Law School Rankings

Looking Beyond the Rankings Law Students Should Consider Other Important Factors in Law School Selection Including Online Law School Options.

Introduction

Each year prospective law students agonize over which law school to attend.  The question is how does one select where they will spend the next 3 or 4 years of their life?  Most law school guides will strongly suggest a prospective student select the best ranked law school. However, many prospective law students are non-traditional students and choosing a school based solely on ranking may not be the best option for this student.

Non-traditional applicants may include those who work full time, students with families or family obligations, students who cannot relocate or commute long distances, students who cannot afford the high cost of traditional law school, students who did not achieve an average-to-high LSAT score, and older or returning students.  Law school guides do not devote any meaningful discussion to the various factors a non-traditional student should consider when choosing a law school.  This article attempts to address the specific considerations of a non-traditional law student and suggests alternatives to the traditional brick and mortar law school setting for other valid options such as distance-learning education/online law schools.

Rankings Are Traditionally the Single Most Important Factor in Selecting a Law School

Ranking is an important factor for many potential law students.  However, using rankings as the sole determining factor for selection of a law school assumes: 1) that the potential law student will be accepted to a ranked law school, 2) the student can relocate if they are accepted to a ranked law school or can commute if necessary, 3) the student can afford to pay the cost of attending such a law school, and/or 4) the student can work or balance family obligations while attending a ranked law school.

Rankings Consider Limited Factors Which May Not be the Only Important Factors to Law Students

The U.S. World News is the most looked to survey of law schools in the United States.  The U.S. World News only ranks accredited law schools, thus, naturally many local law schools and distance-learning/online law schools are not considered in their rankings.  The rankings are based on factors That may not apply to non-traditional students.
Rankings Exclude Other Important Factors to Non-Traditional Law Students

Missing entirely from the U.S. World News Rankings are non-ABA accredited law schools, including regionally accredited schools and online law schools.  Additionally, the rankings do not consider many of the factors a law student may be concerned with such as costs associated with the law school, schools that admit students based on more than just LSAT score and undergraduate GPA.
Other Important Factors to Consider for A Non-Traditional Law Student

1.    Cost of Law School

Most prospective law students have done enough research to know that law school is expensive.  The average law student borrows $68,827 for public schools and $106,249 for private law school education.  Students who attend schools in metropolitan areas may borrow as much as $145,000.  This debt does not include the undergraduate debt a graduate may already have incurred, credit card debt, car loans, etc.

Students who graduate with such high student loan debt should expect to pay at least $1,200 a month over a 25-year period to pay off their law school student loans.  For most adult students who have monthly costs associated with family, credit cards, car loans, undergraduate debt, and older students who cannot expect to be able to repay their student loan debt within 25 years (because they may be well into retirement age), this kind of debt is not an option.

Many will argue that once the student is a lawyer, they will be able to afford to pay back the student loans.  However, even graduating from a top-ranked law school does not guarantee job placement.  There are many disgruntled, unemployed attorneys in the current economy.  Moreover, the highest paying jobs for lawyers are those in corporate law firms where it is extremely competitive to be hired by a corporate firm and generally, only students graduating at the top of the class will be hired.

Attorneys working in corporate firms are expected to work extraordinary hours in their first few years of work.  The workload of a corporate attorney is challenging even for the youngest and most eager of new associates and leaves almost no time for family or leisure.  Realistically, a non-traditional student is unlikely to either be hired by a corporate firm or be able to balance the workload with other obligations.

Moreover, many prospective law students are not aware of the additional costs associated with law school, outside of the basic tuition fees.  A student should consider the costs of: relocation to a new city, cost of living, cost of books and study aids, income lost by leaving a steady job, income lost if the student is not permitted to work in the first year of law school, and costs associated with taking the bar exam.

Where costs of law school is a serious factor for students, many students may want to give consideration to regionally accredited, non-ABA, brick and mortar law schools which may not involve costs associated with relocation or commuting.  These law schools can be found in many communities including smaller cities and towns.  Regionally accredited law schools charge a fraction of the tuition of the ABA accredited law schools. 

Additionally, these students should also consider online law schools.   One such law school is California School of Law, which is the only online law school utilizing the latest technology to provide live, real-time, interactive classrooms using the traditional law school Socratic Method teaching style.  This law school is very affordable charging only $30,000 for all four years of study.  The law school also offers affordable payment options for students, which results in students owing much less than the full $30,000 when they graduate with their Juris Doctorate. Thus, a student who does not wish to owe astonishing debt upon graduation should also consider more affordable law school options such as regionally accredited, non-ABA, brick and mortar law schools and distance-learning/online law schools.

 
2.    LSAT Score and Undergraduate GPA

The largest barrier to law school for prospective students is obtaining a high enough LSAT score to qualify for admission to law school.   LSAT score is the single most heavily weighed factor in a student’s law school application.  Many students are unable to score high enough on the exam to be admitted to any law school that requires the LSAT score for admission.  Generally, those who have been out of school for an extended period of time find it difficult to score high on the exam.  Further, those who work or have family obligations find it challenging to properly prepare for the exam or cannot afford the expenses necessary for LSAT prep courses.

Undergraduate GPA is also an important factor in law school admissions but even an exceptionally high GPA will not save a student who has a low LSAT score.  The heavy weighing of LSAT score and GPA largely affect non-traditional students who due to work or family obligations find it difficult to at least score the average on the LSAT or maintain an average GPA.

Students who do not have a high LSAT score and/or GPA may want to consider law schools that do not require the LSAT for admission.   Under ABA regulations, ABA accredited law schools must require the LSAT for admission, however regionally accredited schools and non-accredited schools may consider other factors beside LSAT score.  Many non-ABA schools have done away with requiring the LSAT for admission eligibility altogether and instead seek to judge an applicant based on work experience, and any other relevant factors which may provide insight as to whether a prospective law student will make a positive contribution to the legal profession and practice of the law.

 
3.    Part-Time Curriculums/Flexible Law School Schedules

Non-traditional students may be seeking more flexible law school schedules that can accommodate their work schedule and family obligations without affecting their law school workload.  Many students cannot afford to stop working during law school, for various reasons, including debts, monthly expenses, or because their families rely on them.  These students should look to part-time programs that offer either evening or weekend classes.  Contrary to popular perception, part-time students take the very same challenging courses as full-time students, however these students take less courses at one time and thus they usually graduate in three and a half years or four years, instead of three years.

Additionally, students who do not have a law school nearby or do not have the time in their day to commute back and forth should consider distance-learning/online law schools.  For example, courses at the California School of Law are held only twice a week and each student participates in a live, interactive, real-time law school classroom from the convenience of their home or their office.  This saves the student the time and money of commuting and thus the student can devote the extra time to their family or in preparing for the rigorous of their law school course work.

 
Conclusion
In conclusion, law school rankings do not consider factors important to non-traditional adult law students in the law school selection process.  These factors include the cost of law school, whether the law school looks beyond LSAT in the application process, and whether the law school has a part-time curriculum or a more flexible schedule for working adults or those with families.  Non-traditional law students should not be discouraged from applying to law school because the top ranked schools are too expensive, too selective, or do not provide a flexible school schedule.  Non-traditional students will be satisfied to find that smaller, regionally accredited/non-ABA law schools can accommodate their needs or distance-learning online education at the California School of Law can provide the same education, with a more convenient schedule, at a fraction of the cost.