Good questions - I'll do my best to answer most of them.
I chose Stetson over Miami for a number of reasons. First of all, despite all the books and "ranking" resources applauding Miami for this or that, everything I heard/read last cycle re: Miami cast a negative light on it. The high cost of living, an unfriendly/overly competitive student body, lumping all scholarship students into one section, etc. were things brought up - and though they may not all be true, I never heard anything similar about Stetson. In fact, I heard/read about the exact opposite experience being the case.
I actually was offered 23k/yr at Miami if I recall, and in the end as you mention I am paying sticker at Stetson. I tried to use this and another scholarship offer to bargain a bit with Stetson - in the hopes of getting at least a partial tuition waiver. It did not materialize, but in the end I realized I had already made up my mind and was just trying to justify it to everyone else. I had my eye on Stetson from the start of the cycle because my wife wanted warmer weather (orig from IL), I enjoyed smaller schools (from my Undergrad experience - xferred a few times), and the trial advocacy program garnered a lot of respect. Some people may say it was a dumb decision not to take the money elsewhere (with better rankings), but time has validated my choice to "go where you'll be happy" and the rest will fall into place. Soon after making my decision Miami started offering deferments for an overloaded class, so I was glad not to be in that situation.
Do I worry about the debt? Not really. I worry a lot more about my personal debt accumulated on the way to this juncture. I worked in law enforcement for a couple of years before coming here, so I already had the desire/mindset to practice law in the public arena (criminal prosecution or defense). Although I've broadened the scope of what I might do now that I know about some other options, I will end up working a relatively low paying public service job when I graduate. This puts me in position to utilize the CCRAA 10-year loan forgiveness (federal), so coupled with IBR I will probably pay around 40k of my near 200k bill before the rest (160k) is wiped clean at the end of 10 years. For those of you not planning on doing something similar, the debt may worry you more. There certainly are firm jobs out there that pay well, but it would be much more of a gamble in my opinion.
The campus is small, but it is pretty damn nice. It’s hard to be in a bad mood walking around on it. I was not super-social or anything this semester, because of our 1L class of around 270 – I only know about 100 due being divided up into sections. From this small sample I would say 85% are friendly, genuinely cool/interesting people (we will see about competitiveness when grades come back). Approx. 15% remaining are either the full-of-themselves douche type, or introvert/hyper-competitive type. I’ve actually made many good friends in my short time down here, and I anticipate making more as the sections open up and intermingle.
The internship/externships are mainly a 2L/3L thing, but Stetson has a ton of them available and I would imagine if you put in the time and effort you can secure one or more. I am really excited about doing these and the Clinics (for which I am already in the process of getting my FL Bar clearance – cause it takes awhile) in the coming years. I bet some of the opportunities are more sought-after than others, so as many things I’ve discovered thus far – the key is finding your niche and developing it.
As for job prospects for upper-levels, I can’t really say much with confidence. I know a few who are finding/have found that “niche” described above and they have created options for themselves. Those who blindly trudged through the experience and failed to make the most of it (or learn anything from it for that matter) are probably hurting in this department. One person I know that graduated in May 09’ is getting his LLM in London (@ King’s) and another is working for a sizable Tampa firm – and she likes it. Beyond those small anecdotes I cannot attest to much yet.
Sorry for making this so long, but my overall message is that I really like Stetson so far and you would all be wise to give it a shot at least. The people who get caught up in all the rankings hoopla are the same ones who likely suffer from the “grades are all that matters” syndrome – which I already realize is not necessarily the case. My teachers were awesome, I learned a ton (and can honestly say I enjoyed almost all of it), and I am more stoked about the potential of a JD now than when I came in. It is what you make of it. That’s all for now. Let me know if you need clarification within this wall-o-text. Good luck!