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VOL. 41 | NO. 8 | Friday, February 24, 2017

Is law school worth it?

Tennessee universities make their case

By Joe Morris | Correspondent

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Aspiring barristers have no shortage of options when it comes to Tennessee schools, colleges and universities offering Juris Doctor programs.

But how to vet them? How much tutition can you afford? How far will you have to go into debt?

What are potential students looking for? For some, it’s a matter of cost or location; for others, it’s campus diversity, faculty experience and a robust alumni network. And then there’s the matter of class size, as well as night and weekend offerings for those not pursuing a law degree full time.

All this, without even getting into the intangibles such as the feel of a place, means that law schools in Tennessee have lots of angles to pursue when it comes to new-student recruiting. And they’ve all become adept at highlighting their unique offerings in a competitive market.

Belmont’s law school opened in 2011, and by its class of 2016 only 25 percent of students weren’t utilizing some kind of loan or scholarship, which meant that “the trend is that our students aren’t graduating with six-figure debt,” says Andy Matthews, associate dean for student services at Belmont.

“The JD degree is one of the most flexible degrees to get, but also one of the most expensive and it takes some time,’’ says Matthews. “But the cost-benefit analysis is that it pays itself off three or four times over in a 40-year career. We provide debt counseling so that our students don’t borrow the maximum amount and graduate with a huge debt.

“We tell them to be smart about it, to not live like a lawyer in law school and then have to live like a law student when they graduate.”

‘Cost of attendance’

Vanderbilt University’s Law School has a national reputation for excellence, and in recent years, it has also picked up applicants who want the Nashville lifestyle.

“Our students are attracted to Nashville, which is a great place to study law because it is big enough to have a robust legal culture with federal, state, and municipal courts, a U.S. Attorney’s Office, the state legislature, a wide range of law firms with diverse practices and clientele, state and federal agencies, and non-profits, but it’s also small enough to allow law students to contribute through clinics, pro bono work and student organizations,” says Todd Morton, assistant dean and dean of admissions at Vanderbilt Law School.

Students at the Nashville School of Law utilize the school library for studying.

-- Michelle Morrow | The Ledger

A varied slate of both in-class and real-life offerings does have strong appeal for prospective students, as does affordability, adds Brad Morgan, interim director of the Bettye B. Lewis Career Center and associate director of its Institute for Professional Leadership at the University of Tennessee College of Law.

“We were just ranked 16th in preLaw magazine’s top 20 best-value law schools, where they factor things like tuition, living expenses, debt, employment rates and bar passage rates,” Morgan says.

“We also made their list for business and corporate law, so it shows that we have a very strong value proposition for the school itself as well as specific programs that we offer.”

Another question most students want answered is class size and faculty-student ratio, and that’s one that both Belmont and Vanderbilt heavily promote.

“We wanted to build a quality law school, not run a diploma mill, so we only have around 100 students every year,” explains Belmont’s Matthews. “That has let us get through the last six years at a pace we want, and it has allowed us to move through the accreditation process in a way that got us ranked highly by the American Bar Association in terms of undergrad GPA, LSAT scores and other measures.”

Matthews also mentioned the school’s nationally known faculty, including dean and former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales as a draw. That’s a point that Vanderbilt prides itself on as well, says Morton.

“The Vanderbilt Law faculty consistently ranks in the top 10 nationally on scholarly impact, and because VLS has a comparatively small student body, our students have exceptional access to elite law professors throughout their professional training,” Morton points out.

That said, tuition and other expenses are often higher at private vs. public-university law schools, and that is something that their operators are more than willing to address while also touting the benefits.

“We use the term ‘cost of attendance,’ and that is going to vary at a private law school,” says Matthews.

“We are not subsidized by the state as a public school is, and so we’re going to have higher tuition. But we do have a fairly generous scholarship program that is merit based, and we have a goal to get one-third of our law students on some type of merit-based program to help with the cost of attendance.

“Depending on the scholarship and other funding a student can tap into, attending a private school can sometimes be less than going to a public one.”

He also touts Belmont’s robust alumni network, as does Vanderbilt’s Morton and Memphis’ Letsou.

