How to Choose the Right Law School
So, you’ve decided that being a lawyer is the right career path. You’ve read the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and thought to yourself “Yeah, I want to spend my career reading these kinds of procedures!”
Perhaps you want to defend the little guy –injured auto accident victims, abused children, tenants, and crime victims. Regardless of the rationale, you’ve decided that three more years of education, courtrooms, and long hours with passive-aggressive personalities is the right choice for you. Now what?
The American Bar Association (ABA) has accredited about 202 law schools. After taking the LSAT and achieving high grades in undergraduate school, it is not uncommon for applicants to be accepted to more than one school. Picking between schools is a difficult and important decision that will impact not only your next three years of education, but also the rest of your professional life.
There is no guarantee the school you enroll in will be the “right” choice. However, there are factors any potential law student should consider when making their law school decision. Law school applicants should consider the following factors when choosing what school to attend:
Six Factors to Consider When Choosing a Law School:
- Personal feelings about the school
- Personal goals after school
- Understanding the reality of legal education
- U.S. News Rankings
- Law School Location:
Many incoming law students do not consider a law school’s location as seriously as they should. Incoming law students believe law school will be so difficult that the city they live in will not matter. However, every law student has a life outside of law school and the city you live in will have a tremendous impact on your education experience and career options after graduation.
Some people can easily adjust to drastic social and cultural changes while it is much more difficult for others. A student planning to move across country for law school should evaluate their personality and make sure they can handle the social and cultural changes.
It is not uncommon for law students to not consider these changes and become homesick during the first year, which negatively impacts their academic performance and their overall law school experience.
Most law students take the bar exam in the state they attended law school. Many incoming students think they will take multiple state bar exams upon graduation, but very few attorneys are licensed in multiple states. If you are licensed in only one state, then you will be working in that state.
In addition to that limitation, most firms, government agencies, companies, and other employers do not routinely recruit outside of their region. There are exceptions for schools such as Harvard, Yale, and other elite institutions, but outside of the top 10-20 law schools, employers simply do not recruit outside of their region. For example, the San Diego District Attorney will not conduct on-campus interviews at Nebraska Law School; instead, they will conduct on-campus interviews at the University of San Diego.
Additionally, your internships and connections will be developed in the city you attend law school due to geographic limitations. If you attend a California law school, interning anywhere other than California for nine months of the school year will be extremely difficult.
Most law students are in their mid-twenties, which is the prime time of your life to develop long-term social connections. During law school, you are likely to enter a serious romantic relationship or solidify an existing one, make friends, find an apartment or house you love, etc.
In short, odds are that you will end up staying and living in the same region where you attend law school. There are exceptions, but most school graduates live within 300 miles of the law school they attend.
2. Cost of Law School
Student loan money is easy to come by for law students and it is often not something students seriously consider during law school. After graduation, however, those loans become real and can be financially crippling, which is why any incoming law student should research actual costs, scholarship opportunities, etc.
Several schools offer in-state or reduced tuition. University of Florida and Florida State charge $18,000 per year for Florida Residents. There are a few other schools that offer cheap in-state tuition, which can result in significant savings for law students. The majority of ABA law schools charge between $40,000 and $60,000 a year, so if the option to attend a law school that offers in-state tuition presents itself, it is worth looking into.
Many law schools offer scholarships to incoming law students, but these scholarships can be misleading. Many law schools attach scholarship stipulations-e.g. needing to achieve a 3.0 GPA during your first year. Keep in mind that 100% of incoming law students are smart, hard-working, motivated. On the first day of school, 100% of students truly think they will be in the top 10% of the class.
This means 90% of students will not meet their own expectation. This impacts scholarships because law grading applies a steep curve. At many schools, only 35% of first year students can achieve a 3.0 GPA. In these situations, there is a 65% chance a scholarship student will lose their scholarship for years two and three.
3. Personal Feelings about Law School:
Each school has a unique culture, which will work for some students, but not others. Any incoming law student should not rely on magazines, Internet posters, or online articles to tell you what school is best for you. Before enrolling in a law school, a student should conduct an onsite visit, talk to professors, students, admin staff, walk around the campus, and walk around the neighborhood surrounding the campus.
4. Personal Goals After Law School:
Some law students may already have a goal in mind for what they want to do after law school. Some students are determined to be criminal prosecutors or open their own law firm right after passing the bar exam. Some students may be set in practicing intellectual property law or personal injury law because of a previous background in engineering or science.
If you already have a post-law school plan that you are determined to see through, you should make sure the law school can support this plan. If you plan to open your own firm, check whether the school has any incubation programs for recent graduates who want to go solo.
Similarly, if you are interested in a particular field, check for clinics, student organizations, and other programs that can not only give you work experience but also networks and connections to help you build a career post-graduation. For instance, if you are interested in immigration law, many law schools have immigration or human rights clinics that may be of interest.
5. The Reality of a Legal Education:
For all intents and purposes, the education offered at any ABA law school is identical. During the First year, your course list will consist of Torts, Contracts, Property, and Civil Procedure. In these courses you will read Supreme Court cases.
The law is the law and no matter what law school you attend you will read about negligence per se in Torts, misjoinder of parties and summary judgments in Civil Procedure, Miranda rights in Criminal Procedure, and about Due Process and Equal Protection in Constitutional Law.
At the end of three years, you will take a bar exam unless you attend law school in Wisconsin, which allows graduates of Marquette or University of Wisconsin to pass the Wisconsin bar exam upon graduation.
In any other state you will enroll in a bar exam course, likely BarBri or Kaplan, and for a few grueling months, you will be packed into a room with graduates from schools across the country. After months of intensive studying, you will have a two or three day bar exam, depending on the state you are in. After taking the exam, you will have to wait several months before learned if you passed or failed.
6. U.S. News Law School Rankings:
Many incoming law students do not realize that U.S. News is a for-profit, unregulated magazine offering an opinion. U.S. News never claims to be anything other than that, and this magazine ranks cities, hospitals, best place to retire, etc.
Many incoming law students make a terrible mistake by making a life altering decision based on what this magazine thinks. There are schools such as Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, which everyone knows are elite schools, but nobody will know or care if Gonzaga is ranked higher than Willamette. Additionally, the rankings are so fickle that they change drastically year by year and by the time an incoming law student graduates, Willamette could be ranked higher than Gonzaga or vice versa.
So What Should You Considering When Picking a Law School?
Choosing a school is a major life decision. Many students look for quick answers on Internet boards or articles such as this one to answer very complicated and personal decisions. This is not the best way to make a decision that will result in a 3-year career altering commitment. Instead, take the time to visit schools in person, carefully considering what you want to practice, where you want to live, and start your career after law school is over.