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The Basic Considerations for Choosing a Law School

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The difficulty in life is the choice." - George Moore, The Bending of the Bough, Act IV

The biggest key to enjoying law school is choosing and getting admitted to the right one for you. While there are 175 ABA-accredited law schools in this country, probably only a handful or so are optimal for you. Discovering this select handful of schools is the topic of this chapter.

There are really two logically distinct steps involved in choosing a law school: first, choosing the best schools to apply to, and second, choosing the law school you will attend from among those that have offered to admit you. You should consider yourself fortunate if you have any choice at all in the second regard given that many applicants, either as a result of poor application strategy or poor qualifications, do not receive offers of admission from any schools. (Consequently, as discussed in the previous chapter, it behooves you to make every effort to achieve a stellar academic record and to score as high as possible on the LSAT so as to increase your acceptance chances.) This chapter focuses primarily on choosing among schools that ultimately send you an acceptance letter. Since the application process also involves a ranking of schools on their relative merits, however, this chapter should also serve as a valuable guide with respect to which schools to apply to in the first place.

Besides your own "admitability," numerous other factors should be taken into account when deciding where to submit applications and ultimately which law schools to attend. These factors include:
  • the national ranking or academic reputation of each school
  • the geographic area in which you plan to practice law or live after law school
  • the costs associated with attending the law schools in question
  • the bar passage rates of such schools
  • personal environmental and location preferences
Each of these factors is discussed as follows.

National Rankings and Academic Reputation

All things being equal, you should aspire to attend the most prestigious law school you can get into. While your choices will obviously be limited by your own credentials, choosing a law school with a good to excellent academic reputation (one of the top 40 or 50 law schools) will make you feel better about yourself and about your decision to attend law school. Also, top schools recruit the most talented faculty members and attract the brightest students. This contributes to a better legal education and a more intellectually stimulating and challenging experience. Such mental stimulation will help your law school years pass quickly.

Attending a law school with a good to excellent academic reputation also dramatically increases your chances of obtaining a prestigious and/or lucrative legal job following graduation. Top law firms and governmental agencies primarily recruit attorneys from the top law schools. The cream of the crop sought by employers is relative-the better the school, the less important the students class ranking therein, and vice versa. The quality of your law school will continue to affect your career well after graduation and your first job. It will inform people s first impressions of you, and it will affect your ability to change jobs or obtain a new job in a different region of the country.

Further, your academic performance may be better in a school with an excellent academic reputation than in a mediocre law school. The advantages of having top faculty and students as catalysts for your own achievement should be obvious, but also the positive self-image fostered by matriculation at a better school can enhance your performance.

Learn the 10 Factors That Matter to Big Firms More Than Where You Went to Law School

Additionally, some of the least prestigious law schools may attempt to bolster their standing by placing impossible demands upon their students and by flunking them out in droves to create the illusion that the school's academic standards are actually high. You should thoroughly investigate the academic reputation and prestige of each law school you are considering attending as well as its first-year attrition rate.

One way to assess the academic reputation associated with a school is by, among other things, checking the school's national ranking (if any) in published lists. Law schools are often ranked by various publications such as the U.S. News and World Report. These publications typically rate law schools according to the quality of their faculty, students, law libraries, general facilities, placement success, and curricula. Rankings in specialized areas such as tax law, clinical training, and environmental law are also often compiled.

Like any other subjective endeavor, law school rankings generate much debate as to their accuracy. However, for the most part, the same schools (for example, Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Chicago, and Columbia) are generally rated within the top five in the nation year in and year out. A number of other schools consistently appear in the top 20, top 25, or first quartile lists, though their exact positions vary with the particular evaluator or sources consulted. Law professors, judges, and lawyers may all have differing perspectives on which schools are the best. Thus, although the inherent imprecision of these rankings will enable debates to live on forever, there is probably a rough general consensus as to which law schools fall within the top 30 or 40 in terms of nationwide reputations for academic excellence.

In addition to national reputation and ranking, law schools also possess statewide and local reputations with regard to the level of professional training and academic excellence they offer. Local reputations can be gleaned from college career guidance counselors, lawyers, and law firms working in the community where the law school is located. Additionally, a law schools own admission standards are usually a good guide to its academic reputation. As a good rule of thumb, the less rigorous the admission standards, the less prestigious the law school, and vice versa. Look at the median LSAT scores and average UGPAs of applicants accepted at the schools you are interested in, and compare these to those of admittees at the schools ranked highly on a national level.

In deciding on which law school to attend, you should consider the geographical area where you hope to practice after graduation. There are several distinct advantages to attending a law school in or near your area of planned practice. Logistically, it will be easier to get both summer and permanent legal jobs in cities near your law school since most recruiters will probably be local and that is where the school's reputation is strongest. This is, of course, less true for very highly ranked law schools, because top law firm recruiters flock to such schools from all across the country. Even so, most law firms, particularly in recessionary times, recruit lawyers from law schools located relatively near them.

Another advantage to attending a law school near your area of planned practice is that it will offer courses (for example, community property) that may be of importance to practitioners in your state but are unavailable in other states.

Furthermore, by attending a law school in or near your area of planned practice, you can obtain valuable inside information from other students, local lawyers, and faculty members concerning what it is really like to work for various local and regional employers. You can clerk for such employers during your second and third years, earning money and valuable experience. The information thus gained can be used to avoid accepting an unsuitable job or to steer you toward employers who can offer you exciting career opportunities you might otherwise miss. Additionally, a large percentage of your classmates will be practicing in the area after graduation, providing opportunities to network during your early years of practice.

Conversely, if you have no idea where you want to practice law, the importance of attending the most prestigious law school possible is greatly enhanced. The greater the prestige of your law school, the greater will be your opportunities to obtain legal employment anywhere in the country.

Other geographic factors to consider in selecting a law school are the accessibility to courts, government agencies, and legislatures, and the availability of pan-time and summer jobs.

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