Choosing the Right Law School

As law school admission deadlines approach, prospective students around the country will start to hear back from the schools that want them (and the ones that don’t). In the coming months, wide-eyed future 1Ls will be faced with a difficult decision: where to go to law school.

Much has been said on Lawyerist about whether you should even go to law school (some say yes, some say no), but an equally important decision for future students is exactly where they should potentially spend three years and more than $100,000. Here are some major factors to consider:

Ranking

When I applied to law school, all that I really cared about were the rankings. I only applied to 4 schools, all in the top-30. For being a smart kid, that was pretty dumb. By only caring about rankings—like I did—and limiting yourself to Tier-1 schools or the like, you are essentially establishing rank as the sole determining factor in how you should start your legal career. This is a mistake for two reasons: 1) school ranking doesn’t matter as much as you think it does, and 2) other factors matter a lot more than you think they do.

Some applicants lean on rankings as their sole criterion in choosing schools for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s the easiest way to prioritize. Americans, we love us some lists. Whether it’s college football rankings, New York Times Bestseller lists, Top Lawyerist Posts of 2011 or the Fortune 500, we simply HAVE to know how something stacks up relative to its competition according to some arbitrary yardstick. I’m not going to get in to the if and the how of whether the U.S. News Law School Rankings are flawed (<cough> even though they are <cough, cough>). Instead, I will simply argue that they matter the most to three groups of people: prospective law students, law school deans and U.S. News & World Report editors. I didn’t add employers to that list for a couple reasons.

Yes, a law school’s reputation matters to employers. When you are applying for your first law job, the person deciding whether to hire you will have gone to law school at one time. This person has an idea of what the good schools are. They have certain schools that they like to recruit from for one reason or another, and there is no changing that. But most bosses are too busy lawyering or managing other lawyers to care what the U.S. News has to say. I graduated from my law school a whopping 2 1/2 years ago, and I have no idea what it’s ranked now. Hiring partners or whomever are much more focused on other things like an applicant’s grades, their background/employment history and their ability to interview to really care what your school is ranked.

To the extent that rankings are one factor in a law school’s perception in the legal community, sure, they matter. But they certainly should not be all that you look to when you are making up your mind about which law school to attend.

Cost

By only applying to Tier-1 schools, I was limiting my options. I knew that when I was applying to the better schools, I had a decent shot of getting in. But what I didn’t know was that I also had little shot of getting any sort of scholarship or other assistance. I was a competitive applicant and everything, but no admissions director at any of these top-25 schools was ever going to review my application and say, “OMG, GIVE THIS MAN ALL THE SCHOLARSHIPS!” The competition is a lot tougher when you focus on the higher ranked schools, and the scholarships are therefore much higher to come by.

When you expand your options and apply to schools across the spectrum of competition, you are giving yourself an opportunity to see what other schools will offer you besides just an invitation to the party. Now, I can’t say for certain that I would have been offered a scholarship at a Tier 3 school or the like, but I have a hunch that I would have. And if I knew then how lame it is to be on the business end of three years of student loans, I would have jumped at the offer.

When evaluating the cost of attending a certain school, you also need to consider the cost of living. If you are going to school out of state, obviously you need to factor in out-of-state tuition. You also need to look at what your costs will be for rent, transportation, etc. The initial rush of living in a bustling new city will be replaced very quickly with the stress over how much you are spending on a one bedroom palace filled with a fridge full of Busch Light and Kipper Snacks. So within the broad question of where you should go to school is the consideration of … you know … where to go to school.

Location

Law school kind of sucks. It is a ton of work, it’s really stressful, professors and fellow students can be world class a-holes, and you spend a lot of money to experience the whole thing. Don’t get me wrong, you should still go to law school if you want to be a lawyer, but it probably won’t be a lot of fun. With that in mind, you really need to think about which law school locale will cause you the least amount of stress. As LeBron James could tell you, the decision of where you should live next is a big one. It’s hard to know for sure what you will think of a city before you live there, but you probably have a good idea of what kind of city you will and won’t like ahead of time.

If you have a good support structure around you and you enjoy the town that you are in, consider staying local. If you want to get out of town and experience someplace new, then blow that pop-stand. If it’s 300 miles to your nearest law school, and you will be moving somewhere new no matter what, then go with your gut. But you should definitely keep in mind that law school is going to be stressful enough as it is. If you hate the place where you are living, then your grades and your happiness—in whatever doses you can find it for those three years—will suffer mightily.

Choosing a school is a hard decision because it has some pretty big ramifications. It can decide how and where your career will begin. The decision determines which friends you will potentially gain or lose, and who you will be surrounded with for a few years. Don’t make the decision lightly, and definitely don’t rely on rankings as your magic 8-ball. Decide which school will best help you work where you want after graduation, how much you want to spend to have that opportunity. And where you can get the cheapest beer … don’t forget that.

, ,

  • https://twitter.com/L_M_Brown L_M_Brown

    Lifestyle

    Whether you will be entering law school straight from an undergraduate institution or whether you have a spouse and children, how you desire to live as a law student should also be a factor in choosing the right law school. Those who you who may not have paid your own rent before may want to be sure that you attend a law school that has on-campus housing options or at least some form of liaison that works with local landlords and housing developments. Parents with school aged children may need to consider the school systems of various locations as well as the availability of child care. Transportation options may also play a role in determining the law school of your choice. Is there an airport in the vicinity? How is parking in the area? What public transportation options are available?

    All in all, there are countless factors that assist people in choosing the right law school. Just remember that choosing a law school is not always just about choosing a law school. It’s much more that that!

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/jennifergumbel/ Jennifer Gumbel

    I would also recommend talking to graduates from prospective schools. Ask what the atmosphere was like, how students got along, how accessible professors were and how prepared they were for the actual practive of law when they got out. I went with my 3rd tier backup after being put on the waiting list for my desired top tier school. I practice with attorneys who graduated from both and when I compare experiences, being wait-listed was a blessing.

    • Tyler White

      I think that would be fantastic advice IF you could get accurate or “relatable” information. But law school atmosphere seems like such a subjective measure to me. I would have a hard time knowing if the graduate I’ve known for 20 minutes on the phone has the same idea of “great friends” or “cool environment” as I would.

      • http://lawyerist.com/author/jennifergumbel/ Jennifer Gumbel

        Sure. You might need to ask follow up questions and consider the source, but there’s a lot of imformation that will impact how well you do and how much you enjoy the experience at a particular school that a graduate, and not a ranking, can tell you.

  • Andy Mergendahl

    Good advice, Tyler. But about scholarships, beware the Merit Scholarship trap. Many, many students are enticed by scholarships, only to lose them by failing to meet the required minimum GPA. Law schools intentionally yank scholarships from a pre-determined number of students.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/01/business/law-school-grants.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all
    See also Inside the Law School Scam’s post of Jan. 2, 2012.

    • Tyler White

      Good tip Andy, thanks. I probably should have known that, but, as I noted… no scholarships for this guy.

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/jennifergumbel/ Jennifer Gumbel

      I think every school should be required to disclose how many students were offered a scholarship that requires a certain level of class standing to maintain. When you get a scholarship, you immediately assume you have the natural chops to have a good chance of keeping it. That may not be the case when 2/3s of your class got the stay-in-the-top-third scholarship.

  • Biglaw
    • Aub

      Saying that this is the “only analysis you really need other than cost,” assumes that one wants to be employed by a large law firm. While this can be the case, if often is not.