldn't take the lack of ABA accreditation lightly, either. Chances are, they will get accredited in 2008 as expected, but you'll have wasted two years of expenses if they don't.

For public interest law, I'd urge you to take another look at Temple. They have one of the top trial advocacy programs in the nation and a generous fellowships for those working in qualified public service jobs.

Also, check out lawschooldiscussion.org - I'm sure there's a Drexel thread.

Best of luck!
posted by non sum qualis eram at 12:21 PM on February 22, 2007

I don't know if this is helpful or not, but I was part of the first ever class at Olin College of Engineering in Massachusetts. We weren't accredited until last December, six months after I graduated. There were only a few programs (Teach for America, for example, as well as National Merit-type scholarship organizations) that were hardline about not accepting students from unaccredited schools. However, our administrators wrote up a formal letter explaining that we could NOT YET be accredited, rather than FAILING to be accredited, and that we were on track with our local and national accreditation boards. You could ask if the folks at Drexel expect to do something similar, and that will probably help in that respect.

The plus side is that being in a brand new program no one had ever heard of made for excellent job interview icebreakers -- but without alumni or name recognition, we had to get the interviews by networking like crazy. Small programs with very involved professors helped the networking part of things... the profs want to see you succeed (they're in this for the long haul, too!), so they'll help you in every way they can.

However, undergrad engineering != law school, so YMMV :)
posted by olinerd at 12:34 PM on February 22, 2007

I've heard it's fairly hard to find jobs in public interest law. Established schools have an alumni network, and if employers have worked with grads from a certain university before, they have a basic sense of what type of education that school provides. So you'd have to be prepared to address that question mark in their minds (on preview -- yeah, a great icebreaker!). And if you're fairly debt-free, you can volunteer to do an unpaid internship, which would get you in the door, and for some places, with so many people for so few spots, it's almost a prereq anyway. Will the new profs (Ivy-educated or not) teach about the public interest topic you care about? Do they have connections to that field (ie, could their recommendation get you a job with a potential future employer)? You could feel more secure that the university name wouldn't matter if you found your way into something else prestigious (a clerkship or something). But you also didn't mention whether you'd looked into the loan forgiveness programs at the other universities (a lot of places forgive X% of your loan every year for up to Y years if you're making below $Z). Worth checking out for comparison. Good luck!
posted by salvia at 12:41 PM on February 22, 2007

Its not that unheard of to get a full scholarship offer, especially from a school who's trying to up its numbers, or in your case, get good numbers to start, so don't let that sway you too much in terms of being impressed with it. However, as someone who's interested in public interest, it would be extremely helpful, I would think, to be able to graduate without loans. But, as salvia said, a lot of schools have loan forgiveness programs specifically made for people like you, so look into that. Finally, in big cities with lots of law schools, reputation definitely matters, even when it comes to public interest. I go to a school in Los Angeles that has a good reputation, and got several interviews with non-profits based off of my school alone, I'm fairly sure. That doesn't mean that they wouldn't interview you, but it means that some people might be getting preference and thus the job offer before they even get to you. When it comes to getting summer internships and such, nonprofit jobs are still fairly competitive, so it might not be easy, although I'm not sure if that job program you mentioned might mitigate that.

In sum: reputation matters, so look into the loan forgiveness stuff at the other schools before you make your decision.
posted by wuzandfuzz at 1:06 PM on February 22, 2007

My best friend is about to graduate from Rutgers-Camden Law and has been involved in public interest law the whole time. He's got a lot to say about the school, good and bad, and I'm sure he'd be happy to answer your questions. I've put my email address in my profile if you're interested in contacting him.

I'm a law student at school in a different part of the country, and I've got to say that the alumni network and the existing infrastructure (longstanding journals, symposia, and other events) of an older school are very helpful for meeting lawyers and networking.
posted by katemonster at 1:14 PM on February 22, 2007

I know many people who had to choose between being a mid/lower level admit at good/great schools and being a scholarship-worthy "catch" at a new or "local" law school. Most of the mid/lower levels admits who chose the highly rated schools are mid/lower level students there, and most of the others are the big fish in their new/local ponds. The second lot are generally happier with their choices and they can afford to be more choosey/patient with their job search. To be sure, the folks at the established schools get more interviews but don't always have the list of achievements to reel off despite being just as smart as the others...

