Choosing a law school in Georgia
A few times every year, parents of college students considering law school ask me to talk with their offspring about which Georgia law schools they should consider. Before responding to that question, there is always a conversation about why they want to go to law school, priorities in life, and other options for life and career.
There is always a full disclosure of my bias. I graduated from Emory Law School in Atlanta and have remained involved with Emory in various capacities over the years.
If the prospective law student cannot be dissuaded from the idea of law school, and is still passionate about a legal career and a focus on Georgia, I discuss other factors for selection of a law school. Here are a few.
- The student’s aspirations. A student who truly wants to be a practicing lawyer in Georgia may do well as a graduate of virtually any law school, particularly those in Georgia and neighboring states. I know a lot of good Georgia lawyers who came here and took the bar exam after graduating from law school elsewhere. By the time one has been in practice ten years, most everything of practical value that one uses was learned after law school.
For one who might aspire to teach in a law school someday, clerk for a federal judge or appellate judge, or practice at a silk stocking law firm, the first choice might not be John Marshall or its Savannah branch. They offer opportunity for a legal career to students who might not get in elsewhere. The have some great professors and produce lawyers who do good work in the trenches. But the don’t appeal to legal snobs.
One who might want to become a law professor or depart the jurisdiction upon graduation might focus on a school that is better known nationally. In Georgia, those are primarily Emory University (ranked #22 nationally in the U.S. News survey) and the University of Georgia (#33 in U.S. News rankings), though Georgia State is rising fast.
- Reputation among lawyers and judges in Georgia. The University of Georgia, Emory and Mercer have strong reputations and alumni networks among Georgia lawyers and judges. Georgia State University Law School had its first graduating class in 1984, and has come on strong. Though it is not well known outside Georgia (#57 in US News rankings), its alumni network is growing and its reputation among practicing lawyers and judges inside Georgia makes it highly competitive here.
- Cost. If availability of a wealthy grandparents or a family trust fund makes cost irrelevant, skip past this item. I was not in that category. But when I went to Emory Law School, the tuition cost was about $2,500 per year, more than a state school at the time but still manageable. I chose Emory because I wanted to be in Atlanta, it was the only nationally accredited law school in Atlanta at the time, and Georgia State’s law school was still a much-debated proposal. I graduated with debt of approximately $8,500 and paid it off within four years as an Assistant District Attorney and in small town general practice. Adjusting for inflation, that would be about $33,750 in 2016 dollars.Now tuition alone is $51,510 per year at Emory and $37,260 per year at Mercer. That does not include the cost of living. New graduates often emerge with $150,000 to $200,000 in student debt. That crushing financial burden severely constricts a graduate’s career choices, and may defer personal goals such as buying a home, starting a family and launching one’s own practice.At the other end of the cost spectrum, a student could go law school part-time in the evening at Georgia State while holding a day job, and graduate with little or no debt. Moreover, if a student is married and the spouse’s income is important, the job market in Atlanta, compared to Athens or Macon, may be a factor.That is why I often counsel prospective law students to consider the value proposition at Georgia State. However, GSU’s admissions standards have risen. One recent survey rated Georgia State as #21 on a list of the hardest law schools to get into.
- Availability of programs directed toward a desired specialty. I mention this factor only in passing because a J.D. is a J.D. Everyone takes the same core courses. While one may aspire to a particular career focus and set off in that direction, that may not be where job opportunities are available. No matter what one aspires to at 22, most lawyers wind up in practice areas where they can find a job that will pay their bills. It is common for a student to plan on a glamorous career in, for example, international arbitration, but wind up prosecuting DUI cases or defending car wreck cases for an insurance company. (There are only a handful of lawyers in Georgia who make a living in international arbitration while others aspire to get into it.) However, a prospective student may want to examine how specific course offerings may match the student’s strong background and interests.
- Commitment of the law school’s leadership to Georgia. At the risk of being too parochial, one might also consider whether the law school’s faculty and dean are committed to maintaining strongly positive relationships with the bench and bar in Georgia. While it is good for law schools to recruit the best and brightest faculty from across the country, the individual student may also think about whether it is relevant to her to have professors and deans committed to Georgia practitioners in the long term. I’ve not taken the time to dig through faculty profiles to see how many professors from other places have bothered to become Georgia lawyers. Since leadership counts, I’ve just looked at the deans.
