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January 24, 2007

"You Ask....I Answer" - Where Should I Go To Law School?

I'm starting a new category called "You Ask...I Answer" which will be filed under the category of "In My Opinion"  - You Ask...I Answer" because, after all, it's my opinion and you asked. 

The category is geared towards law students considering solo practice.  However, it is not limited to this.  I will try to answer all questions, if not directly to the individual, then generally through a post, particularly if the question is of universal concern to those wanting to open a practice .  I will not reveal identifying information and may change some facts to keep it truly anonymous.  If I receive the same question many times I may "create" a composite question.  But all questions will have originated from authentic e-mails.

However, it is my opinion based upon my experience as a solo practitioner who opened a practice out of law school, my background in sales, marketing, advertising and promotion, an adjunct professor who teaches others to open their own practice right out of law school, a columnist who addresses issues facing solos, a consultant who helps solos open their own practices, and a wife, mother of a toddler, and entrepreneur.  If it is a technical question, I may invite a guest blogger to answer the question.  Either way, the goal is to provide answers and considered opinions for those who wish to open their practice.

That being said, let's get to the question which sparked this column:

Currently I work in the IT department for a school district near State XXX. However, my family lives in State ZZZ, and I received my B.A. from the U of Z in 1995.  In the past few years I have become very interested in law and technology, including cyberlaw, privacy issues, identity theft, etc, and am looking at law schools that will allow me to explore these fields.  The U of X is an obvious choice; located in one of the high tech regions of the world, there are a number of interesting opportunities that would result from attending U of X. However, U of Z has a policy that allows students who graduated from a State ZZZ high school (which I did) to receive in-state tuition rates without a prerequisite waiting period.

With this in mind, I am considering saving money from my salary in State XXX and attending law school in State ZZZ to reduce the assumed debt.  With differences in tuition, cost of living, etc. I calculate roughly $50,000 in savings, with the added benefit of being near family for a few years.

My question is this:  Putting aside any perceptions of prestige between U of X (very ,very good) and U of Z (solid but unspectacular), how much of a risk would it be to attend law school in State ZZZ to reduce my debt burden, then move back to the State XXX and go solo?  Or, in a broader sense, if I were to go solo in State ZZZ and attempted to relocate elsewhere as a solo, what challenges would I face?


1.  I don't know how old you are, but let's say you are 33.  In 2010 you can be 37 without a law degree or 37 with a law degree.  Either way you are still going to be 37. Which would you prefer?

2.  In my experience, if you are going solo, your clients don't care where you went to law school.  The only reason they may ask is if they know someone who went or is currently in law school and are trying to find some point of conversation. Only potential employers care where you went, your rank and whether you were on law review. Some colleagues express curiosity but mostly to see if you went to the same law school as they did.
3. $50,000 in savings in tuition (student loans) is HUGE.  One of the big reasons new lawyers are fearful of going solo is the student loan burden they bear.  It intimidates them into taking a job versus creating a career because they have this enormous debt and feel they need a steady paycheck.  Not incurring this debt will give you a lot a freedom, enable you to purchase a home,whatever, because student debt impacts your credit rating for loans. In addition, the amount of money (after taxes) you would have to earn to pay this loan could be saved as a down payment on that home!
4. Being near family, whether you appreciate it now or not, is a driving force for most people.  We often want to get away to be "out on our own" after college.  But after awhile, most want to "go home."
5. Deciding to go back to State XXX to develop your practice should not be a deterrent simply because your degree is from a non-XXX State School.  (See above.) Success turns on your motivation, perseverance and who you are, the quality of service you deliver and your ability to first cultivate then work a network.  Most often, our family and community ties provide the basis for that network but others are just as successful without that initial network.  It might take a little longer. Since you already have some roots/connections in State XXX, you are ahead of the game.  There are many people who go to school in one state and practice in another.  In addition, think of it this way.  You are currently attending U of Z; you are forced through circumstances beyond your control to move to State XXX upon graduation.  Do you give up your dream to be a solo practitioner?
I would encourage you to go back to State ZZZ for that terrific savings on tuition and to be near family these next years. You would have to work a long time to pay off $50,000 in student loans and you can't get back missed time with your family.  And who knows?  After all is said and done you may simply want to build your practice in your home state.


