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Choosing a Law School

Law school is as much about receiving an education as it is about networking and making connections, both in the intellectual and in the career-building sense. Going to a brand-named law school will open doors by name alone. However, are these doors, traditionally ones that open and close for men on men’s terms (see any number of writings about the glass ceiling or pink ghetto), the doors that women want to travel through?

In my own law school application process, I visited about ten schools prior to applying (ranging from top tier to bottom tier). Those visits inspired me to drop schools off my application list or place others at the top. Traditional rankings were not that important to me. Rather, I was most concerned with the percentage of female professors and female students. This worked for me; reflecting in my third year of law school, I got everything out of law school that I was looking for.

My advice to women applying to law school? Determine what is important to you. Do you want professors to be accessible? Do you want to participate in class on par with your male counterparts? Do you want to find a mentor at law school? When you visit law schools on your application list, ask other students what their experiences have been like. Ask women, ask men. Knowing this information might be more useful than standard rankings.

8 Comments

Elizabeth

One thing I never knew to ask about while I was applying to law school was the impact that class rank would have on opportunities to interview and be considered for jobs.  Some schools either don't rank students, or don't make the rankings available to employers, so employers don't know where your GPA actually places you in your class.  All law schools have a different mean, and even if employers know the mean of your law school, they will only vaguely know where you fall if your school doesn't make class rank available, which can be helpful to procure a job if you aren't top in your class.  Other law schools internally allocate interviews, so law firms don't have the ability to only meet with top students.  These practical things can have a big impact on your career prospects are are worth looking at when choosing a school.  Other factors: how big are classes?  does the school use the Socratic method (which is generally rougher on female students than male)?  can anyone do independent research with a professor (which often leads to the kind of written product and recommendations that procure clerkships), or do professors only make time for the top students?  Finally, many people overestimate their performance in law school.  It is practically impossible to predict how well you will do in law school—the exams are unlike anything you have encountered before. For that reason, it's good to hedge your bets.  Assume you will be in the bottom of your class, and figure out how students in the bottom of their classes fare at the schools you're considering.  Law school is VERY EXPENSIVE.  Even if you go to a school with a generous loan forgiveness program, most if not all of these programs require you to have a legal job to qualify for the program.  This means you are basically tied to working a legal job after law school.  I recommend reading this article by Dahlia Lithwick before you take the plunge.

Peg

I tend to disagree with the "pick a law school that feels right" approach if it is taken to the extremes that this post seems to argue for—the extreme that ignores reputation, networks, and job prospects after graduation.
Don't get me wrong, you should strive to pick a law school that is pleasant and will be enjoyable, educational, challenging and rewarding.  Looking back, the worst thing about law school for me was the fact that the entire student body and faculty (with few exceptions) was far to the other side of the left-right political spectrum than I am.  This made for much exasperation and frustration particularly in classes where political viewpoints worked their way into the lectures and discussions.  However, in retrospect, I learned a lot from being in that somewhat uncomforable situation for three years.  I think I am a better person and a better arguer (for what that's worth) for it.  Also, I think it was healthy for the other students to hear the counterarguments to their ideas which all too often I was the only person making.
Law school should be looked at as a stepping stone.  It should be a stop on your way to your dream profession—being a lawyer.  It is a professional school and that means that it is about much more than the educational experience—it is about the job that it is training you for and the doors that it opens for you.  I really think that law school is about "education" in a very limited sense.  Afterall, ask just about any lawyer and they will tell you that law school taught them close to nothing about the practice of law. 
So, if you want to chose a law school based on the education experience alone (I think that is a huge mistake) then you should look at it as a graduate school and a continuation of your undergrad education.  You must recognize then that the school you pick may not, in fact, be a path to practicing law and you may not be any closer to getting a job than you were before you started down the three year law learning experience.
The legal profession is highly competitive as there are way too many law schools and way too many lawyers.  Therefore every sort of practice that you will be applying for has more applications than there are jobs.  All employers will consider your resume and your creditials and, like it or not, the reputation of your law school is one such credential.  So, you may not care that a better law school opens up law firm doors.  However, do you care that a better law school also opens up doors to academia, public interest, and government?
Further, I think this post gives dangerous advice—the sort that women give to women even though they are competing in a man's world.  You see, men are considering the reputation of law schools, perhaps above all other considerations.  In order to be competitive, women need to be cognizant of that fact.  Men use the law school experience and law school name to their advantage and women must do the same.
Finally, don't discount the value of networking.  Again, this is a female trait—thinking that we can be successful on our own.  Girls, the men are beating us at the networking game and pulling ahead of us as a result.  If you disregard the value of networking, you will fall behind.  While it seems like a shallow reason to pick a law school, networking and doors being opened for you are very valuable, indeed.

