What should I consider when choosing which law schools to apply to?
Choosing a law school to apply to or to attend is a difficult decision. When considering a law school, you must examine a variety of factors, including the effect a law school can have on your career, anticipated costs, academic environment, and the social environment at the school and surrounding city. We briefly review each of these factors here.
The legal field is competitive, and the law school you attend can have a profound effect on your career. Not all law schools are the same, of course, so when researching career options, consider the following:
National vs. Regional Law Schools
National law schools have reputations that carry weight outside of the region the school is located in and give graduates more options nationwide for employment. Stanford graduates, for example, can just as easily obtain a job in New York City as in San Francisco.
Regional law schools typically are composed of students from the region the law school is located in and their network of potential employers is limited to that region. Once you move outside the region, the network of potential employers drops off dramatically.
In order to better understand the difference between national and regional schools, take a look at the following comparison:
Yale University, a national school, has graduates working across the United States. For example, the following regions each have a large percentage of Yale graduates: Middle Atlantic (32%), Pacific (22%), and South Atlantic (17%).
On the other hand, the University of Florida, a regional school, has the majority of their graduates (88%) working in the South Atlantic region where the school is located.
Many schools offer specialties that allow students to focus on one specific area of law in their second and third years of law school. These specialties include: environmental law, tax law, healthcare law, maritime law, intellectual property, and trial advocacy.
Students who are unsure of whether or not they want to focus on a specific area of law will probably not need to focus on the specialties offered at each law school, but if you know that you definitely would like to focus on one area of law, specialties offered at certain schools can be a very important factor in your decision. Consider the following scenario: Miranda, a nurse, knows that she would like to focus on healthcare law after law school, and she has been accepted to a variety of law schools including Notre Dame and the University of Houston. Most people would say that Notre Dame is the superior choice, but if Miranda wants to focus on healthcare law, the University of Houston may be the better choice for her because the University of Houston has one of the best regarded healthcare law programs in the nation whereas Notre Dame does not offer a specialization in healthcare law.
Job Opportunities after Graduation
Where you go to law school can have a significant impact on your employment immediately following law school. Law school graduates have varying levels of success in finding employment after graduation, and this is typically caused by two things: how helpful and effective each school's career placement office is, and the alumni network in place. A career placement office helps students in finding summer job opportunities with law firms and also helps students get in touch with firms seeking recent law graduates. In addition to the career placement office, the alumni network at your school is an important tool. Many law schools have alumni networks that hold conferences for alumni, mixers, and help in placing recent graduates. For more information on the career placement office at your law school and the alumni network in place, contact the school and also consult with former students regarding each service's effectiveness.
Going to law school is not an inexpensive endeavor in most cases. In fact, the cost of tuition alone can range from $8,000 to $35,000 a year. Here are some important facts to keep in mind when looking at the costs associated with each law school:
- Almost all public schools give in-state students a significant break in cost of tuition.
- Almost all law schools either limit or forbid working while in law school; therefore, all expenses will likely be covered by your savings, loans, or scholarships (if you are lucky!).
- Living costs while in school will greatly be affected by where the school is located. For example, choosing to attend law school at NYU, where room and board costs are around $35,000 a year according to US News, will be much more expensive than attending law school in Nashville, TN at Vanderbilt, which will cost around $10,000 a year.
- Scholarships are very hard to come by, and few cover all expenses.
- The more debt you accrue in law school, the more likely that you will be forced into a pursuing a legal career in order to pay back your loans. This can be an especially important factor if you discover after several years that you do not wish to continue being a lawyer.
Law school can bring out the competitive side of many people. There is nothing wrong with a little competitiveness, but when it becomes treacherous, it's a problem. For example, some students have been known to go as far as hiding or stealing previously administered exams available in the school's library. On the other hand, the atmosphere at some law schools is far more supportive, and students can be very helpful to their fellow students by sharing notes, outlines, and former exams. To find out whether the law school you are considering is known for bringing out the best or worst in people, ask current and former students.
