Law School Discussion

Top 6 vs. money

Top 6 vs. money
« on: May 15, 2011, 10:37:17 PM »
I am a concerned parent and I would appreciate if you could comment on the following. My son took LSAT 3 times and achieved top 1% scores, his GPA is 3.87. Last year he applied to all top 14 schools and was accepted only in Duke. He declined as in his opinion  nothing below top 6 is worth the money. This year he applied to all top 6 and a top14 regional school and  received a generous scholarship from that regional school. He  declined the scholarship.  He is still on waitlists in top 6, but as  time goes by, the chances are getting slimmer.  He decided to skip yet another year and  ED to Columbia next year. He wants biglaw and biglaw only. Again, according to him ( and he reads a lot on this matter),  there is no middle ground in legal profession - either you work for biglaw earning big money, or law school is not worth going to at all. You might as well try to earn money using your undergraduate degree. Because being a house lawer or working for small law firms pays the same $70-80K.  Apparently Columbia gives at least 50% chances for biglaw, while that regional school -  only around 10%.   I  looked up a couple of V100 companies and it really looks like most of their recent graduates come from.. NYU and Columbia and very few - from regional schools, even if they are top 14.  But if he goes, say to Columbia, he is going to  have a huge debt! It is a lot of money even if you earn $140-160K. Is it really worth it? And it is hard to believe that 90% of the graduates from good regional schools (not top6) having paid  large amounts for their tution work for $70-80K or even less.

Re: Top 6 vs. money
« Reply #1 on: May 16, 2011, 01:43:40 AM »
Dear Mom -

As with many aspects of law school and the practice of law, there are elements of truth and large quantities of untruths, misconceptions, and general uncertainty, not least in blind grading, a strict grade curve, and the law of averages.

If your son is cut out for big law (and this is a serious "if," as biglaw is not just about alma mater . . . or even, shocking as it is to most students, grades), then clearly there is an element of truth, although it's not so much that only the big 6 count.  As a rule of thumb, it's the top quarter of the top tier, or approximately 14 schools that are considered national schools, with sufficiently broad reach as to place their graduates nationwide without too much fuss.  On average.  (Actually, there are more than 14 schools in the "top 14," but that's another story.)  It is true that the averages fall (in this economy, steeply) the further down you go.  But there are students graduating from School #14 (and a few from school #34 and even a tiny few from #54) who are in biglaw. 

There is also a misconception about what "biglaw" is.  If it's the equivalent of Gordon Gekko-style life, well, as with Grisham's protagonists, that's mostly fantasy.  There is clearly a different lifestyle in a top firm.  Point one is that it's a lifestyle that not everyone likes.  Point two is that it's a lifestyle that relatively few can keep up with.  Point three is that, again, grades are just part of this.  Point four is that pedigree is important, but not in quite the same way that everyone assumes.  In a different market a Yalie with Asperger's might have gotten the interview; in this market, probably not.  Okay, they might well get the interview...but much less likely, the job. 

[Sidebar:  Yale's grads will clearly have their pick, but not for the reasons most assume.  Yale grads are assumed to be more "eggheady" than even Harvard's, and thus more likely to go to clerkships and thence to teaching, policy, or like big-picture work.  Note what's missing?  Anything biglaw is going to need and demand.  Not always, of course, and a Yale grad will clearly be given serious consideration . . . IF they have the personality traits needed in biglaw.  Given Columbia's and NYU's location, their grads are more likely headed to biglaw--yet there are constant jostles between them.  And on it goes.]

