Law School Application: Criteria for Choosing a Law School
What you’re looking for in a law school depends largely on your career goals—why do you want to be a lawyer in the first place? What do you want to do with that law degree? But it also depends on a number of other personal factors, including geographic preferences, intellectual interests, and desired learning environment. The following are some of the most important factors to consider. LSAC also offers a very good set of pages about choosing the right law school (as well as some good tools). And NALP—the experts in tracking the legal profession and lawyer employment—has developed a great list of questions to ask about placement issues. We’ve got some additional tools here.
National vs. regional schools: Are you more interested in a school with a national reputation that attracts students from many places and whose graduates get jobs across the nation? Or are you more interested in a school with a regional reputation attended by local students whose graduates tend to get jobs in the immediate area? Regional schools generally offer a strong network of alums in the area while national schools tend to offer a brand name diploma that will open doors almost anywhere. National schools also generally require higher LSAT scores and GPAs.
Location: Where do you want to live after law school? Most lawyers’ first work experiences are in the same general area where they attend law school. Also consider whether you want to study law in an urban environment with many clinical opportunities, a diverse population, and summer law clerk positions, or in a smaller town where the pace is slower and the living expenses are lower? In what sort of an environment do you work best? You may also want to consider whether and how the state’s laws might impact your access to reproductive healthcare during law school.
Diversity: What is the make-up of the student body and faculty? Are they diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, and socioeconomic background? Does the school have a reputation for fostering a particular political point of view? Most law students learn better in an environment that provides a range of opinions, backgrounds and assumptions. If you are a member of a minority group, do you want to seek out schools that have faculty and other students who share your background and experience?
Facilities and resources: Is the law school affiliated with a university? Is access to a large academic research library important to you? Has the law library been keeping up with technological advances? Do the facilities provide a learning environment in which you feel comfortable? Are there programs or courses available outside the law school that you want to pursue in addition to your J.D.?
Faculty: What is the academic and experiential background of faculty members? How accessible are they? What is the faculty-student ratio? What percentage of courses are taught by adjunct faculty? How many of the faculty are minority and/or women? What are the publications and reputation of faculty in specific areas of law that interest you?
Specialization or focus: Law school education is not as specialized as college education; there is no law school “major.” However, some law schools are known for a particular specialization or focus. Other law schools may offer specialized joint degree programs, permitting a student to simultaneously pursue a J.D. and Ph.D. in certain fields, or a J.D. and a Masters. If you have a specific interest in a related field, this should be part of your law school application planning. Note, though, that such joint programs are not for everyone and may not offer the added value in your hoped-for career that you might expect. It’s important not just to think carefully about your professional goals before applying, but also to research whether the specialization or additional degrees are necessary or even helpful for advancement in your chosen field.
Student body: What is the size of the entering class? How large are the first-year classes? What does the admissions profile tell you about the quality of the student body? Is there diversity among the student body? What is the overall atmosphere-are students friendly or are they overly competitive? Is there much student interaction outside class? Are there journals, projects, or student organizations for minorities, women, LGBTQ students?
Cost: What are tuition, fees, housing, and book costs? For state schools, what are the requirements for in-state tuition? Is financial aid need-based or do merit scholarships predominate? What percent of students receive scholarships and what are the median scholarship amounts? Does the school have a loan repayment assistance program (LRAP) for public interest work and if so, how much are the typical grants? What is the average debt of recent graduates? (Reminder that there are many unknowns about the actual costs until you see what your scholarship offers look like.)
Student life: Where do most students live? Is housing provided for first-year students? If not, does the school offer assistance in locating off-campus housing? What is the cost of living? What kinds of student groups are there?
Wellness and disability supports Does the school support students with disabilities and mental health challenges? How visible is this support? Is it easy to find the resources? Does the school have a law student well-being program in place, as recommended by the ABA’s National Task Force on Lawyer Well-Being? How visible is that program, and will you and your classmates be able to find the resources when/if you need them?
Employment outcomes: How effective is the career placement office? What percentage of the most recent graduating class is employed? In what types of positions and in which geographic area(s) are they employed? What are typical starting salaries? How many students move on to judicial clerkships? What assistance is available for graduates not interested in working in law firms?
Bar passage rate: What percentage of the school’s graduates pass the bar exam the first time they take it? While this figure is often more indicative of who the law school admits in the first place (it correlates with LSAT scores), at some less selective schools, it may also be an indicator of how successful the school’s academic support program is. In other words, if a school has relatively modest LSAT median but a much higher bar passage rate, it’s an indication that the school likely provides good support for students as they prepare for the bar exam.
Attrition and transfer rates: How many students leave after the first year, either to go to another school or to simply drop out? Does the school experience a net gain or loss after the first year?