“Vanderbilt Law graduates consistently secure top-tier legal employment with employers across the nation and around the world, allowing them significant geographic mobility which is supported by the school’s longstanding relationships with legal employers coast to coast and its global alumni network,” Morton says.

“Vanderbilt Law students are drawn from across the nation and abroad, and while they have remarkably varied backgrounds, experiences and professional goals, they have something important in common: they chose Vanderbilt for its longstanding reputation for collegiality and relationship-building.”

A four-year option

“We are exclusively night classes, so are designed for folks who are usually working and have a full-time career outside of law school,” says Michele Wojciechowski, director of communication and engagement at the Nashville School of Law.

“That means we are a four-year program as opposed to a three-year school one, which is what most law schools are.”

While that might indicate a student base older than many law schools, which have enrollees who often have just finished a bachelor’s degree, Wojciechowski says the school draws a much wider range.

“We have students from their early 20s to their late 60s, and we had one last year in his 70s. So, it really does pull from all age demographics,” she explains. “People find at different points in their lives that they may want a law degree, and we offer an alternative option to a full-time, day program.”

Students also are drawn to Nashville as a place to live and work following graduation in some cases, and that’s only increasing as the city’s profile continues to raise nationally.

On campus and off

At the Cecil C. Humphreys School of Law at the University of Memphis, the on- and off-campus attractions also are many, according to Peter Letsou, dean and professor of law — who is more than willing to run down his list.

“I can start with our facility, which is really magnificent,” Letsou says. “We relocated to the former U.S. customs house, courthouse and post office in 2010, and the state did a great job in restoring this 1876 facility.”

The downtown location also allows students to engage with practicing lawyers, which adds another benefit alongside classroom and physical offerings.

“The urban environment is like a living lab for teaching law, and where we are brings with it some real education advantages for our students,” Letsou adds. “Lawyers are problem solvers, and an urban location allows students to deal with important legal and social issues.

“We are leveraging our location through two vehicles: expanding internships and externships available to students because of our proximity to city and country government, public-services agencies and courts that are within walking distance of our campus.”

That proximity has allowed the school to draw 30 percent of its most recent class from outside Tennessee, he points out.

“We have many programs that combine experiential learning opportunities with community engagement,” Letsou says. “Those are things like neighborhood preservation clinics, medical-legal apprenticeships and most recently a children’s defense clinic.

“We highlight those opportunities to prospective students, because we think it’s important that they know they can get their hands dirty and get some real experience here that will let them become better lawyers while also having a positive impact in the community.”

“We are 55 years old now, and have alumni in 48 states, and that is valuable for students,” notes Letsou.

Degree in law, job elsewhere

When it comes to law school, looking back, was it worth it?

An attorney with more than two decades’ experience lays out the pros and cons, as does a recent graduate. Both have requested anonymity in order to speak freely.

First of all, the idea of working in a large firm like those on television may be a bit oversold, says one.

“Lawyers at fancy firms are only about 10 percent to 15 percent of all lawyers practicing,” says the seasoned attorney. “I believe the ABA said recently that 83 percent of all lawyers practice solo or in small firms of 50 people or less, or work in government, as in-house counsel or for nonprofits.”

In addition, the attorney adds, “not as many grads work in law jobs as some schools might say. The whole profession is still in a slump compared to the go-go years of the 1990s to 2000s. But when one market closes, like real estate or securities, another one like bankruptcies opens.

“Salaries need to be studied; lawyers may not make as much as some think they do, and many people don’t practice law their entire working career.

If you’re going to go significantly into debt that needs to be considered, but the ROI is there if you practice for a long time.”

“Law school was expensive and will continue to be expensive, because I took out student loans to pay for all of it,” says a 2014 graduate of a Nashville-based law school. “But I loved law school, and all the work was worth it. I don’t practice law, and don’t know that I ever want to practice law, however. I work for a company that helps people start nonprofit organizations. I went to law school originally to help people in the nonprofit world, so I use what I learned as I continue that work. In other words, I use my law degree to my benefit, and to the benefit of others.”