Living at Law School
What type of social and geographical atmosphere makes you comfortable? Would you prefer a smaller school in a more rural area? Or would you like a larger school in a more urban setting? Do you love warm weather and humidity, or do you prefer crisp days and short summers? Different students have different preferences, and you should take those into account when considering each school. After all, you will spend three years in the environment of your choosing, so you should choose wisely.
Whether or not you think you are ready to make the transition to living where a law school is located, go visit the school first. While visiting the school, look into the following areas:
- What is the nightlife like? If you are used to being out at clubs or bars until the sun comes up, make sure the city allows it. Some students are surprised to find out that not only does the city their school is located in not have many bars, but the bars they do have close at midnight.
- How close are you to the nearest sports venues, museums, or performing arts venues? Whatever your interests are, you will need to get away from the law library occasionally (yes, it's true!).
- What sort of extracurricular activities does your school offer? Making friends can be difficult while in class; a great way to meet other people is through extracurricular activities. (Note — larger law schools typically offer more extracurricular activities than smaller schools)
- As mentioned previously, the cost of living can be quite high in some cities. Make sure to check out available to housing and their costs.
There are a variety of ways to look into the various points raised about choosing a law school, including contacting the school, contacting former students, posting on pre-law message boards, visiting the school's website, and visiting the school and surrounding city.
What is the difference between national, regional, and local law schools?
A national school will generally have an applicant population and a student body that draws almost indistinguishably from the nation as a whole and will have many international students as well. A regional school is likely to have a population that is primarily from the geographic region of its location, though many regional schools have students from all over the country; a number of regional schools draw heavily from a particular geographical area, yet graduates may find jobs all over the country. Generally speaking, a local school is drawing primarily on applicants who either come from or want to practice in the proximate area in which the school is located.
What does this mean for you? Generally speaking it means that when you are selecting which law schools to apply to, think location, location, location. It is universally assumed that the higher a law school is ranked, the more "national" it can be considered. For example, many would argue that obtaining a degree from a top 5-ranked "national" law school in the Northeast wouldn't really hurt your chances of getting a job with a law firm in California; in that case, the ranking of the school would take precedence over the location of the school itself. However, even when considering applying to and then attending a "national" law school, and particularly when applying to a "regional" or "local" law school, be careful to consider some of the following points:
- How many of the school's alumni stay and practice in the area after graduation? A strong alumni network is important when starting a law career not only for employment possibilities, but also for referrals. If the bulk of the school's alumni stay in the city or region where the school is located, perhaps you should think seriously about whether you could live there, too.
- It may seem silly, but consider the weather. Are you someone who cannot bear icy cold winters? Then perhaps you should stay way from the Northeast. Do you absolutely need sun and surf to be happy? Maybe a school in California, Florida, or Hawaii is best for you.
- Call the Admissions Office of the school or schools you are interested in, and ask which firms most often interview on campus. If you're dead-set on working for a particular firm, or working for a firm that specializes in a specific field, then make sure that the law school or schools you are considering are included in that firm's or specialty's recruiting rounds.
- Is the law school attached to an institution of higher learning? Over 90% of ABA-approved law schools are part of a larger university. This can mean a greater diversity in students, student ages, and academic/extracurricular offerings. Consider if this is important to you.
- Don't rely solely on rankings. Rankings take years to build, and smaller, lower-ranked institutions with great law schools are often overlooked because the do not "rank high enough." Look past the numbers (much like you want your admissions officer to do!) and see what other tangibles and intangibles each school offers—you will be pleasantly surprised.
Many times, it is not the ranking or "national" nature of the institution but what the school offers that makes the difference. Be careful not to guide yourself by rankings, but rather by where you believe you will be the happiest, where you will get the education you want, and where your employment hopes will be most likely fulfilled.
What is the difference between part-time and full-time J.D. programs?