Part II of "biglaw" is that, in any of the hundreds of cities below the largest, it's not the national firms that are where the action is at, but the top regional firms.  Within their markets, it is the regional--not national--firms that have the fun work.  And the pay isn't all that bad.  (By the hour, it can be higher than in a national firm.)  In those markets the national firms might have a smallish office with a token staff to satisfy the needs of a handful of clients (or even just one).  The large regional firm will be *the* firm representing all the juicy cases in, oh, Denver or Portland (your choice of coasts) or Austin.  And . . . personal opinion here . . . any of those four cities beat any of the majors, hands down.  Yes, NYC can be quite lively.  But it's also rather expensive, and a biglaw associate (or even partner) won't have a whole lot of time to enjoy all those museums anyway.  (And nightlife?  Where's our junior associate?  Up on the 40th floor.  Back to work, young man!)  An associate at a top regional firm can probably buy an estate, or close to it (not that they should), while the New York associate will be living in a cramped and outrageously expensive apartment, likely rented for at least a fair chunk of the associateship.  (If they last that long.)  Just saying.

A real question for your son:  Forget what he wants.  What is he good at?  Is he super-humanly organized, motivated, mature?  Was he elected President of his high school class?  Did he teach English in Bangladesh?  Does he proofread every email?  Twice?  I'm not being entirely facetious, actually, as this is, especially now, the type of applicant top schools (and thus biglaw) are looking for.  Not that they care about his high school years, but they do care about the qualities that carry forward.

More importantly, what does he want?  What does he really want?  Is it to work 80-100 hour weeks for ten years?  Lots of money?  Lots of bosses?  Does that sound not overly stressful, and not "fun," but just "who he is"?  If so, biglaw is a good bet, if he gets in. 

If there's a doubt, that's when the money put into law school becomes important.  One of the worst things is to be qualified for and get into a position one realizes is wrong, but to be trapped because of those massive loans.

Depending upon how well it's played, taking the LSAT three times can be a plus, showing at least a little bit of each of the above.

A few resources for him, in addition to [* * * self-interest alert! * * *] my own.  There's a new book, Law School Undercover, which gives a much better view than the above of the biglaw competition--in particular how it applies to law school.  It's not yet out in print, but it is available on Kindle.  There's Planet Law School, and if that doesn't scare him that's an excellent sign for biglaw.  There's Law School Fast Track, a useful, short guide that's a good balance to PLS.  And there are the three books (the first two for your son before/during law school) in Morten Lund's series Jagged Rocks of Wisdom.  Also, John Delaney has some excellent books out.  And one that you might find funny as a recommendation, but useful in its own way and to keep a good perspective about all of this.  It's Slacker's Guide to Law School.

For all who are not yet in law school and considering the same types of questions, in this market in particular, scratch out "son" and "mom" and fit your own name in.  These are rather serious questions, especially now, and I'll not be one to be unrealistically idealistic about it:  I and most others graduating some years ago had options (mostly by much lower levels of debt) that are not nearly as realistic as they are today.  So, while one needn't necessarily be fixated on top, top, top, these are important considerations.  Some of the happiest people I've known are lawyers (and a number of judges) who would flat out not be interested in biglaw, nor, in most cases, biglaw in them.  Not good or bad, but good to know going in.

Best of luck,


Re: Top 6 vs. money
« Reply #2 on: May 16, 2011, 05:46:38 AM »
That was a great response by Thane.

Just will add the following:

1.  He is somewhat correct:  if you really want the $160K starting salary, it's a very narrow path that will get you there. 

2.  There are ways to get into biglaw without going the route most folks think.  I do know a couple of friends who attended Case Western Reserve University and went to work for Jones Day in Cleveland.  It's not uncommon.  Jones Day is as biglaw as it gets.  I would guess that associates outside of NYC don't get paid as much, but cost of living is a real factor too.  They can still make partner, just like the associates in NYC. 

So, he probably isn't aware of the home-town advantage that a lot of schools enjoy.  There's a lot of money to be made in the law, and a lot of it is made outside of NYC, DC and San Fran. 

3.  Your son is really smart and focused.  I think there's a lot of merit to where he's coming from.  However, I completely disagree with the sentiment that if you don't make $160,000 a year, that you're wasting your time.

YES, kids should be cautious.  A lot of kids get $100,000 in debt, attend an unremarkable school, don't study that hard, might not have been exceptionally bright to begin with, and they end up with some $40K a year job as an associate at a tiny 2 man firm where they have no benefits and get treated like a scut monkey. 

