Ah, to attend part-time or not to attend part-time. That is the question. For many students, the decision is a no-brainer–attending a full-time program is the only way to go. But what happens when you don’t have the time or need/want to continue working full-time while you attend law school? That’s when part-time programs start looking very attractive.
Many students, however, are reticent about even considering a part-time (sometimes referred to as PT) program: Are they considered lowlier than full-time programs? How much longer will that stretch out getting a JD? Can you really work full-time and go to school?
Let’s demystify PT programs a little bit.
A full-time law program is the traditional 3-year law school stint that most applicants are readily familiar with. Part-time programs offer the same classes and the same end result, but take longer to complete–typically 4 years.
Boston College offers a list of part-time programs on their website, along with the 25th and 75th percentiles for undergraduate GPA and LSAT scores for admitted applicants and the number of part-time students in the program (as well as their corresponding percentage of the total class). Numbers on part-time enrollment can also be found on LSAC’s Official Guide to ABA-Approved Law Schools, by looking under the “Enrollment” section for each school (a school with part-time options will show numbers under the “JD ENROLLMENT (PT)” column).
As with everything, there are pros and cons to attending a part-time law program.
Pros of a Part-Time Law Program
- Flexibility. Part-time law programs have much more flexible entrance requirements than their full-time counterparts. If you have a less-than-stellar LSAT score or a poor UGPA, it might be worthwhile to look into to part-time programs, as they are usually much more lenient regarding admission standards. Part-time law programs also have flexible schedules, which works well for those students with full-time jobs that they want to keep, and/or families that they need to attend to.
- Stability. Most part-time applicants are not applying outside of their immediate geographic area. Attending a part-time program right in the city they live in allows them to eschew any potential relocation and maintain their routine.
- Increased financial freedom. Part-time programs allow you to attend fewer classes for a longer period of time (which in turn lets you continue working full-time, if you choose). This may make it easier to take out fewer student loans at one time, while potentially being able to repay some of the principal while still in school. By maintaining a job while in school, students can often offset the costs of their legal education by working. Instead of having to take out tens of thousands of dollars in loans for living expenses, students will only need to borrow the cost of tuition. In some cases, depending on the company they work for (and if they have tuition assistance) or the salary they make, they may not have to take loans out at all. This is a huge boon over full-time programs.
- Present and future “safety nets.” Two personal benefits that are important to many are the ability to keep company-provided health insurance and being able to continue contributing to any company-sponsored retirement plan. Having the ability to keep your job while attending school makes both of these possible. Many law students do not have health insurance (due to its prohibitive cost when not company-sponsored, or if their school does not have a program they can participate in), and many also consider the potential earnings given up during the three years of full-time law school to be an addition to the financial burden of a law education. The possibility to continue earning and contributing to a retirement fund are definite pluses enjoyed by PT students.
It’s not all roses, though. PT programs also have their negatives.
Cons of a Part-Time Law Program
- It takes longer. This is the con that affects most students’ decision. No one wants to be in school for longer than necessary (specially an endeavor as costly as law school), so the longer it takes to get your JD, the less attractive things start to look.
- Expensive. Surprisingly, most part-time programs are not considerably cheaper than their full-time counterparts (although you would expect them to be). Students in PT programs often end up paying considerably more than full-time students (sometimes disproportionately so).
- Limited schools and job prospects. Only a few schools offer part time law school programs, so you’re likely to be limited by the number of schools you can apply to. Typically, this isn’t a problem for individuals choosing to attend a part-time program, since they are usually older applicants looking for a career change or advancement, and their primary concern is finding the closest school that will allow them to study for a JD, have a short commute to school, and retain a job. However, if ranking, status, and prestige are a consideration, it’s worth noting that of the twenty schools at the top of the U.S. News & World Report law school rankings only one—Georgetown University—offers part-time law programs (another, Washington University in St. Louis, notes part-time students in its LSAC profile, but has no information regarding PT programs on its website). The majority of the part-time law programs are offered at less prestigious schools, and this could result in limited job prospects for part-time students.
- Missed networking opportunities. Part-time students simply do not spend as much time on campus as full-time students, and they are also there for longer than the traditional three years, making it harder for them to network with their classmates. At the ranking level where most part-time programs are located, networking is of utmost importance; most schools that offer part-time programs are either local or regional schools, where most students will remain in the general geographic area of their institution. Not networking with these students can hamper your job prospects upon graduation.
- Lower grades. Students in part-time programs are juggling at least two major responsibilities: Work and school. In many cases, they may also be taking care of families. This additional burden may cause part-time students’ schoolwork to suffer, even with reduced class schedules.
- Poor job performance. As a corollary to the point above, adding school (and maybe family) to a full-time work schedule can also cause your job performance to suffer.
- Part-time “stigma.” Although it is becoming less common, the perception of part-time law programs is that they are not as high a caliber, or as rigorous, as full-time programs–even within the same institution. This can result in fewer job offers and potentially less pay for part-time law program graduates.
All in all, a part-time program may be the best answer for some, but not all, students. Carefully consider your options, your opportunity cost, and what your overall aims are in obtaining a JD when considering full-time vs. part-time programs, and make sure that a part-time program can help you fulfill them. Otherwise, a full-time program may be the best option.