In addition to traditional three-year, full-time J.D. programs, many law schools offer part-time degree programs as well. For those students interested in law school but not ready, willing, or able to make legal education their exclusive focus for three years, part-time programs can provide a valuable option. For students who are considering both, below is a brief overview of the two types of programs.
The typical full-time program at most American Bar Association-accredited law schools requires 12 - 15 credit hours earned for each of six semesters, meaning that most full-time students complete their legal studies in three years. The ABA does not permit full-time students to work more than 20 hours per week while attending law school, and some schools don't allow full-time students to work at all. These prohibitions do not extend to summers, during which many students enter legal internships, and some schools do offer summer courses.
At schools where part-time programs are available, classes are often offered during evenings and weekends and can take longer to complete than standard, full-time programs. Many part-time programs require students to take summer classes as well, but these programs do not generally place a cap on the number of hours students are allowed to work during their legal studies. The average course load for a part-time program is between 8 and 11 credit hours per semester.
A common concern for law students is the financing of their legal education, and the two types of programs offer different benefits and constraints. Full time programs limit the hours that students are allowed to work, and at some schools law students aren't permitted to work at all during the school year. For students who are not able to pay for law school, or to secure sufficient financial aid, part-time programs offer the option of working while pursuing one's degree. While part-time programs can provide greater flexibility, however, they can also cost more overall. Because they take longer to complete, this can also mean entry into the legal field one year later. Another important consideration for those seeking aid is that law schools tend to set aside a larger portion of their grant and scholarship funds for full-time students.
The Academic Experience
Many students contemplating a part-time legal education have concerns about the comparability to a full-time program. Because the majority of opportunities in law school are based on academic performance, part time students may miss out on certain resume-building activities, such as law review, if employment interferes with their schooling. Further, programs may provide more limited course selection for evening and weekend classes. On the other hand, professors who teach in part-time programs and those who teach in full-time programs are typically drawn from the same pool. At Georgetown, for example, law professors are rotated between full- and part-time programs, so the quality of any given class is likely to be comparable.
Opportunities after Graduation
Where employment opportunities are concerned, there are potential advantages associated with both program types. Part-time programs take place over a longer span, and require fewer credit hours per semester, leaving more time to research, network, and interview. On the other hand, the summers off during a full-time program are typically used for legal internships, which allow students to gain experience while demonstrating their abilities to potential employers. For many full-time students, the legal internship between 2nd and 3rd year can lead to full-time employment with a firm after graduation.
Schools that offer Part-Time J.D. Programs
The following is a partial list of law schools that offer part-time programs:
- American University (Washington)
- Brooklyn Law School
- Cardozo-Yeshiva University
- Case Western Reserve University
- Catholic University of America
- Duke University
- Fordham University
- George Mason University
- George Washington University
- Georgetown University
- Georgia State University
- Hofstra University
- Illinois Institute of Technology (Chicago-Kent)
- Indiana University—Bloomington
- Indiana University—Indianapolis
- Lewis and Clark College (Northwestern)
- Louisiana State University—Baton Rouge
- Loyola Law School
- Loyola University Chicago
- Marquette University
- Mercer University
- Rutgers State University—Camden
- Rutgers State University—Newark
- Seattle University
- Seton Hall University
- Southern Methodist University
- St. John's University
- St. Louis University
- Syracuse University
- Temple University (Beasley)
- Tulane University
- University of Connecticut
- University of Denver (Sturm)
- University of Houston
- University of Louisville (Brandeis)
- University of Maryland
- University of Miami
- University of Missouri—Columbia
- University of Nevada—Las Vegas
- University of San Diego
- University of the Pacific (McGeorge)
- University of Wisconsin—Madison
- Washington University in St. Louis
- Yale University
When is the best time to apply to law school?