I guess that's a lot of words to say that I'd take the chance and go for Drexel. It's a real school, it won't screw this up.
posted by jaysus chris at 1:31 PM on February 22, 2007

It depends on the kind of public interest law you want to practice. If you want to work for small, local non-profits, Drexel is great.

But I have a big caveat: ABA accreditation is never a foregone conclusion. I knew someone who went to Barry Law School in Orlando and had to wait two years after graduating before she could sit for the bar because Barry's application for accreditation was repeatedly declined. When she started, Barry made a promise about accreditation that was exactly like the one Drexel is making to you. Be very careful about this.
posted by chickletworks at 1:55 PM on February 22, 2007

I'm a public interest lawyer, and it's not possible to overestimate how oppressive the loans are. I graduated from a school with a great loan forgiveness program (NYU), but many of my colleagues have a rough time. Be very very careful when analyzing these programs--most of them are NOT good. Graduating loan-free would be huge.

As for the reputation of the school, I think it depends on what kind of public interest law you want to practice. It is a very competitive job market. My impression is that the big national organizations (ACLU types) look for prestige. If you want to do direct legal services (which is what I do), experience is more important. The attys are swamped and don't have time to hold a new atty's hand, so clinics & internships are more important than a fancy law school or journal experience. We want new people to be ready to go, as much as possible.

I have no experience with the accreditation thing, but it would give me pause.
posted by Mavri at 2:08 PM on February 22, 2007

All firms and most desirable public interest jobs will place a very heavy emphasis on where you went to law school and its prestige, and only then look at other factors. Unless one specializes, and even if one does in many cases, almost all soft factors are ignored. My experience comes form the big law firm experience in NYC (I've went through the application and interview process and summered at one well-regarded firm there).

But I know many that have gone the public interest route and they indicate that the competition is even worse. I know someone at Northwestern, which is a top school, that only recently got a job at Legal Aid in Chicago and she had a stunning resume (and she is working with Yalies and Harvardites there).

I would look into any LRAP or similar programs that may be available to mitigate the financial sacrifice public interest lawyering entails.

But most important, the lack of accreditation should be an absolute deal killer. You are going to rue going to a school not accredited by the ABA. I don't know a single realistic and knowledgeable person that would recommend such a thing. If you want a career in law, then go to an accredited school.
posted by Falconetti at 3:35 PM on February 22, 2007

Seconding Marvi's comments. I'm a public interest lawyer also. Loans/debt is very important. I could not do what I'm doing without little debt (I went to Boalt back when it was cheap, and I had very little debt, and my co-workers all have loan forgiveness programs).

Compare the scholarship at Drexel to the loan forgiveness at Villanova, etc.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 5:09 PM on February 22, 2007

I recommend going to an accredited school where you will have the least amount of debt when you graduate. I'm a lawyer and work for a government agency, but I worked for a legal aid office for 6 years after I graduated.

While going to a prestigious school will open doors, you might not be able to afford to work there if you have too much debt. A woman who clerked where I work said she went to Columbia because she thought the degree would get her a job anywhere. But she owed something like $140,000 when she graduated and could only afford to work at a law firm. Other clerks we've had report the same thing.

While some public interest organizations might be very particular about who they hire, you can often get in the door by volunteering, or doing an internship and then proving yourself once you're there. You can also increase your marketability by getting practical trial experience, such as in a DA's office either during the summer or as your first job after you graduate.

But really, the less debt you have, the more choices you'll have when you graduate. Good luck to you.
posted by BluGnu at 8:58 PM on February 22, 2007

As Mavri said, loan forgiveness is big. I'll add to that by saying you should find out the nitty-gritty details of the loan forgiveness programs.

Mavri mentioned that NYU has a great program. From what I understand you need to send back paystubs to NYU for ten years, can't make over a certain small amount (50k?) before they pro-rate the program, and it works by the school paying your loans back *for* you while making a loan out *to* you, which they only forgive at the end of ten years.

I'm remembering this from a financial aid seminar at NYU a couple years back so it may not be accurate or current. The point is, find out the details of the programs, because they may require things you're not willing to do, or ask you to be more/less committed to a long term public interest career.
posted by lorrer at 5:41 PM on February 23, 2007

thanks everyone, this is tremendously helpful. although i think my pro and con lists are still just about even! i'm formulating a list of questions to ask admissions people, though.
posted by timory at 12:23 AM on February 24, 2007

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