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Choosing a law school: Four factors that matter, besides the U.S. News rankings

With the 2020 U.S. News rankings of law schools finally out, there’s a lot of discussion about the winners and losers this year.

But as an individual applying to law school, rankings don’t tell the whole story. 

Here are four factors to consider in order to identify what the best law school is – not in general, but specifically for you.

Location

You’ll make important connections in law school, and most will be in the surrounding legal market. You’ll clerk at a local firm, network with local attorneys, and learn about the business and legal landscape of that community.

In addition, your law school classmates will become important professional contacts, including as clients and referral sources. So if you know where you want to practice, it is smart to go to law school there.

At a minimum, though, you can move to a different state after graduation and take its bar exam in order to practice there. There is limited reciprocity between states and you don’t want to take the bar twice if you can avoid it.  

Important caveat: This regional pattern is not as true at the top law schools. However, students at the east coast T14 tend to be recruited to and find jobs on the east coast, and the same on the west coast.

Cost

The sticker price of law school is shocking: average public school tuition of $26,000 per year, or average private school tuition of $47,000.

However, law schools, especially private schools, give merit scholarships to students who are above their median scores, which pulls up their LSAT average and therefore their U.S. News rankings.

A student who got an LSAT score sufficient to get into a top-50 school may be able to leverage it into a full ride scholarship at a less prestigious school, instead. Understand that most lawyers don’t make the enormous BigLaw salaries, even at top schools. Taking out less or no loans for school will give you more freedom to choose a career path that is less lucrative than BigLaw, like being a prosecutor or public interest.

In other words, you should weigh how much a given school will cost in light of any merit scholarships you receive, and also how much you may earn out of law school compared to your loans. How much you will earn will depend on what kind of legal career you choose, as well as the prestige of your school and your grades.

Specialization

Law schools don’t tend to have different academic strengths as much as colleges and universities do. Pretty much all law students take the same curriculum 1L year, and even after that there is limited opportunity for students or schools to do anything quite different.

However, if you know you want to be an intellectual property lawyer or go into healthcare law, for example, look for schools that offer a “concentration” or “specialty” in that area. Usually this involves taking specified classes during your 2L and 3L year and sometimes a related clinic or practicum experience as well.

You do not need to have a specialty in law school, but if you have a passion then it can help you make connections in that area and launch you into the field.

Clinics are a way that law students get practical experience helping clients during law school, for credit, under the supervision of an attorney. They generally focus on a specific area, and you’ll find that law schools offer clinics focused on different areas of law, from advising small businesses to immigration clinics to the Innocence Project.

Culture and Fit

Pre-Law magazine recently crunched the statistics and published articles about the most diverse law schools and the most religious law schools (Winter 2019 issue). 

Fit for you could also include the percentage of first-generation or second-career law students; campus life; and the competitiveness of the culture.

Again, there’s no “right” answer here, but none of those things are reflected in the U.S. News rankings. The rankings, important as they are, deserve to be only a piece of the puzzle in your law school decision.

Need the big picture?

Make an informed choice about law school, before you spend money and time on LSAT prep, applications, and tuition. I’ve developed an online course to deliver the key information you need on J.D. careers, what law school is really like and what it takes to succeed, delivered in a convenient package. Access it here

If you’re headed on to law school, after watching the course, you’ll:

  • Ask better questions of law schools and in interviews
  • Get a jump on the competition
  • Go into the law school decision with your eyes wide open; and
  • Get valuable resource links that will save you tons of time researching law schools. 

JD Navigator: Chart your own course to law school and beyond

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