Your son IS exceptionally bright.  So, I just don't see that happening to him unless he gets into Law School and totally boots it. 

4.  The top grads from a LOT of schools get great jobs, including biglaw jobs.  Thing is, yeah, if you go to a T6 school, maybe the top half of the class gets a biglaw job.  If you go something else first-tier, but lower, maybe only 10% will get a biglaw job.

The thing that's missing from that discussion is that the guy who was 50th percentile is likely to be pretty much the same type of student and person as the guy who is 90th percentile from a lesser school.

Put another way, presume that Joe Blow is the kind of guy who would be 50th percentile in his class at Stanford. 

Then, you take Joe Blow and instead of attending Stanford, he attends, say, Ohio State.  Is he going to be 50th %ile at Ohio State?  No disrespect intended to Ohio State, but of course not.  His class just isn't as talented.  The top students are probably comparably smart to the smartest students at Stanford.  However, Joe Blow who would have been 50th %ile at Stanford is probably more like 90th %ile at OSU.

Hiring firms take this into account.  Very few of them have a "no OSU graduate, ever, no way" policy.  What they're trying to do is hire the best and the brightest.  Most firms would take the class valedictorian at OSU before they'll take a guy who graduated last in his class at Harvard. 

So, yeah, you want to go to the best school you can go to.  And a top 6 school really is a golden ticket.  However, you can get there from other schools.

5.  As a final note, there are a LOT of ways to make money in law that don't involve biglaw.  In any reasonably sized town (not even necessarily a big town) there are a handful of divorce attorneys making comfortably into the six figures.  You need only pick up a phone book to see that there are not just one or two, but multiple firms in every town who are making enough money that they can buy the spine of the phone book and put ads on TV every week representing personal injury clients.  A lot of people drink, and a lot of them have jobs, and when the get pinched for DUI, the retainer is anywhere from $15,000 to 25,000. 

So, I'd say that biglaw is a great way to go, but an entrepreneurial person can make a great living in the law as well, doing any number of things that they don't talk much about on orientation day.

Best of luck to him.  I find it highly unlikely that he'll do poorly no matter what he decides.

As one parent to another, I might add, he's got the right to live his life the way he wants to live it, including the right to make a mistake here and there.  He's done pretty well so far in life.  He'll figure out what he wants to do.


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Re: Top 6 vs. money
« Reply #3 on: May 16, 2011, 07:50:59 AM »
Those were all great responses. The only thing I wanted to add is that in the original post you said your son is going to put off attending law school "another" year so I am unsure if he has put it off multiple years or just one time. Going to a great school is great, but if he puts off attending for 5 years so he can get into a top 6 school instead of a top 10 he will be 5 years behind in his career.  Once you have been a lawyer for 5 years your school probably won't matter as much it is your talent as an attorney that will get you where you want to go.

I have noticed a lot of people put off school to get into the "better" schools and I know one girl who is still retaking LSAT again and it has been 5 years now. She could have graduated from law school and passed the bar by now instead she hasn't attended her first law school class. You can put off doing things until it is everything is "perfect", but the longer you wait to do anything the more life gets in the way. Attending any T14 school will open a lot of doors and as Thane said aspiring only to be Big Law can be a mistake. Not to say your son wouldn't love Big Law, but he won't know if he likes being a Big Law lawyer until he is a Big Law lawyer. It is very possible he may hate the outrageous billing hour requirements maybe he will meet a girl in the next year and the long hours won't sound as appealing.

On the same token it sounds like your son has a goal and he wants to be Top 6 although it should be noted the U.S. News Rankings system is an absolute joke. . These are articles written by the law school admissions council. The rankings are not approved by the ABA or AALS or any legitimate organization. The system is literally judges from around the country marking a scantron from 1-5. Some guy in Maine will check a box for UCLA and have never been to UCLA or met a UCLA grad and based on this flawed system the rankings fluctuate significantly year by year. With T14 schools they are all solid and will always be in the top 20 or so schools, but by this time next year school #6 could be school #14 and school #14 could be #6. Schools drop and rise 20 spots every year so being this concerned with 8 spots in the rankings is somewhat futile. By the time he graduates it is almost certain the school he attends will either rise or fall based on the system. Basically any T14 school will open a LOT of doors.