jessie

I applied to law school rather haphazardly. I applied to the three top-ranked law schools in the place I wanted to live. I didn't apply to the fourth ranked - though it was only one ranking lower than my third ranked - because they were an athletic rival of another school I grew up rooting for. Seriously.
Needless to say, I got to law school and realized how stupid that all was.
I learned that rankings do matter to employers. I'm actually continually surprised by how much.
I also learned that, while I got lucky and ended up at an institution whose reputation would help me get the jobs I wanted, if I had been smarter about the process my life would have been a whole lot easier. For example: half way through law school I decided I wanted to clerk. Coming from UCLA that's not impossible, but it's difficult. Outside of California very few federal judges read applications from UCLA. In California they're inundated by applications from UCLA's top performers. I got a clerkship with a great judge in a great city, but I had to work for it. Had I gone to Yale, Harvard, or Stanford things would have been much easier I think.
Now a few years later it's happening all over again: I'm thinking about pursuing a career in academia. Again, not impossible coming from UCLA, but I'm probably going to have to get a Phd first, whereas if I graduated from Yale or Harvard that probably wouldn't be the case.
All this is to say that I agree with the original premise that the ranings only matter so much. But in a few instance they matter a whole lot.

Luisa

I agree with the previous posters that it is dangerous and misleading to suggest that law school is about an educational experience. While I agree that it is important to pick a law school based on what you want to get out of your experience, it is incredibly naive to say that the traditional rankings aren't valuable- unless getting a job as a lawyer isn't important to you, that is.
Rankings matter for getting a job- any kind of job. Period. Employers are aware of the rankings, and they adjust their standards accordingly. For instance, at my school, employers do not get to pre-screen applicants for jobs, and students are not ranked. This works to almost anyone's advantage- if your grades are middle of the road (like almost everyone's) then you get to see an employer before they nix your application for grades. Once they speak to you, they have an opportunity to assess you personally. I have a close friend that attends a school that's not as highly ranked, but still is an extremely respected, national law school. He wanted to work at the same firm where I am working. Guess what? The firm didn't even interview him, preferring instead to reserve their limited interview slots to only the top-ranked students on Law Review. His grades are better than mine, by the way. Oh, and his law school is ranked about 5 spots below mine on US News. That's it. And this doesn't just apply to firms either. Government jobs, judges looking for clerks, public interest organizations- everyone cares where you went to school. Turning down a high-ranked school is closing doors to many opportunities. 
I would argue that the most important thing to figure out before making a $100,000+ investment is the potential returns on that investment. Notably, are you going to be able to get a job to pay for your loans? After you figure that out, then you can look at the softer factors suggested in the article. Once I had all my acceptances in front of me, I first eliminated the lower ranked, lower career opportunity schools, namely because, as someone has already suggested, I had no idea how I would do in law school. Then, I looked at the general environment of the school and scholarship packets before deciding. It's much, much more enjoyable going to school knowing I won't have a problem finding a job and feeling free to take classes I like and am interested in instead of taking classes that might look good to potential employers. Law school is called professional school for a reason. It's not a liberal arts degree. Unless you're not going to law school to be a gainfully employed lawyer and are going just out of curiosity, then you have to face the facts and pick a school that will most easily get you the job you want. 
 

bangalee57

I attend a lower ranked, regional law school in one of the largest cities in the country.  Ranking is, unfortunately, an important topic among my classmates, and sadly many of our top students transfer off to name-brand schools simply to have the "name brand" degree.  I'm facing that choice now. Being the only law school in San Antonio, we have fantastic access to federal judges, big firms, little firms, and thousands of people in need.  We have a thriving clinic program and very active pro bono programs.  We have an overseas summer program that regularly attracts Supreme Court justices as guest lecturers. I have spoken to "big firm" and little firm, public interest and government, and sought advice from attorney-friends and alumni.  So far, the people who give me the least respect are students I have met from our neighboring nationally ranked school, even though I have a higher GPA and class rank.  I have the same opportunities to learn, practice, intern, and pass the bar as higher ranked schools.  We <gasp> even use the same books and read the same cases. I have chosen to remain where I am, knowing I could transfer up, because I believe that my opportunities to maximize my law school experience are so much greater at St Mary's, where students are friendly and helpful, professors are always available, and alumni are glad to reach out and network.  As a solo parent of a young child, the atmosphere on campus is as important to me as the ranking. The ABA inspectors on their regular accreditation visit (the one that happens every seven years), commented to us during a forum with student leaders that the best way to deal with US News rankings was to boycott US News. Our program was doing just fine in turning out quality, capable attorneys, no matter where the rankings put us.

