Rankings Aren’t Enough: 5 Important Factors to Choose the Right Law School
For anyone going to law school in the fall, that April 15 matriculation date is quickly approaching. As a senior in my last month of college, my workload is starting to thin. Instead of worrying about papers and exams, most of my time is spent trying to figure out where I want to study law for the next three years.
Before I even applied to law school back in January, one of the first things I did, like most people, was check the rankings. Earlier this month, U.S. News and World Report released their 2015 Best Law Schools rankings. At first glance, the new rankings maintain the status quo. The top 20 schools remain largely unchanged, with giants Yale, Harvard, and Stanford leading the pack. As you scroll down the list of prestigious schools, you’ll notice several ties. Columbia University and University of Chicago share the number four spot, while both UCLA and Vanderbilt occupy slot 16.
Anyone can view the schools’ rankings, tuition, and enrollment numbers; however, if you want to see any of the really useful data (LSAT scores; GPAs by percentile; acceptance and bar passage rates; percentage of students employed immediately and nine months after graduation; and peer and professional assessment scores) you’ll have to spring for the $30 annual membership.
Granted, these overall rankings certainly provide some valuable information. But you’d be crazy to base your decision solely on numbers. Here are five important factors, besides just rankings, to consider when choosing which law school is right for you.
1. Reputation both regionally and nationally
Rankings are only a piece of the puzzle, albeit a substantial one, when it comes to a school’s reputation. Another factor to consider is a school’s reputation on both a regional and national level. If you attend a law school in Boston, for example, odds are employers along the East Coast will not only be familiar with your alma mater but more importantly will respect it. Conversely, a law degree from a Boston area school might not have the same clout in, say, California. While this isn’t as big a deal for those who plan to attend a top-20 law school, it’s definitely something to consider.
2. What type of law you want to practice
Talking to both peers and parents about where to go to law school, this is probably the most common question I have been asked. For someone like me, who’s not quite sure what type of law he’ll pursue, this question can be frustrating. Similar to when relatives ask you what you plan to do with your life after only one semester at college, this inquisition can leave you feeling lost, confused, and annoyed. While it’s impossible to know exactly how your career will unfold, it’s not unreasonable to have a game plan, or at least a tentative one. If you love the environment and want to change the way it’s treated, consider schools that boast strong environmental law programs. One reason not to rely solely on overall rankings is because they provide just what their name suggests – an overall rank. Take the time to do the research – a school may be ranked 80th overall but might have the third best environmental law program in the country. For those of you, like me, with little to no idea where your law degree will take you, don’t fret. In your first year of law school there’s little room, if any, for electives. Your first year will focus more on the fundamentals – the meat and potatoes, as they say.
3. Where you want to practice
This is the second most common question I’ve been asked. While I may not know exactly what I want to do, I do have a general idea of where I see myself living and working. I mean this in both a geographical and organizational sense – both the location of where you want to work and the type of company or firm you want to work for. If you want to live and practice in New York City, go to school in the big apple. If you want to live and practice in New York and work in “Biglaw,” then a New York school is an even better fit. If you see yourself working for a smaller firm in a less competitive market, a top-tier school might not be the right place for you. To reiterate my first point, always consider reputation – both regionally and nationally.
4. Where you want to live for three years
Law school is tough, no one is denying that. During your three years as a law student, you’ll undoubtedly spend a large portion of your time in the library. But eventually you’ll leave the library and, hopefully, have some semblance of a social life. If nightlife is important to you, a school in Boston, Chicago, or New York might be a good fit. If you absolutely abhor the cold, a school in Florida or California may be the best match. I realize that yes, you are first and foremost a dedicated law student. But after an exam or a marathon library session, you’re going to need to blow off some steam. Whether your idea of a break is a bar or a beach, go to a school where you will be able to enjoy yourself outside of class.
5. How you’re going to pay for your education
Scanning tuition prices, paying for law school can seem daunting – and that’s because it is. Like your undergraduate education, law school is a big investment. But unlike colleges and universities, law schools are sometimes stingy with merit money or financial aid. Without a full ride, a sizable scholarship, or a hefty financial aid package, paying for a $45,000-a-year education can look pretty bleak. Many law students inevitably graduate up to the their necks in debt, but the hope is that you’ll have worked hard enough to secure a job with a salary that will make paying off loans bearable. In an ideal world, money shouldn’t deter students from attending their dream schools. In reality though, educational debt can’t be ignored. Most law schools have similar price tags, but here are some things to consider:
- Schools located in major cities will cost more, with regard to both tuition and living expenses.
- Keep in mind that many law schools offer an in-state tuition discount. Decide if the state school where you live is the best fit for you, and if it isn’t then figure out the eligibility requirements where you do want to go.
- If money is very tight, attending law school part time might be a better fit. The more flexible class schedule allows you to work while you’re in school.
- If you’re dead set on being a full-time student, be sure to apply for financial aid and scholarships – though most law schools automatically consider every applicant for merit money.
- Research different types of loans – many law schools offer low-interest loans through the university itself.
- In the end though, the best way to pay for law school is to build as strong an application as possible. A high GPA and LSAT score will not only get you into a good school, but will provide you with the best possible chance at receiving a scholarship.
Matt DiCenso (@mdicenso24)