The biggest differences lie in the quality of the students, it seems. At "top" schools, the students all seem much more serious about being there, smarter (and therefore nerdier, at the Tier 4 schools the girls were all hot and the guys arrogant frat-boy types where at Notre Dame and Illinois most of the people were acne-covered nerds, foreigners, and overzealous overachievers who eventually get very annoying). Another difference is that at the Tier 4 schools, there were typically only 4 or 5 people (out of 60 or 70) answering questions voluntarily, whereas at Illinois & ND many different members of the classes (same size) were giving opinions and being called upon.
As far as the Faculty, at the Tier 4 schools, they seemed to be less "in charge" of the class, and let the students express their (usually stupid) opinions. At Illinois & ND the professors came off so intellectually superior (though still friendly) that the people were careful about racing to voice some dumb opinion they have. Both Tiers' faculty seemed accessible and "knowledgable enough."
All in all, if the only full-rides you get are from Tier 4 (or even some Tier 3) schools, I would recommend going to a highly ranked in-state school (depending on what state you're in) or biting the bullet and paying out to go to a Tier 1 private or public that has reasonably low tuition ($23,000 versus $32,000). If you get a full ride from a Tier 1 or near Tier 1, as I did, I'd recommend putting it in your top 5 choices, visit, and consider it very seriously.
When it all comes down to it, there are really five factors to consider in what you want in a law school: 1) Geography: Is this a place I could live for a minimum for 3 years, and realistically 6 to 7 years? 2) Specialized Programs: Does this school offer a concentration that I'm attracted to, or does it cater to mostly, i.e., corporate law, when, i.e., I want to go into Public Service? 3) Cost: Can I afford this school's tuition, given the area of law I want to practice and the debt I have already taken on? How much does it cost to live in the area around the school (this can vary by as much as $10,000 per year from school to school) 4) Gut Reaction: When I visited, did it just "feel" right? --Consistently going with your gut feeling is a talent well valued when put into action, and finally, 5) Job Prospects: Does this school host on-campus interviews? Does the admissions office seem to have a lot of JD's from their own school working there, suggesting that these people couldn't find jobs and for USNEWS & WORLD REPORT sake they hired them to list a higher percentage of the most recent class as having jobs? There are some Tier 3 schools that do a better job finding their students jobs than some top 25 schools--the best thing to do is ask students or very recent graduates about this (go on martindale.com and look up recent graduates from the law school in question).
i have issues with this post simply b/c of the generalizations based on visiting 4 schools. i don't think people at tier 2, 3, 4 schools wanna be there any less than people at tier 1 schools. i have meet many people in all of these tiers and to be honest its the ones in the lower tiers that are more passionate about their schools and work the hardest. they don't have a name to fall back on so the have to be the best. i am not saying the tier 1 students aren't the best, i am just saying don't assume something about a group b/c they aren't in tier1 schools. u have lasy people at all levels as well as hardworking intelligent ones.
go back to ur post and it seems interesting that at the higher ranked schools u praise the many students giving opinions but at the lower ranked schools the opinions are stupid b/c so many people give them. can u explain why its a plus to give opinions at ND but a negative to give them at a tier 4? and what makes the tier 4 opinion dumb and the ND opinion worthy of being listed as a benefit?
as far as professors go, u only visted 4 schools and i am sure u did not sit it on every class. so generalizing on ur limited information is a big mistake. also maybe u learn better by having teacher lecture and felt uncomfortable in an evnironment that not only lectured but was condusive to the opinion expression of opinions on certain topic. learning styles and teaching styles differ from person to person. maybe what u saw as a lack of control was actually the professor encouraged people to express their opinions and then showing them the true meaning of a law. also, it also depends on the class u sat in on. seriously if it wa a legal ethics class then hummmm... i would think u would get a lot of opinions.
now to the question at hand: i would take the full-ride. in the end u will come out with a law degree which is th epoint of going to law school. true a "top" school will open doors, i bleieve the same doors can be opened with a degree from a lower teir school. u might just have to push a little harder. if u r willing to put in the time, effort, and hardwork, u will not be limited by the name on ur dipolma. i degree might get u in, but ur ability is the only thing that will keep u there. also, many "top" schools teach theory while lower schools teach u how to practice. but in the end it all depends on whats best for u. do whats right for u no matter what we say.