When students quote your slogan to describe their appreciation of your school, you’ve picked the right slogan.
“The marketing term is ‘The Northwestern Difference,’” said third-year Northwestern University School of Law student Sam Ikard. “I don’t know how it is at other law schools, but I don’t think the ‘Northwestern Difference’ thing is just a marketing term. It is actually existent at Northwestern.”
“The Northwestern Difference,” as students tell it, is comprised of three key areas: the school’s recruitment of students with work experience, distinctive programming — such as an accelerated J.D. program and the largest offering of clinics in the state — and employment opportunities created through the school’s alumni network and name recognition.
“I think that going to Northwestern certainly opened some doors for me that may not have otherwise been opened and gave me the opportunity to go in and sell myself once that door was cracked open for me,” said Kendrick Washington II, a 2010 graduate and associate at Nicolaides, Fink, Thorpe, Michaelides, Sullivan LLP.
“Had I gone to a lower ranking school, would I have found employment? I’d like to think so. But I certainly don’t lie to myself and say that going to Northwestern wasn’t a huge part in helping me find a job.”
The Rodriguez difference
Like most law students, Washington graduated with significant debt.
He received a small scholarship, about $14,000 per year, and covered the rest through student loans. Upon graduation, his debt load was around $150,000.
That’s where Dean Daniel B. Rodriguez comes in.
“From the vantage point of our law school, it was clear that fundraising would be an essential part of my job,” said Rodriguez, who became dean Jan. 1, 2012.
“Not because we are cash-poor, which we’re not, but because every dollar that we raise for the law school means less pressure on us to impose the burden on our students to support all of the terrific initiatives at the law school.”
Rodriguez’s fundraising efforts are substantial. Since his arrival, the law school has raised $65 million, including 10 donations of $1 million or more, which account for $44.5 million of the total.
That includes $15 million in December from alumnus Neil G. Bluhm, the largest single gift ever given to the school, along with $10 million in July from alumnus J. Landis Martin and his wife, Sharon.
The Bluhm donation included $5 million for the school’s Loan Repayment Assistance Program and $6 million in unrestricted funds Rodriguez can use at his discretion. When describing the school’s needs and wants in allocating the Bluhm donation, Rodriguez categorized alleviating the student financial burden as a need.
“We have an extraordinary product, but the fact remains that students pay a high rate of tuition, and many come out with significant indebtedness,” he said.
To put the school’s fundraising in perspective — $44.5 million on 10 donations in 28 months — compare it to campaigns by the University of Illinois College of Law and DePaul University College of Law.
From 2003 to 2012, U. of I. conducted a fundraising campaign with a $50 million goal. The school raised $50.2 million.
DePaul is in the midst of a campaign with a $300 million goal, of which $33 million goes to the law school. It began in 2006 and concludes June 30.
Another important fundraising comparison is with the so-called “Top 14,” the schools regularly listed at the top of the annual U.S. News & World Report law school rankings. Those are the schools Northwestern students reference as the others they considered.
Among the “Top 14” campaigns that Rodriguez cites for comparison are Duke University Law School’s four-year, $85 million campaign, now in its final year, and an eight-year, $135 million campaign the University of Michigan Law School held from 2000 to 2008, which eventually raised more than $139 million.
Northwestern has a big push coming too. In March, the university announced its “We Will” campaign, setting a goal of $3.75 billion, of which $1.52 billion has already been raised. As part of the effort, the law school will receive scholarship money from a $40 million unrestricted funds donation.
As for Rodriguez’s fundraising, the money he has helped bring in has led to the expansion of the LRAP — 33 percent last year alone — while helping keep yearly tuition increases “at a very low rate,” he said.
Northwestern’s yearly tuition increases have dipped steadily the past decade, from a 6 percent increase in 2006 down to 4.4 percent in 2011, the year of Rodriguez’s hiring.
Since then, the annual increases have been between 2.5 and 3 percent, the lowest at the school in 40 years.
“We have a wonderful story,” Rodriguez said. “And I think I’m a good storyteller. It’s a story about opportunity for substantial improvement in our law school’s reputation and also innovation in our programs.”
And, he added, “the imperative of reducing the financial burden on students. That message is resonating very well among individuals who are asked to support the school.”
It’s more than just good storytelling, however.
“I’m not afraid to ask for money, and I think that’s an important quality in a dean,” he said. “You can’t be afraid to make the big ask.”
Debt, debt and more debt
There’s a flip side to that coin.
Northwestern’s tuition increases may be dropping, but that still means tuition is rising, from just under $38,000 in 2005 to $51,620 in 2011. It’s up another $4,514 in Rodriguez’s time, meaning nearly a 48 percent increase since 2005.
According to statistics gathered by the American Bar Association, that’s a total in line with the national average.
What’s above average is Northwestern’s tuition, the highest in the state.
In the 2013-14 school year, one year of law school tuition at Northwestern cost $54,764. That’s $2,000 more than the University of Chicago Law School and $10,000 more than Illinois’ third most expensive school, DePaul.
Northwestern’s tuition is high even among the “Top 14” — a pricier bunch than the Illinois law schools. The least expensive one, the University of California, Berkeley, Law School, is $4,000 more expensive than Illinois’ most expensive non-“Top 14” school, DePaul.
Northwestern is the fourth most expensive among those 14, trailing only Cornell University Law School ($59,360), Columbia Law School ($55,916) and Harvard Law School ($54,850).
The difference between a dip in increases and a rise in cost is not lost on students.