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I would encourage the person who wrote this question to get into law school as soon as possible, and get out with as little debt as possible.

Getting in as soon as possible means you get out as soon as possible and start building your career. You can never recover the time you will lose waiting around for a few years. Think of all the progress you can make instead.

Getting out with as little debt as possible is crucial to being able to make decisions from a wide range of options. Being forced to take a job because you have too much debt is the beginning of a long and frustrating career.

Especially since you profess an interest in an area of the law that by definition tends to attract clients who are internet & technology savvy, the distance you are physically from your clients really isn't going to be that big of a deal. Besides, if you were practicing on the East Coast, & a client needed your unique area of expertise, wouldn't you use technology and frequent flyer miles to handle that business?

I know it may seem hard to relate to at this point where I'm assuming your salary isn't too high (based on the fact that the $50,000 is a deciding factor for you). But believe me, once you get out & start generating some income, you won't think twice about jumping on an airplane to fly into town to meet with a client for the day & be home in time for dinner. Of course you want to use technology to avoid having to do that as much as possible, but the point is, plan on living wherever you want to live. . . just be good enough to make your physical location a non-issue to clients.


Helping Lawyers In Small Firms Make ALOT More Money

Carolyn Elefant

Susan (and Rjon)
It's hard for me to comment since I don't know how School X and School Z rank (the post only says very, very good and solid). But if School X is a top tier School and School Z is second tier, I would say that the reader should absolutely choose School X.

The reader plans to practice in the high tech field. He may have the opportunity to represent start ups and even larger corporations. Where he attended law school will have an impact here. If he attends the higher ranked school, he's more likely to make alumni contacts who can give him entree into high tech companies. And many people who start up firms have themselves gone to top schools and do care quite a bit about where lawyers received their degree.

Perhaps a consumer client does not care where someone attended law school, though I don't think that is entirely true (I believe that a Harvard Law degree impresses everyone, at least to some extent. I wish that weren't so, and I'm not saying that only Harvard Law grads succeed or even get a better education, but that is the reality of our society) . However, this reader plans to serve high tech clients and that is a practice area where school can matter.

As you probably know, I went to Cornell Law School, which is a top tier school. I owed $70,000 in debt when I graduated in 1988 (which is the equivalent of at least $120,000 in today's dollars). Yet, I don't begrudge what I paid one bit for that degree, because it gave me options that I would not have otherwise when I started my practice, including getting me referrals from biglaw firms which would not have looked at me if I'd not gone to Cornell and impressed some clients. I have earned that $70,000 back and then some, many times over.

I realize that not everyone has a top degree, but not everyone has other credentials (like being bi-lingual or having a background in the medical profession) that also help practices succeed. But lawyers should make the most of what you have and keep options open. Because you never know what may happen down the road.

Susan Cartier Liebel


You and I will have to agree to disagree on this one. I appreciate the journey you took, the value of your degree from Cornell and the opportunities it has provided to you, especially in your practice area, energy regulation. However, I work with solos everyday and listen to the obstacles they believe will prevent them from succeeding. Never has one of my clients or students said, "if only I went to a better law school" or "I lost out on a great client because I didn't go to a top tier school."

They do however, bemoan their debt service and the incredible strain it has placed upon them in all manner of their existence, not just opening a solo practice. Yes, law school loans are the price of admission as are loans in any business one would choose to open. But there is no harm, only good, that can come from having less debt especially when the advantages you suggest exist by going to a higher ranked law school do not necessarily play out for the majority the way you seem to believe..even in this particular student's area of interest. Again this opinion is based upon my experiences. If starting a solo law practice right out of law school is your chosen career path, best to start this career path with less debt, not more.

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