Point of this rant is that if he is overly concerned about the rankings he might be misguided. If there is a particular school he wants to get into because he likes the history, professors, location, etc then it might be worth it. However, to simply say I am attending number 6 or bust is futile because whatever number 6 is this year won't be number 6 next year. I think Harvard, Yale, Stanford have the top 3 spots locked up permanently outside of that Michigan could be anywhere between 4th or 15th same with Columbia, NYU, Berkeley, etc they are all GREAT schools, but they always fluctuate especially because U.S. News uses a very questionable methodology.

Here some of the most significant jumps from 2010-2011

Here are just a few of the biggest jumps from 2010-2011 that I noticed. .

Nebraska went from unranked tier 3 in 2010 to #84 in 2011, but not just any #84 rank a TWELVE way tie for 84th place. I donít even know how you can have a twelve way tie for 84th place, but they managed to do it.

LSU went from 75 into this twelve way tie for 84th place. So it is not clear if LSU went from 75th to the 96th or 84th best school because there is a twelve way tie for the prestigious honor of 84th place.

Kansas went from 65 in 2010 to a 5 way tie for 79th place.

Catholic went from a 4 way tie for 94th place in 2010 up to a 5 way tie for 79th place in 2011.

LMU from #71 in 2010 to #54 in 2011.
Emory from #20 to a 4 way tie to #30.

I guarantee you nothing of any significance changed at any of these schools over a one year period. The 1L's and 2L's that were at Emory when it was ranked #20 are still there and so are the same professors. The building is in the same location etc, etc, it somehow dropped 10 spots. LMU the same thing the same 1L's and 2L's that were there in 2010 along with the professors, building, etc are the same. Yet it improved 17 spots how you ask? Some judge in Miami checked a 4 instead of a 3 because the Lakers lost or god knows what his reason for 3 or 4 was. They don't make them state any reasons just check a box.

The monetary concerns mentioned are legitimate and most law school grads don't make a lot of money starting out. Neither do doctors they are locked into a residency for 5 years making between 40-50k, but after 5 years of doing that then you know what you are doing and can make a lot of money. Same is true of law school the first few years no recent law grad really knows what they are doing. They cost more than they earn and as a result the salaries aren't as high, but once you have been an attorney for 5 years you know what you are doing and can do pretty well for yourself. That is basically the same for any profession, but lawyers have a lot of room for growth, but is a SLOW process.

Re: Top 6 vs. money
« Reply #4 on: May 16, 2011, 02:04:28 PM »
These have all been great responses. 

I would only add a couple of things:

If your son is talented enough that he believes he's a lock for big-law if he gets into a T6, he should seriously consider going to a lower-ranked school.  Here's why:  Scores that are high enough for T6 will yield some major scholorship money at other Top 50 schools.  If his scores are reflective of his intellect --they are not always-- he should have no problem finishing at the top of his law school class.  He can then be at big law, without being trapped by the loan if he gets burned out.  When you compare only the top 10% of any Tier 1 school, the big law placement is much higher than any of the Top 6 populations as a whole.  So, you could argue that being in the top 10% of a Tier 1 school is the surest path to big law.

He should also know that  there are many regional and mid-small firms in large cities that pay every bit as much as big law.  The smaller of these tend to be for big-law lawyers who took their clients and started their own firm.  I graduated in the top 5% of a school that jumps in and out of Tier 1, depending on the year.  I had a full range of options available to me, including big-law, federal clerkships, and other firms.  I went with a smaller high-stakes-litigation firm, and did much better than my big-law friends. 