Some legal academics who move into a state from elsewhere place a high priority on cultivation of good relationships with trial court judges, bar leaders and practicing lawyers across the state. Others are totally centered on the academy and seldom condescend to mix with mere mortals in the bar. That is their choice. However, it is not terribly burdensome for legal academics moving into Georgia to be admitted to practice here, as they may be admitted by motion without taking the bar exam if they have been in active practice 5 of the previous 7 years (including judicial clerkships, teaching, government and in-house counsel jobs), pass the character and fitness background check, and pay a $600 fee.
Mercer University. Dean Daisy Hurst Floyd received her B.A. and M.A. in Political Science from Emory University and her J.D. from the University of Georgia School of Law. After graduating from law school, she practiced law in Atlanta with the firm of Alston, Miller, and Gaines, and then served on the faculties of the University of Georgia School of Law and Texas Tech University School of Law before going to Mercer Law School in 2004. She was admitted to practice in Georgia in 1980, and has long been an active participant in the Bar, building strong relationships among Georgia lawyers and judges.
Emory University. Dean Robert Schapiro graduated from Yale (B.A., 1984), Stanford (M.A., 1986) and Yale Law School (J.D., 1990) where he was editor-in-chief of Yale Law Journal. He for a federal district judge in New York and for Justice John Paul Stevens of the US Supreme Court. He worked with the law firm of Sidley & Austin in Washington, DC, where he practiced general and appellate litigation. He taught two years at Duke Law School before coming to the Emory faculty in 1995, and became Dean in 2012. He was admitted to the Georgia Bar in 2005. As Dean, he and his wife regularly attend functions in the legal community in Georgia, and cultivate relationships in the legal community. He is a team player on various boards of legal organizations in Georgia.
Georgia State University. Dean Steven J. Kaminshine earned his undergraduate degree in history (summa cum laude) from New York University, and earned his J.D., with honors, from DePaul University School of Law where he served on the DePaul Law Review. Before joining the faculty, Dean Kaminshine was a partner in a labor and employment law practice in New York City and spent three years at the National Labor Relations Board in Washington D.C. A member of the Georgia State faculty since 1985, and Dean since 2005, he is not been admitted to practice law in Georgia. However, as an academic he has been active with the Labor and Employment Sections of the Georgia and Atlanta Bars and has twice chaired the Atlanta bar’s section. He is a past president of the Southeastern Association of Law Schools, and serves on its executive board.
John Marshall Law School (Atlanta) and Savannah Law School. John Marshall and its Savannah branch, Georgia’s only for-profit law school, has a new dean, Malcolm L. Morris. He is a graduate of Cornell University (B.S.), SUNY Buffalo (J.D.), and Northwestern University (LL.M.). He was previously Interim Dean at Northern Illinois University College of Law and professor at John Marshall Law School in Chicago. He has not been admitted to practice law in Georgia and so far in his new job has a low profile in bar-related organizations.
University of Georgia. Peter B. “Bo” Rutledge became Dean in 2014, chosen by a university search committee chaired by the dean of the school of pharmacy and assisted by the university’s Human Resources office. He holds a B.A. magna cum laude from Harvard University (1992), an M.Litt. in Applied Ethics from the University of Aberdeen (Scotland) and a J.D. with high honors from the University of Chicago, where he served as executive editor of The University of Chicago Law Review and was inducted into the Order of the Coif. He served as a law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court for the Justice Clarence Thomas and at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit for then-Chief Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III. After his clerkships, he remain in Washington, DC, where he worked at the law firms of Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer (1999-2001) where his practice concentrated on international arbitration, and Wilmer Cutler & Pickering (now Wilmer Cutler Pickering Hale and Dorr)(2001-03), where his practice included international dispute resolution and Supreme Court matters. Before joining the UGA faculty in 2008, he taught five years at Catholic University of America Law School (2003-08). In 2010-11, he was a Fulbright Professor at the Institut für Zivilverfahrensrecht at the University of Vienna Law School. Widely published himself, he has placed a strong emphasis on faculty scholarship, publications and placement of graduates in judicial clerkships. He is admitted to practice in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and various federal appellate courts, but after eight years at the University of Georgia he has not chosen to be admitted to practice law in Georgia. He could be a candidate for a deanship at more prestigious law schools within a few years.
All things considered, I advise students to choose a law school where one can both get a good education and graduate without burdensome debt. If cost is not a factor due to scholarship awards or strong family resources, it is really a matter of personal choice, though my personal bias is in favor of my alma mater, Emory. If a student would incur heavy debt attending any other law school, I suggest Georgia State.
Ken Shigley is a past president of the State Bar of Georgia, past chair of the American Association for Justice Motor Vehicle Collision, Highway and Premises Liability Section, and a board-certified civil trial attorney of the National Board of Trial Advocacy. He graduated from Furman University and Emory University Law School.