By Jordan Carter • March 31, 2015
The sun is shining, birds are chirping, and spring is most definitely springing. At one time in my life, this time of year meant date parties, formals, and endless outdoor celebrations. For prospective law students, however, it means much more. It is once again Admitted Students Weekend time for those who are about to start law school, and oh boy is it a whirlwind. We had ours this past weekend, and as I talk to bright-eyed, eager future law students, answer their questions, and listen to their worries, I find myself reliving my own horribly stressful decision-making process circa spring 2012.
I was working in Boston at a middle school. I was also applying to sixteen law schools around the country. After my undergrad approach of doing early-admission at one school, I decided to do the complete opposite this time and apply to schools I had no legitimate interest in just because... I don't know. I thought I should. They sounded prestigious. I applied to Harvard because it's Harvard and that's what people do. I also applied to a bunch of schools where I actually could see myself being happy (no offense, Harvard) (just kidding I know you are all doing okay there even with my insults). The whole process was tedious, silly, and incredibly stressful.
The next few months were spent waiting to hear back from schools. During that time, I satiated my need for control by obsessively reading blogs, message boards, websites, etc. I read everything from the $40 HOW TO PICK A LAW SCHOOL officially-sanctioned books to delving into random corners of the internet where intense nerds calculate all sorts of admission hypotheses that the less-nerdy people seem to unconditionally accept as truth. Once I heard back from everyone and eliminated the ones I knew I didn't really have an interest in, I eventually narrowed my choices down to five: Michigan, Northwestern, U Chicago, Stanford, and Kansas.
One of these things is not like the other.
I will just lay it out for you: KU is not a Top 14 school. I know that. Spoiler alert: I chose it anyway.
I checked off the remaining schools for a variety of reasons. I think they are all (obviously) wonderful schools with great opportunities. I would have (obviously) been lucky to end up at any of them. The point is that I had to seriously sit down and think about what I wanted, why I wanted it, and why I was making the decisions I was making. I will not pretend it was an easy process. It was terrifying because every day I wondered if I was an idiot for saying no to these elite law schools. I mean, people on the message boards genuinely use the term "YHS" to refer to the top three trifecta. Who would decline to go there? It was awkward because I had people constantly questioning why I would even consider going back to Kansas when I had these other options. My own grandparents told me, "we'd be happy if you go anywhere... except Kansas."
Here's the thing. The people on the message board weren't going to live my life. My friends weren't going to be taking out hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans. My grandparents were not going to be moving to a new city and grinding it out for three years of law school. Instead of thinking about what would sound the most prestigious or what would make people most impressed or what someone else would want me to do, I had to sit down and force myself to really evaluate what mattered to me.
For what it's worth, what mattered to me were three things: affordability, community, and proximity to my loved ones. I was fortunate to have some enticing money options at other schools; I enjoyed the community at a couple of the other schools; several of them were relatively close to home -- but the only school to offer all three was Kansas.
I'm not gonna lie -- I wanted to go to Stanford. Badly. I checked my email and my phone a dozen times every day waiting to hear back from them. When I got accepted, I was so incredibly happy that I nearly vommed. It was my dream school. But I could not afford it. They told me it would cost $54k in tuition and another $28k for living expenses. Times three. That is a quarter of a million dollars. And they were not about to give that to me. To me, being $250k in debt was not reasonable. It did not make sense, especially when I knew I wanted to eventually end up in the Midwest. If I had known that I wanted to do big law in a big city, or if I had known that I wanted to do a SCOTUS clerkship, the debt would have been worth it. I would have taken the loans and spent many years paying them back and I would have been okay with that choice. But for me, in that moment, it was not the right choice.
Do I wonder about what might have been? Yes. Stanford is phenomenal and when I read about Sandra Day O'Connor teaching classes there, I experience a pang because I know we would have become fast friends. Do I daydream about where I could be heading if I had gone there? Yes. There are more opportunities when you graduate from Stanford Law School. Duh, I know that. Do I feel like I would have had enjoyed my three years better there? Honestly, sometimes I do. I mean, come on... Palo Alto is heavenly. But do I regret going home to the heartland for law school? Nope.
Because, if there is one thing I know for sure, it's that in all things, you have to make the best decision for you with the information you have at the time. That is all anyone can expect from you, and that is all you can expect from yourself.
For me, I needed those three things. I knew this was going to be a challenging three years and that I needed to make it easier however I could. That could not have turned out to be truer. I have LOVED being able to go home for the weekend and see my family and to be able to see my high school friends regularly for the first time in five years. I have LOVED being in a place where professors actually talk to students and care about them, where fellow students are people you actually want to hang out with outside of class. I have LOVED the freedom of knowing I can pay off my loans pretty quickly and be able to live the life I want, instead of one that the quarter of a million dollar debt demands.
Your things may be similar or they may be completely different. You may feel like you need a certain part of the country, or a certain academic specialization, or a certain political leaning, or access to a certain legal market, or a certain pricetag, or a certain ranking, or the ability to study abroad in a certain place, or a certain type of population, or a certain name recognition, or a certain clinical program, or a certain level of clerkship placement, or whatever. Or maybe you are having the complete opposite of experience as I did, and you knew from the start where you wanted to be, applied there, and had it all squared away in January. Regardless, you need to figure out what your things are, and try your best to be secure in that. Make your decision based on THOSE things and then let everything else go.
Because wherever you go, know this: you are taking the same classes as everyone else in law school. You are experiencing the same stressors as everyone else in law school. You are doing the same things as everyone else in law school. Law school is law school is law school -- reading International Shoe will be the same no matter which building you are holed up inside. I am at a school that isn't even in the top 50 and I am doing just fine. I have taken excellent classes with the most brilliant professors. I have interned with a federal judge. I have done Law Review. I am working at a big firm. And I have done all that while legitimately enjoying law school (as much as I think is possible) and while being part of extracurriculars and student groups I wouldn't have done had I been at a school where I didn't like the people or feel comfortable with the culture. I have made lifelong friends at law school and I am fairly certain that wasn't gonna happen at some of the other places I applied to.
What I want prospective students to know is this: we put a lot of pressure on ourselves -- and we face a lot of legitimate outside pressure -- to make the right choice and to be 100% absolutely certain in it. You cannot avoid that. But you can accept it for what it is and then allow yourself both the grace to make the right decision for you and the confidence to trust yourself. As long as you tune out the external noise when you need to, ask for help when you need to, and stick with what is sincerely important to YOU, you will make the best choice for you. I promise. Rock Chalk.