Finally, your son should seriously consider where he wants to live/work.  Every region has a heirarchy of schools.  He should attend the best school that he can get into within the region he likes.  Big law is an option in many places, but quality of life is significantly different on the east coast, west coast, and the flyovers... 
In this economy, there are no guarantees.  If you son wants to be a lawyer, IMO,  he should quit waiting for things to be "perfect," and get to work.   

I wish him the best of luck.


Re: Top 6 vs. money
« Reply #5 on: May 16, 2011, 03:12:31 PM »
 Thank you very much for your answers. Basically in three posts  you gave  both deep and  broad outlook on the situation. It would have taken me days to research it myself otherwise. I was worried that my son is wasting his time trying to get something that might not be even worth it. It  makes sense now, even if I do not completely agree with his approach anyway.  Also thank you for discussing the topic of "right personality" for BigLaw. I will have to address it. And probably buy the suggested books as well.  Thanks again.

Re: Top 6 vs. money
« Reply #6 on: May 17, 2011, 04:53:25 AM »
I would discount any discussion of how much the top six are going to change from year to year.  While the USNWR rankings are totally flawed, they're actually pretty consistent toward the very top. 

Also, there's a significant element of chance involved in law school performance; a 50% student at Stanford probably has a higher likelihood of performing better at a lower-ranked school, but there's definitely not enough of a guarantee that I would put any faith in it.

Finally, I question whether any law school is worth the sticker price--not so much because I don't think law school is worthwhile for some, but because even the top six schools are, in my opinion, seriously overpriced.

Re: Top 6 vs. money
« Reply #7 on: May 17, 2011, 04:56:25 AM »
One more point: best not to lump all "biglaw" together.  Firms are not all created equal.

Re: Top 6 vs. money
« Reply #8 on: May 17, 2011, 05:11:23 AM »
Finally, I question whether any law school is worth the sticker price--not so much because I don't think law school is worthwhile for some, but because even the top six schools are, in my opinion, seriously overpriced.

I'm not disagreeing with you.  I just wanted to borrow the discussion for a minute to talk about this.

No doubt law school is very expensive.  Is it overpriced?  Maybe.

For the most part, though, you figure any attorney worth his salt, unless he choses to do specific types of low-paid work, should be able to earn six figures.

What if they don't want to open up their own firm and do divorces?  What if they'd rather not do DUI defense?  What if they really don't like the idea of doing criminal defense?

What if they want to make a tradeoff for family/work?  What if they don't want to put in the hours that biglaw involves?  What if they don't want to work a very low-paid clerkship or a few years just to make the connections that would help them establish a career later?

What if what they really just want is a nice, cushy, 40 hour a week job with benefits and they're willing to trade off salary to get it?

Yeah, okay, but those are voluntary choices.  If you want it, you can get it.  It takes work.  It takes sacrifice, but you can make six figures.

I used to work a corporate job.  The last year I worked, with bonuses, I made over six figures.  It took a lot of work.  13 years.  One change of company.  3 relocations for the next company.  I averaged a promotion about every other year.  I honestly don't ever remember leaving at 5:00.  Most days, it was more like 6:30 or 7:00 and a half day on Saturday.  That was a "normal" work-week.

Other guys at my level worked more, or less, but for the most part, you didn't get to six figures by punching a clock.  Those jobs were also precarious.  Middle management is probably the easiest level of worker to fire because they're also the easiest to replace.  I don't think anybody is unaware of the people in their 40s and 50s who have lost their good-paying jobs who will never fully get back on the career track.  Those are hard-working people with great education and impeccable credentials.  They used to make six figures and now they can't get hired to work the plumbing department at Home Depot.

The point I'm trying to make there is that six figures isn't unheard of outside the law.  Lots of people make that kind of money.  However, it involves education (most middle managers these days have an MBA, even if they have to get some "executive MBA" from a non-AACSB accredited local liberal arts school.)  It involves long hours.  It involves sacrifice. 

It's just not all that easy to make six figures.  Yes, with the law, you have a little different set of circumstances.  The debt-load is much larger than your typical MBA is going to get.  In fact, most MBAs aren't full-timers.  They get their degrees at night, frequently with their employer paying for it. 