lawblogger

I think most of the advice about prioritizing ranking applies only if you want to move around the country or work in a big city.  If you want to work in a smaller city or pretty much anywhere outside the huge legal markets of NYC, DC, LA, San Fran, or Chicago, there is less competition for jobs, and where you went to law school matters less.  This is especially true if you choose a law school in the city/state where you want to work.  I think it can actually be a plus to go to a local law school if you're seeking jobs in that region after graduation because the alumni network is usually strong, and there can be a negative perception about higher ranked law grads coming in from out of state that they will be stuck up or elitist or not down to earth enough for the position.  Case in point: at my job, an Order of the Coif law grad from one of the top three law schools (according to U.S. News anyway) was turned down in favor of someone from a Third Tier law school a few blocks away from my work.  There were other people in the office who had gone to that law school (so it wasn't perceived as inferior to bigger name schools), and it made the applicant who also went to that school fit in more than the namebrand law grad.  I don't think this outcome would be replicated if the job had been for a big clerkship or an out-of-state firm, where the regional reputation of a law school and the alumni network are unlikely to have as much influence, but I almost think it's a waste of money to spend double or triple what you'd pay for a local or state school on a namebrand school if your goal is to work in the same region as the local/state school. To me, big name schools are only worthwhile if you want to be able to move from region to region, where a namebrand law school would open doors, or if you want to get a very prestigious job or clerkship (but even then, it's not impossible to do these things from lower ranked schools).

Peg

I think you make a good point. However, I would be careful in limiting your definition of "huge legal market".  I live and work in San Diego, CA—not on your list.  However, it is nearly impossible to get a law firm job in this town if you go to one of the THREE local schools.  Yes, my evidence is limited to law firms, however, I also know lawyers that work for the PD, DA, for judges and in house and they all came to San Diego from elsewhere and all have "big name" law school diplomas.  The highest ranked school in this "region" is USD which is in the bottom half of tier 2 on the US News rankings and costs a fortune to attend.  You must be in the top couple percent at that school to be competitive in this legal market.  My firm also has an office in Colorado but will only interview the top one or two students from Colorado law schools.
I do think that regional schools are a great (and often cost effective) way to go to law school if you want to stay in the region AND the region is not all that competitive in the sense that a lot of out-of-towners don't want to work there.

Katie

One of the posters here, talked about basing part of her decision to stay at a "lower ranked school" on the fact that she has a small child and that the campus atmosphere, therefore, mattered to her.  I have a different take on this.  I too went to law school as a mother (of two).  I did not understand the importance of law school rankings when I made my decision on which law school to go to.  Luckily, the school that I picked based on location, price, and available concentrations was also the highest ranked law school around.  So, kind of by luck, I ended up at a law school very high on the US News list—thank God.
I have always been an over-achiever, always at the top of every thing I do, always very competitive.  However, law school was a new challenge and being a mother also forced me to approach law school like nothing else before.  In the end, I was not order of the coif; I was not on law review; I was not on the moot court team or really all that involved in school.  My grades were good, but again, not top 10% good.  There is no doubt in my mind that if I would have put more time and effort into law school I could have been at the top of the class.  My friends who were up there, studied ALL THE TIME.  They also had better relationships with the faculty and supportive study groups to help them.  I studied as much as I could, but NEVER on the weekends.  I did not have time to join study groups or talk to professors after class.  I spent a lot of effort on school but I also spent a lot of effort on raising my two little kids.  I approached law school with some perspective and I took it with a grain of salt, not stressing about the small stuff or the competition like I probably would have had I not been older and wiser.
So, why do I bring all this up here?  Well, my law school was high enough ranked that any and all legal employers were hungry for its grads.  Hundreds of employers interviewed on campus.  Perhaps most importantly, the law school, because of its ranking, had enough leverage to NOT allow on-campus interviewers to select who they would interview.  In other words, the students got to chose who they would interview with and the employers had to sit down with every interviewee that ended up on their schedule for the day—no matter the grades, no matter the law review status.  Additionally, the law school had enough leverage to not rank the students and not allow students to put class rank (because it was non existent) on their resumes.  Therefore, the employers were sort of in the dark about what a interviewee's grades tanslated into relative to other students at the same school.  This is a huge benefit of going to a highly ranked school.  It meant that a student couldn't be denied a first interview based on an employer's arbitrary class rank cut off or law review status.  For those of us that had good, but not great, grades this likely made all the difference in the world.  It meant that I didn't have to miss out on three years of my kids in order to compete for the top spot in the class and I am forever thankful for that.  In a way, you could say that the hard work was getting into that school but once I was in, I could relax a little knowing that the name of the school would open up a lot of doors for me.
So my advice is to factor in law school rankings, high on your list of criteria when choosing a law school.  And, frankly, as a mother in law school, the law school environment meant almost nothing to me.  If I wasn't in class or in the library studying for exams, I wasn't at the law school—I was home with my kids, or at the zoo, or at the park—anywhere but law school.

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