Choosing a law school in the USA

As of this moment, there are nearly 200 ABA-accredited law schools in the United States (not counting the Judge Advocate General’s school), all of them offering something different to their students. How is it, then, that a senior in college should go about choosing a law school? Don’t law school-bound college seniors have enough to worry about? Exams? Papers? Projects? The LSAT? How does a busy student go about deciding which school is going to fit him or her the best?

As it turns out, there are a few general guidelines that you can follow when it comes time for you to decide where to apply and ultimately, where to go to law school. All students are different, so this is by no means a “blueprint” to be followed to the letter, but simply a set of guidelines to help get you started if you are feeling overwhelmed.

Think about geography

Where do you want to live? Chicago? Akron? Cleveland? Los Angeles? In general, it is easiest to start a career in the region in which you go to law school, for several reasons. First, employers in a given region are familiar with that region’s law schools, since many of them attended those law schools and probably hire a lot of clerks, interns, summer associates, and attorneys from those law schools.

Second, as a law student, you will be given the opportunity to make connections with the local and state bar associations, which helps you network with local attorneys, which comes in handy when it’s time to find a job.

This is not to say that if you attend public law school with a reputation that is essentially local, that you are automatically out of the running for a job in, say, New York City. New York City’s legal community has many graduates from law schools that do not carry national “brand name” recognition. However, if one of your definite goals is to work in New York City, you will most likely have an easier time reaching that goal if you attend one of the law schools in New York City.

What do you want to be when you grow up?

There are many different kinds of lawyers, loosely grouped in to “legal specialties.” Sometimes people go into law school with an idea of what kind of lawyer they want to be. These people usually choose their law schools based on curriculum, since a strong curriculum in a given specialty area can be a good foundation for a career in that area. If you fit into this group of people who know exactly what they want to be when they grow up, part of your decision on where to go to law school should be based on the school’s curriculum.

The beauty of law school (and even the practice of law) is that it is very general. Therefore, if you don’t really know what kind of lawyer you want to be yet, don’t worry you have plenty of time to figure it out. When you graduate from law school, you will have a J.D., just like the man sitting next to you who specialized in Corporate Law, or the woman on your other side who specialized in Intellectual Property. The only consideration you will want to make with respect to curriculum is breadth if you do decide that you want to specialize in something down the line, make sure you have plenty of options within the curriculum.

A good resource for exploring legal specialty areas is The Official Guide to Legal Specialties, by Lisa Abrams.

Can you afford it?

Law school is expensive even more so than college. And, in general, there is a lot less scholarship money out there for law students than there is for undergrads. Therefore, be ready to pay more money out of pocket and take out more money in loans than you did in college.

When evaluating the cost of law school, don’t just look at the tuition and fees. Look at everything cost of living, transportation, books, etc. and look at it over a three-year period (or four years if you are planning to go to law school part-time). Remember that everything is more expensive in the big city attending a private law school in New York might cost $50,000 per year or more, whereas attending a public school in Cleveland or Akron would most likely be half that or less.

Can you get in?

This is probably the most important question to ask when applying to law schools, and to be perfectly honest, you don’t really know the answer to this question until you get your rejection letter or your acceptance letter in the mail. If you have used the first three questions to narrow down your choices for law school to some extent, you can use your LSAT score to narrow these choices down a little further based upon where you’re most likely to be competitive.

A good way to pick out a range of schools that will give you some options and at the same time give you a “safety net” is to compare your LSAT score to the 25th and 75th percentile LSAT scores of law schools to which you’re planning to apply. Create three categories of law schools: Reach Schools, Ballpark Schools, and Safety Schools. If your LSAT is at or below the 25th percentile LSAT of a given school, put this school in the Reach category. If your LSAT is somewhere in between the 25th and 75th percentile LSAT of a given school, put this school in the Ballpark category. Finally, if your LSAT is at or above the 75th percentile of a given school, put this school in the Safety category. Try to narrow your choices down so that you have two or three law schools in each category (side note: the national average for applications per applicant is 5.5).

It is worth noting that this is a very rough method that does not take into consideration undergraduate GPA or any qualitative factors, such as diversity, work experience, age, voluntarism, extracurricular involvement, etc. When constructing your application, it is always best to include any information that you feel is necessary for admissions officers to consider (resume, volunteer experience, etc.), because this information can make admission to some of your “Reach” schools much more realistic.

You can find statistical data on law schools in the ABA/LSAC Official Guide to Law Schools, which is available at almost any library and major book retailer. You can also download their Official Guide for free, online.

A person’s decision to attend law school is a very important one, and where to attend law school is at least as important. These are just a few of the ways to choose the law school that is right for you. The bottom line is that this decision should come down to information, not emotion, so if you work hard to learn as much as you can about the law schools to which you plan to apply before you make your final decision, you will be much happier for it.