Tuesday, April 14, 2009

University of Chicago, The Law School

I'm having lunch with an admitted University of Chicago law student today. I volunteered to be on the Alumni Admissions Committee a few months ago and since then have been matched up with several local UChicago admits; so far I've mostly answered questions by email, today is my first in-person serious discussion about the merits of the school. I'm trying to organize my thoughts.

The good: I think I can wholeheartedly recommend the law school itself. While I hate, loathe and despise the quarter system, the small class size (less than 200), amazing professors who actually enjoy teaching and interracting with students outside of class, and ease of access to courses and administrative assistance make it a great place to learn the law. The rigor is no joke, but I can now appreciate the fact that the Socratic Method was heavily used all three years. It made me good class discussions and participation and if you're paying $40,000+ per year in tuition, you might as well get your money's worth. The campus is also quite lovely with its gothic architecture, ivy covered walls, and giant trees.

The bad: The location in south side Chicago leaves much to be desired, but Hyde Park on the North side of campus is charming in its own way and if you live in South or West Loop downtown the commute is pretty easy. Parking became a nightmare by the time I left thanks to a bunch of new construction around the law school, but I don't know what the situation is like now.

The I Don't Know: Up to a year ago I wouldn't have told anyone to worry much about the loans. While graduating up to $200,000 in debt is not ideal, a benefit of the small class size and prestigious name is that everyone is guaranteed a BigLaw job paying $160,000 if they want one. Regardless of your grades (which are bizarre: 180+ is an A, below 174 is a C, median is a 177, no one but alumni understand how to read our transcripts. The school also doesn't rank, so no one knows where he or she stands in the class and law firms don't ask), you had an array of firms to choose from by the end of OCI. But the legal world has completely changed since I was a 2L and I don't know that I'd feel as comfortable taking out those loans in this environment. It never occurred to me during my law school experience that I wouldn't have a high paying job that could pay back those loans within a few years, I don't think that would be true now. I'm sure UChicago students are still in some demand, but with a huge pool of "elite" law students now facing delayed start dates and layoffs (a handful of people from my graduating class have already been let go from their firms), I don't know how much firms will be relying on OCI to fill their incoming classes over the next few years. It's something I'd at least be nervous about- grades, journals, etc. may start to matter in a way they didn't before.

I believe this particular admit is trying to choose between UChicago and a few other top 10 schools, so the loans issue would exist in any of those situations and for all I know she has a rich relative funding her education. If the financial side of things is equal (if it's not, I'd let financial aid sway me in a way I wouldn't have 3 years earlier), I think a major benefit of Chicago is the grade-blind OCI (firms don't get your transcript until after the interview and must meet with you if you select them) and small class size (greater access to professors and a wait-list free course registration).

And of course you get to graduate in this beautiful chapel:

and live in this beautiful city:

It's going to be very hard for me to be impartial, I miss it so.


  1. LL,

    I've been reading you and other law-blogs for a while now, trying to make up my mind about changing careers after 2 decades in tech, and going to law school. In the past year, I decided the loans weren't worth it, and it was a bonus this morning to see this post agreeing with me. (I have other commitments already, including elementary aged kids and a mortgage).

    I'd still love to *study* law someday...now I may just have to wait until my kids are out of the house :-)


  2. I agree with you about U of C. Love the school, hate the quarter system. I spent 1 year at GULC as a visiting student and it felt so relaxing in comparison to the hectic schedule at Chicago.

    I am not sure I agree on the debt issue because a top school like Chicago gives you more flexibility about where you can end up. Further, even in a tighter job market, you have a MUCH better chance of landing a high paying job compared to a less prestigious school. The risk of no job at all in this economy reminds me of how vulnerable we all are to job loss, but student loans can be put into forebearance and it is better to have a chance at a high paying job than little to no chance at all.

  3. Anonymous, we're twins! I bet we're only 2 of an identical hundred-thousand-plus folk in IT wanting out after a decade or two. And I feel the same way: I would like to get the books, sit in on some classes, just to get the exposure and be around people who are forced to engage in critical thinking. Seriously, I just want to LEARN about the law. I want to study it. I want to know what it says, how it might be applied, the effects of an argument or decision. I just want the exposure. I want to know. Probably because I don't *have* to, though. I imagine if it were my job and a 70+-hour-per-week obligation, I'd feel differently. Sadly, I'll probably never find out. But still, I seriously wish there were a correspondence course for wannabe's like me, people who are just curious, but who can not leave their current profession. (I'm sure people like LL, i.e. real attorneys, are spitting out their tea/coffee/whiskey when they read "correspondence course".) I can't help it. It's a recurrent daydream of mine lately. I'm just really curious. I want to know. (Sorry for my long comment. I'd have preferred to have sent Anonymous this directly, but since they posted as Anonymous...this is the only way I can respond directly to the writer of that comment. And when you read your thoughts written by somebody else, it's hard not to respond.)

  4. Hey LT! When I talked about the loans and letting financial aid sway me, I meant within a top ranked schools. If UVA has offered you a tuition scholarship and UChicago has offered you nothing, I'd look harder at UVA than I might have a few years ago.

    I absolutely agree that if you're set on law school, a top-ranked school is still extremely important as a post-graduation legal job gets harder to count on. To the extent that any law student is beign wooed by firms, it's still going to be those at top schools.

  5. Interesting post!

    I was recently approached by a Chicago and UT admit who was dead set on UT because of the scholarship/aid package he was offered at UT. He said that he couldn't stomach the price tag of Chicago because of what is going on in the job market.

    Given that this guy is choosing between Chicago and UT, instead of another top 10 law school like the admit you describe in your post, what advice would you offer him?

    My gut reaction was that the state of the job market should push him to go to Chicago, where his job opportunities will likely be better than they otherwise would be at UT. A few years ago, I chose UT over pricey top 10 schools in order to minimize student loan debt because I thought there were enough Big Law jobs to support robust recruiting at UT. Basically, I thought I wasn't jeopardizing my job prospects by choosing the cheaper school, but I would make a different choice if I were starting law school next year.

  6. This is interesting. I can't speak to the topic because I explicitly did NOT plan to take a high paying job upon graduation. I think all of this advice is important and helpful, but within the framework of those potential law students who plan to pay back their student loans through 100k+ salaries just after passing the bar. But I don't think all law students, even those getting into top tier schools, have that in mind... I went back and forth about this very question a year ago, but came to a very different conclusion. Of course, there are no right or wrong answers!