Columbia Law: Forget Big Law, think Big Heart

Columbia Law School has a great overall rep, but its real claim to fame is that it sends the most grads to Big Law than any law school in the nation. Nearly 70 percent of its Class of 2017 went to Big Law. The next closest school, The University of Chicago Law School, limped in at second, at 60 percent.

So when the New York-based school recently announced it was beefing up a certain specialty, it made news. That’s because it wasn’t anything Big Law related. Um, hardly.

It was public interest.

That’s the opposite of Big Law. That’s where lawyers don’t toil for $190,000 a year. They make, on average, about $50,000. They don’t help corporate America manage mergers and acquisitions or pull off mega-financial deals.

They help needy people ward off shady landlords or homeless vets get much-needed benefits.

It’s not as if Columbia doesn’t have a history of preparing lawyers for pubic service. It does. It’s even ranked among the nation’s top law schools for it. It’s just that many students are drawn to Columbia to land that golden ticket to Big Law. That $190,000? That’s just the first-year salary …  

Yet the school is investing $4.5 million over the next three years to improve its public interest programming and accessibility.


Did three ghosts visit someone of importance at the law school … (Well, we are nearing Christmas.)

New York is home to a number of law schools that have strong public interest programs. New York University School of Law and City University of New York School of Law have much heralded public interest offerings. Indeed, CUNY Law’s mission is to create public interest lawyers. It was ranked No. 1 for public interest by preLaw magazine last year.

And now Columbia is stepping up its game.

“Columbia Law School has a strong tradition of educating and mentoring graduates who will go on to serve the community, and these enhancements now position us as the premier destination for law students eager to pursue public interest and government careers,” said Dean Gillian Lester, in a news release. “Making this work possible and emphasizing its importance is core to our mission and, perhaps today more than ever, critical for the health and vitality of our nation’s most important institutions.”

This may not be an isolated trend, either. While it’s just one law school making such an investment, it’s a very prominent law school. And more students are said to be drawn to law school for reasons other than making money.

The American Association of Law Schools did a recent survey of prospective students in hopes of finding what fuels their interest in going to law school. The report, Before the JD: Undergraduate Views on Law School, discovered that earnings was not the most cited reason.

“Students considering law report that the top reason for going to law school is a pathway to a career in politics, government or public service,” the report said.

Other top reasons were “passion for and highest interest in type of work,” followed by “opportunities to be helpful to others or be useful to society/giving back and to advocate for change.”

“This means that three of the top four reasons for undergraduates to consider law school show that they see law as a way to contribute to the pubic good rather than a private benefit,” the report said.

Law school has seen more interest of late, as well. Applications rose 8 percent last year. Called the “Trump Bump,” it’s believed to be caused by President Trump, whose policies have angered many younger Americans who tend to be more liberal and idealistic.  

Columbia’s move would make the school an attractive option to such students, no question.

For one, the school will increase the scope of its Loan Repayment Assistance Program (LRAP) which helps graduates who work in public interest pay off their law school debt. The income threshold will rise from $50,000 to $55,000, making it one of the most generous in the nation, the school said.

Beginning in the 2019-20 academic year, the school’s new Public Interest/Public Services Program will be offered. Additionally, new post-graduate fellowships will be added.

“These new opportunities and resources—both inside the classroom and beyond—strengthen Columbia's commitment to the public good,” the school said in a statement. “They are a firm and tangible commitment to ensure that any student wishing to pursue a career in public service is well positioned to do so immediately after they graduate. This benefits our students and society as a whole.”

However, remember one important thing: You need both heart and brains to make it at this particular school. The median LSAT at Columbia is 172.











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