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:
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.
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.
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.