Law School Confidential

Dean Michael M. Martin in The National Law Journal, August 01, 2011

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By Michael M. Martin, Dean of Fordham Law

photo of Michael M. MartinAmong the congratulatory notes that came my way after my appointment as dean of Fordham School of Law were many requests for advice. The queries were along the lines of "a kid I know is thinking about law school, what does he or she need to know?"

These were parents, grandparents and family friends trying to understand law school admissions policies so they could convincingly advise their soon-to-be bachelors of arts or science. Some were questioning how much value a law degree has in a tough economy, especially as more students from more law schools are graduating than ever before. Throw in tuition that often exceeds $100,000 for three years, and one understands the concern.

Of course, I solidly believe a J.D. is worth it. Beyond the sheer number of jobs that require a law degree, the analytical, verbal, expressive, cognitive and persuasive skills that this form of education imparts have broad applications in hundreds of fields. You can find lots of people with law degrees who don't practice law but find it prepared them for success and fulfillment in careers spanning fields as diverse as business, health care and journalism.

Still the decision to attend law school should not be taken lightly. And prospective students — especially those who are highly qualified — are entering a very competitive atmosphere, as 200 law schools work simultaneously to recruit them. When students are such a hot commodity and their qualifications are such an important measuring stick for the schools they attend, the admissions and recruitment process can unfortunately hinder students from making good choices.

So here's my advice to those considering law school (and those who seek to help them):

  • Learn what it really entails. Law school can be tough, even for those who did well as undergraduates. The material is rigorous and demanding, requiring not only comprehensive study and thought but also different ways of processing and presenting information. If you think it's just an extension of college, find out more about what will be expected of you before you make the commitment. Make sure you understand the grading curve at the law schools you consider because grades are often tied to your financial aid and will be an important factor in your job search. And, no, law school is not a good place to wait out a recession or try to find yourself.
  • Consider all aspects of financial aid. Packages that look too good to be true probably are. Modest aid packages that can help with part of the tuition over all three years may be a better deal than a free ride in the first year contingent upon high grades in subsequent years. Here's why: All-or-nothing full scholarships are sometimes proffered in year one and then completely withdrawn for years two and three, leaving students with the choice of writing off a year of their lives or paying for the remaining two-thirds of their education on their own. At Fordham Law, we eschew this bait-and-switch tactic in favor of clearly defined guidelines for guaranteed need-based grants and merit scholarships.
  • Keep rankings in perspective. For some law schools, the national rankings (especially from U.S. News & World Report) have become an obsession. Some schools focus their efforts on recruiting students whose LSATs and grade-point averages can boost the school's rankings. More important, though, are outcomes. Look for numbers that tell you how a law school does on the back end. For instance, how many graduates pass the bar on the first try? How high a percentage of entering students finish in three years and get their degrees? Are alumni supporting the school with donations? Above all, look for a school that never lets recruiting future students detract from educating current ones.

Latin isn't as important as it once was in the legal field, yet caveat emptor (i.e., buyer beware) pertains here. Of course, law schools should help by being transparent and keeping their own priorities in order. But those who want a law degree are best served by a skill they will need anyway — being an effective advocate for and guardian of the best interests of their client, in this case themselves.