The main reason to go to Columbia:
A law degree from Columbia looks good on your resume.
Columbia is one of a handful of highly prestigious law schools. Why should anyone care? Because the legal profession is much more interested about where you attended law school than most other professions. Whether it is rational or not, the simple fact is that going to a school like Columbia pretty much assures you a well-paying job upon graduation, and is a good foundation for your resume for the rest of your legal career.
This is not just Columbia, of course. The same can be said of a few other schools. From my own job hunting experiences, and my experience sitting on the recruiting committee of a big New York law firm, Columbia is considered the equal of any other law school there is, with the possible exception of Yale, which is pretty much perceived as being in a class by itself. Our firm considered applicants from Harvard, Chicago, Columbia, NYU, and Yale as the top tier. (probably Stanford would have been in that category too, but as a New York firm, we did not get many Stanford resumes.) Yalies got particular preference within this top tier. That isn't to say that you can not get a good job if you didn't attend one of these named schools. However, once you move out of this top tier, there is more pressure on an applicant to meet additional criteria, such as academic honors, law review, significant experience, or other exceptional qualities.
If you can get in to a top school, you should do it, even if a lesser known school offers you more financial aid, is more in tune with your personality, or has a program more in line with your personal interests. If you plan to make your living as an attorney, a top tier school on your resume is worth it. Ultimately, it provides you with options and opportunities that simply aren't available from other sources. A law degree from a top school gives you the flexibility to make a large array of choices once you graduate and are in the "real world."
So . . . my review is for somebody who has been accepted at more than one top school, and is wondering which one to attend.
Pros and Cons:
Living in New York City: Lots to do. Lots to see. Museums, galleries, shops, clubs, restaurants. Lots of New York law firms who want to hire you, so working part time and making lots of money as a 3rd year student is relatively easy. Living in NYC does have its drawbacks, however. It's very hard to own a car, as parking on the street is difficult, and garage parking is very expensive. If you park on the street, plan on getting your car windows broken and the stuff in your car stolen at least once per year (even if you put a "no radio" sign on the window.) Not having a car makes it difficult to escape the city if you feel the need to flee to the country for the weekend. Crime isn't as bad as many folks outside of New York City think it is. Provided you use some common sense, New York is one of the safer big cities there is. Lots of wackos and panhandlers, but not nearly as bad since the advent of Republican mayors who have clamped down on the aggressive panhandling and in-your-face harassment that used to be the rule.
Housing is expensive, but Columbia provides opportunities for rent-subsidized housing which is cheaper than paying market rates. Columbia housing is pretty much luck of the draw (literally) with a lottery determining whether you get a great place or a dive.
The Columbia campus is very pleasant for a school right in the middle of a city. The campus is actually a self-contained neighborhood, not just a bunch of buildings scattered around the city. There are lawns, beautiful architecture, and lots of nice spots to sit in the Sun and read. The law school itself has been renovated and is a lot more attractive than it was. Nothing to get excited over, but not quite the dilapidated dump it used to be.
1st year classes and 2nd year required classes are pretty much standard. Some really big classes, some smaller classes. The professors are a mix of great teachers, mediocre teachers, and some teachers that clearly would rather not be bothered with students.
Once you get past your 1st year, it is relatively easy to find some interesting small seminar classes where you can get some good one to one time with your professors. The school has very good international law programs. Their programs in Chinese and Japanese law are some of the best in the country. My experience with the smaller, more specialized classes was universally good. The professors tended to be quite enthusiastic and genuinely interested in helping students learn.
Tuition and living costs are very high, perhaps the highest in the US. However, the financial aid office is somewhat reasonable, and can work with you (I got a ˝ tuition break my first year.) You can make a lot of money working part time in your 3rd year (some folks even get good part time jobs their 2nd year.) This can offset the tuition costs somewhat. Like many schools, Columbia has a public interest program which will somewhat subsidize alumni who choose low paying public interest jobs. I have no idea how the program works, but I do know a couple of people who took advantage of it. If you have to borrow all your tuition, you will graduate with a hefty amount of debt, but given the astronomical starting salaries at big firms, you can pay it off pretty fast if you decide to work for a big firm (which most Columbia grads do.)
The red tape can be maddening at times, particularly when you are dealing with anything at the University level. The University seems to go out of their way to hire rude, dimwitted and unhelpful people in their bureaucracy. Thankfully, the Law School seems to be a bit better staffed.
I found the Columbia student body to be a relatively diverse group of people. There are people (students and teachers) with political and philosophical points of view from every end of the spectrum. Whatever your particular leanings are, you can no doubt find like-minded folks at Columbia to associate with. I never saw any of the rumored over-competitiveness among students, and it wasn't hard to form study groups and find people to share the burden of class and test prep. I think that the atmosphere and stress level are pretty much what you make of it yourself.
Overall, I had a great experience at Columbia. The three years as a student there were interesting, and the opportunities afforded by the Columbia degree have been substantial.
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