University Career Center

Today’s guest post is all about decisions.  Drawing from her experience in admissions at three different law schools (Northwestern, Catholic and, more recently, at Northern Illinois University’s College of Law) Chicago-Kent Law alumna Sarah Scarpelli shares her perspectives about the emotional cost-benefit analysis associated with deciding to attend law school.  She takes a look from both the perspective of someone selecting a law school, and someone deciding whether to attend right now at all.

For Those Currently Applying to Law School

Are you in the midst of navigating the law school application process? You may have completed the LSAT, drafted several versions of your personal statement, and secured your letters of recommendation.  You fully intend to matriculate to law school next August.  As the weeks click by, you will begin hearing from law schools that admit you, wait list you, or, sigh, deny you.  From the schools that offer you a seat within their incoming class, you may be faced with a difficult cost-benefit analysis.  You may have secured admission at your dream school, yet that institution has not awarded you a scholarship to offset your financial need.  Thus, you are seriously considering your “Plan B” school, which may not be in your preferred geographic area.  Additionally, the “Plan B” school does not appear to offer specialized coursework in an area you are passionate about studying.

I encourage you to become as introspective as possible.  What will make you happy?  Success in law school is arguably correlated to one’s passion.  Throughout my career in law school admissions, I have urged students to invest in a visit to the law schools that have admitted them.   I also share what I believe is a powerful analogy–Would you purchase a house and commit to significant debt without stepping foot in it? The same consideration should be applied to selecting your “home” for the next 3 years of your life.  Please consider attending open houses and admitted student weekends.  Speak with current students who will unquestionably provide the most candid commentary possible on the landscape of that institution today.  Sit in on a class and witness the dialogue in the classroom.  Make an appointment with the law school’s director of career services to learn about the typical career paths for that institution’s graduates.  Perhaps most importantly, allow the intangibles, or your “gut feeling” to guide you.  Can you fathom spending three years of your life with the prospective classmates you have met?  Are you inspired by what you see and hear in Professor X’s class?  If so, there is a safe bet that you will be happy at that law school and you will long value the significant investment you will be making in a law school education.

For Those Who Are ‘On the Fence’ About Attending Law School

So, you have dreamed of becoming a lawyer.  The legal profession is, at its core, a noble endeavor.  Attorneys hone skills that enable them to assist society, particularly those persons who cannot afford legal services. You may be an idealist and you may aspire to shape policy.  You may hope to litigate complex cases or play a leadership role in high-profile corporate transactions.  Simply put, you believe that a law degree will equip you to have a louder voice within the marketplace of ideas.

Realistically, though, this is a scary time to pursue a law degree.  The economy is still struggling to gain momentum and you may have heard that all legal employers, from global law firms to legal service agencies, have initiated hiring freezes.  Concurrently, law schools throughout the United States have increased their tuition and fees.  The average indebtedness for graduating law students creeps higher and higher towards six figures with each year’s graduating class.

Upon my graduation from law school in the late 1990s, I had accumulated over six figures of student loan debt. I am on a 30-year repayment plan for my law school loans. But for me, I would do it all over again.  My J.D. is a multi-faceted ‘tool belt’ that I carry with me to work every day.  I also consider it the best investment I will ever make in my life.

Perhaps you are contemplating working for a few years prior to pursuing your law degree.  If that is the case, please remember that law school will always be an option in your ongoing career development.  Additionally, a few years in the marketplace may help you to confirm your decision to pursue a law degree.  You will also bring additional perspective and clarity to your law school application with the addition of a few years of professional experience.

Regardless of your timeline, your personal circumstances, or your career goals, I want to congratulate you for working through this necessary analysis.  It is complex, it may be emotional and it is very important.  If you would be interested in continuing this conversation with me, please feel free to e-mail me at sscarpelli@niu.edu.  I look forward to hearing from you.