However, the point I'm trying to make is, yes, it's expensive, but is it overpriced?  Relative to the opportunity?  Maybe, but maybe not.

The one class of law students (and prospective law students) that are really getting the biggest culture shock here are the ones who thought that a law degree, in and of itself, was a destination that once they achieved it, they were going to be on easy street the rest of their lives.

They're going to have to realize that a law degree isn't something that will set you up for life.  It's a 3 year degree that kicks off a 40 year career.  It's what you do during that career that determines how big your pot of gold is going to be at the end. 

For those who realize that the law is like a lot of other jobs and professions, where you have to get out there and earn your pay every day, I don't think a law degree is overpriced.  Exceptionally expensive?  Sure.  Overpriced?  Relative to a lifetime of six figure earnings?  No.


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Re: Top 6 vs. money
« Reply #9 on: May 17, 2011, 10:22:19 AM »
I would discount any discussion of how much the top six are going to change from year to year.  While the USNWR rankings are totally flawed, they're actually pretty consistent toward the very top. 

Also, there's a significant element of chance involved in law school performance; a 50% student at Stanford probably has a higher likelihood of performing better at a lower-ranked school, but there's definitely not enough of a guarantee that I would put any faith in it.

Finally, I question whether any law school is worth the sticker price--not so much because I don't think law school is worthwhile for some, but because even the top six schools are, in my opinion, seriously overpriced.

Everything FalconJimmy sad is 100% accurate law school never guarantees anyone anything and as far as I know no degree guarantees you anything. If a degree that guarantees me a cush 100k a year job at graduation exists I want to know about it. As FalconJimmy said it is a 3 degree that is the first baby step to a LIFE-LONG career. Education is a LONG-TERM investment although law school price tags do arbitrarily rise every year based on what? Who knows just look at the LSAC data.  . My school for example was 29k in 2007, 31k in 2008, 33k in 2009, and 35k in 2010. This is pretty much the trend for every school 2k a year tuition increases. I looked at Georgetwon because it is right above my school and the same thing. Nobody is regulating these cost increases which is the ABA's fault, but law school is still a long term investment, which is sadly being made worse by these arbitrary tuition hikes.

In response to White Rabbit even T14 schools jump there is no consistency even there that is how bad the U.S. News ranking system is.

T14 Schools that did move from 2010-2011
1.   Yale
2.   Harvard
3.   Stanford
4.   Columbia
13. Cornell
14. Georgetown, but they are now in a tie for 14th with Texas Georgetown was alone in 14th last year.

T14 schools that moved from 2010 to 2011
Chicago was tied for 6th in 2010 so it might have been 7th in 2010 anyways they are no soley in 5th.
NYU went from 5th in 2010 to 6th in 2011
Penn went from 8th to a tie for 7th so maybe they are 6th or 7th this year they are tied for 7th after all so hard to say.
Michigan went from 9th in 2010 into the tie for 7th with Penn.
Duke from a 3 way tie for 10th in 2010 to 11th in 2011
Northwestern part of the 3 way tie for 10th in 2010 moved to 12th.
Virginia from part of the 3 way tie for 10th in 2010 moved to 9th

Biggest Jump in the T14 schools from 2010 to 2011 this strongly proves my point
Berkeley was tied for 6th in 2010, which is the number the OP wants and in 2011 Berkeley is now tied for 9th with Virginia. Had the OP said I can only go to a school ranked 6th when his second year started he would be 9th.

To simply add some icing to the cake there are 15 schools in the top 14 because of their ties. Before writing this post I thought U.S. news at least distinguished between T14 schools and did not have ties there, but they do. Nothing surprises me with them anymore they have about as much journalistic integrity as the National Enquirer.

Point being even in the Top 14 schools there is movement every year and the T14 schools will always be in T14, but where who knows and some might even slip out I am sure UCLA and USC have been in the T14 before, but UCLA is tied for 16th and USC tied for 18th. You can see the ties in the T14 here