“I came into Northwestern with a fine scholarship,” said second-year student Sam Winters. “Even with that, I’m going to be graduating with six figures of debt. It’s almost unavoidable to not graduate with that kind of debt load, regardless of what the school does.”
As president of Northwestern’s student bar association, Winters has gotten an up-close look at Rodriguez’s passion for student-debt alleviation. He knows it’s sincere. But how can students who don’t meet with Rodriguez know that?
“It’s hard for (a) student to appreciate the difference in saving $1,000 in tuition increase versus a $3,000 tuition increase,” he said. “I think I appreciate it, but I think I appreciate it because of how often I was surrounded by those types of discussions.”
The debt problem is not unique to Northwestern. This week, the American Bar Association formed the Task Force on Financing of Legal Education, a 14-member team designed to study the circumstances that lead to student indebtedness and propose recommendations to policymakers in the legal community about lowering that debt.
Still, for students such as second-year Katherine Pine, the time to fret over cost is before and after law school, not during.
“I faced those worries in deciding to come to law school,” Pine said. “Once I’ve come, it’s not something I worry about.”
Though she lacks Winter’s insider perspective, Pine knows that the drop in tuition increases is a result of the school’s dedication to that issue.
“I appreciate that,” she said. “But until we see a reduction, I don’t think people are going to be excited.”
“I think it makes the pill easier to swallow for students,” he said. “But I don’t think people are jumping for joy over it.”
Nobody goes to law school for the bill. So what do law students get for their six figures? At Northwestern, plenty.
Experiential learning is the rage in legal education, with schools responding to market demands that law school graduates enter the work force “practice-ready.” That means creating hands-on, real world student experiences, such as clinics, externships and simulation-based classes.
Northwestern has its share and then some.
“We estimate that somewhere around 92 percent of all Northwestern students participate in one or more of our clinical programs,” said Thomas F. Geraghty, director of the Bluhm Legal Clinic. “We have enough space so that those students who want to enroll in the Bluhm Legal Clinic are able to do so.”
Bluhm is the umbrella structure for Northwestern’s clinical offerings. In it are 14 centers housing 18 clinics in which 153 students are currently enrolled. That’s the most clinics for any Illinois law school; U. of C. is second with 16 clinics.
Two of Northwestern’s centers, though, offer simulation-based classes instead of clinics, with space for 319 students.
Add to that 58 spots in the Center for Externships and that’s a total of 753 experiential learning opportunities for a school that graduates approximately 285 students per year.
“One thing you don’t get in the classroom is seeing what lawyers actually do,” said Ikard, who worked in the MacArthur Justice Center and did two externships.
“Interning for (a) judge, I got to see what a good lawyer looks like in front of a judge and what a bad lawyer looks like. I got to hear from the judge what he found to be persuasive, what he found to be off-putting. So there are these little lessons you can take.”
Northwestern also distinguishes itself as the only “Top 14” school with an accelerated J.D. program, allowing students to earn their degree in five semesters instead of six.
They do that by kicking off their education with a heavy summer load that takes care of the bulk of their first-year work. They then join the second-years and add an extra course for each remaining semester.
For a school that prefers to recruit older students with work experience a few years removed from their undergraduate career, the accelerated J.D. program is another potential money saver.
That was the experience of Lilya Mitelman, currently finishing her first year of school with classes typically taken in the second and third year.
Mitelman graduated from UC-Berkeley in 2008 with a degree in political science. She spent the intervening years working on political campaigns and for nonprofits before deciding to attend law school.
“I think for a lot of students, including myself, we’re leaving careers and we’re considering that within the context of what’s the cost of going to school, because we are leaving a salary,” she said. “So two years instead of three makes a difference. It’s one less year of living expenses, and we’re able to get back to the work force faster.”
Getting there is, of course, the goal of every law student. Northwestern’s track record with that is part of the school’s appeal, and among the reasons that students are willing to go into debt.
It’s why Winters chose Northwestern.
He knew he wanted to work in Chicago and decided against the University of Pennsylvania Law School because of Northwestern’s Chicago connections.
“It’s very important for me (to be at Northwestern) because of the city of Chicago,” he said. “You just are able to talk with a lot of alumni from Northwestern law in all of these Chicago firms.”
During Winters’ on-campus interviews, when firms visit the school for 20-minute Q&A sessions, Winters was impressed that of the handful of firms with whom he interviewed, he’d already spoken with representatives from three.
“A lot of that is just organic because of Northwestern being in Chicago,” he said. “For that reason, it was a huge help.”
Ikard made the same decision and at a steeper financial cost, passing on a “substantial” scholarship at the University of Wisconsin Law School and a small scholarship at Vanderbilt University Law School in favor of Northwestern, where he did not have any scholarship offer.
“I ultimately chose Northwestern because Chicago was a city I loved, and that’s where I wanted to end up,” Ikard said. “You get the best opportunities to work in a city by going to a school in that city.”
Washington has also benefited from Northwestern’s network, though not just in Chicago. Since graduation, he has used alumni connections to help secure jobs in three markets.
“The Northwestern networking community is huge,” he said. “We’re sort of tight-knit despite our large size, and that has helped me as well. The strong network of Northwestern attorneys has allowed me to work here in Chicago, New York and Boston and move about with relative ease.”
Add it all up and it’s easy to understand why Northwestern has a strong employment rate, second in the state only to U. of C. Since the ABA began collecting such data in 2010, 80.1 percent of Northwestern graduates have gained full-time, long-term, J.D.-required employment within nine months of graduation.
For Northwestern students, that’s a number that makes all the difference.