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Deciding where to pursue your LL.M. can be a daunting task. There are a billion considerations in your mind: location, employment considerations, the reputation of the law school, the list is endless. To add to it, there is the tradeoff between going to a law school that has more lay prestige versus a school that is actually ranked higher in the US News Law School Rankings Table.

I’ll illustrate with an example. I was accepted into the LL.M. program at Cornell Law School and was waiting on a few results from other more prestigious law schools, at least as per the rankings! I loved Ithaca when I visited, but I was unsure if I would enjoy living there for a whole year, after having spent most of my time studying in rural college towns (Sewanee, Sonipat, and Champaign). But, how could I turn down Cornell? Especially since it had always been my first love. This was the law school I had fantasized walking the halls of, studying in the classrooms and read its description on Wikipedia countless number of times. I felt like I was cheating on what had been a dream law school for ages.

Soon enough the word spread around my law school campus and I had everyone congratulating me on the admission to Cornell Law. As it turned out, Cornell Law was actually a dream school for many, just like myself. Now, I was almost feeling guilty for having considered other more prestigious law schools. A voice inside me said, isn’t this enough? You waited three years to get an admission from Cornell, and now the world is congratulating you. Go there! A friend even called me an Ivy League lawyer and family members were so proud that I was the first in the family to crack into the Ivy-League. Even an alum who had come to visit my sprawling law school campus found some time to come and wish me good luck. Ouch. How was to tell people I may not go there? How could I tell them I had the nerve to consider something, err, better?

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The overwhelming response to the Cornell admission confirmed one thing and that was that the Ivy League tag sells. Especially in India
– we LOVE them! But I wanted to consider schools that weren’t the Ivy League – perhaps because they offered something different. But, if I were to come back and work as an Indian lawyer would Cornell’s brand power be greater? Would it turn more heads in law firms if I said NYU or if I said, Cornell? How could I have the audacity to turn Cornell down?I had lived in NYC before, but Cornell Law had been my dream school for three years. Was the voice in my head just wrong? Was I, in considering other law schools, being over ambitious?

I figured a way to fake-smile through the congratulatory messages and responses I was getting. Soon enough, I received rejections from Harvard and Oxford, interestingly both on the same day. Even Cambridge said they weren’t interested. Now there was little left in terms of the big names, so perhaps it could be that I would end up at Cornell anyway much to the expectation of the law school paparazzi. Soon enough, in came the “Congratulations” email from NYU Law. I screamed silently as my flight was about to take off (dramatic eh?) and I was getting rude stares from the flight attendant for not having put my phone away. As I landed, I checked my Facebook feed to see that some others had gotten in as well. However, the dilemma continued. How do we say no to the Ivy League?

And, after some research, and talking to other LL.M. graduates, the universe helped me formulate my answer. Simply put, law school rankings are different. Yes, the Ivy League is important but then one has to differentiate between lay prestige and actual prestige in terms of the law. Lay prestige may win you hearts and accolades amongst the general public, but that cant be the basis for a decision to go to a law school for an LL.M. While a university like Cornell outranks NYU easily in terms of the general university rankings, NYU Law is ranked higher as a law school. Therefore, one should go to the best law school (in terms of law school rankings) they can get into. Such intricacies may not be known to people outside the law school world but this can be an important factor in deciding on a law school. In addition, in deciding between schools we have to consider program specifics such as location, employment prospects and what specialty area, if any. Also, some may choose to disregard a higher ranked school, simply because they prefer the city the lower-ranked school is in. This, however, is often seen when the schools are very closely ranked together, such as Stanford Law and Columbia Law. So, someone could disregard the higher ranking of Stanford Law, simply because they want to live in the Big Apple.

At the time of applying, I wanted to pursue International Law as my specialization and both Cornell Law and NYU Law had stellar reputations in them. Which meant there was little to choose between them on this front. It could have been that Cornell was better in terms of a program than NYU despite the ranking difference. Spending a year in NYC was seductive, perhaps more seductive than spending time in Ithaca. As far as employment was concerned, I figured I would have more jobs to apply to if I were based out of NYC. The cost of attendance was almost the same and the quality of professors and research centers seemed equivalent. Each persons’ LL.M. experience would be different from the other, depending on what courses you chose and so it was difficult to generalize beyond a point. Finally, I was able to let go of my attachment to my dream of Cornell Law. It was hard to actually write to them that I would not be attending. I kept reading the email multiple times to ask myself whether I was really turning Cornell.

The Big Decision finally seemed to be happening. However, even after I enrolled at NYU Law and was a few months into the program, I was still answering questions as to why I had turned Cornell down. It was from those same people that had no idea. They just didn’t know which law school was really higher or why I took that decision. Bless their souls. My sister still thinks Northwestern’s LL.M. (she cried when the admission letter came) would have dropped more jaws and raised more eyebrows. Bless her soul too.

Just be prepared to perpetually justify your decision not just to the lay prestige loving public, but also, internally, to yourself.

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