The earlier, the better. While most law schools have application deadlines in February and March (and some even go into April and May), it is important to remember that most also practice rolling admissions. This means that law schools fill seats for the incoming class on a first come, first serve basis. This also means that early on in the admissions process there are many more open spots in a class than closer to the deadline. Because you want to increase your admissions chances as much as possible, make sure to apply when the seats are plentiful and the admissions officers are fresh.
Sending in your application very close to or actually on the deadline means that:
- There is a much larger number of (potentially highly qualified) candidates vying for a much smaller number of spots, and
- Your application may very well be #2,345 that the Dean of Law School Admissions at XYZ school has read, neither of which bode well for your chances, regardless of your qualifications.
Apply in the fall of the year before you want to start law school, and apply as early as you can in the admissions cycle.
What is the CAS and how does it work with law school admissions?
The Credential Assembly Service (CAS) is the gatekeeper of many important documents for law school applicants. The CAS is a service provided by Law Services, the producers of the LSAT, and almost all ABA-approved law schools require the use of CAS reports in the admissions process. No school that uses the CAS will consider an applicant until their CAS report is complete.
The CAS is required by law schools because it standardizes much of the information relevant to making admission decisions. Without such standardization, schools would have to sift through a colossal amount of disorganized information. For applicants, the CAS is a helpful tool in the admissions process. If an applicant is able to use all of the services included with registering for the CAS, the amount of work put into submitting applications is dramatically reduced.
What is in a CAS report?
An CAS report has multiple components:
1. Academic Summary Report
The Academic Summary Report contains two important areas:
- The Undergraduate Summary presents multiple calculations of your GPA, including GPA based on semester year and overall GPA. In addition to displaying an applicant's GPA, the report also shows the GPA in comparison to other students from the same school who registered for the CAS within the time frame the applicant was enrolled at that specific school. This effectively reveals your GPA ranking compared to other law school applicants from your school.
- An applicant's LSAT score is also compared to other graduates from their degree granting school, much like the GPA is compared to that same group.
Transcripts from every academic institution you have attended are standardized and summarized. This includes a listing off classes you took and your grade for each class.
3. Complete LSAT Score Reports
This section details your LSAT score(s), your LSAT score average, the dates you took the test, and your LSAT score percentile. Copies of your Writing Sample(s) are also included.
4. Letters of Recommendation
The CAS provides forms for each individual letter of recommendation and also certifies the authenticity of each letter.
The options for submitting letters of recommendation are quite extensive. Applicants can choose to have either a general letter of recommendation sent to all schools or have school- or topic-specific letters sent to individual schools.
What else is in included with the CAS?
Access to the electronic application service for all ABA-approved law schools.
For more information on electronic applications, please click here.
How to Register
Applicants can register for the CAS by visiting the Law School Admissions Council's website or calling the LSAC at 215-968-1001.
- The registration fee for the CAS is $113.
- CAS reports are accessible for up to 5 years after registering. Also, each time an applicant registers for the LSAT, his or her CAS access is extended from the most recent LSAT registration point.
- In addition to the one time registration fee, each CAS report sent out to each individual law schools costs $12, which must be paid prior to being sent out.
- The CAS does offer fee waivers for the $113 registration fee and 4 CAS reports. For more information, either call LSAC or visit their website.
One Final Note
The amount of time for the CAS to process and make available each individual component of the report varies, and they have been known to take one to three months for some applicants. Therefore, it is very important for applicants to get their documents into the CAS as early as possible in order to avoid any delays in the application process.
What's the difference between early action and early decision?
Aside from regular admissions, there are two other types of admissions which both get confused and get confusing: Early Action and Early Decision. Both have earlier deadlines than Regular Decision applications, each has pros and cons, and both should be considered carefully before applications are sent out.
Early Decision is the stricter of the early application options. Early Decision applications are the first applications reviewed during a law school's rolling admissions process. When submitting an application via Early Decision, there are a few points to consider:
- If you are accepted at a school via Early Decision, the decision is binding, and you must withdraw all applications from all other law schools immediately. This means, among other things, that you need to be pretty sure that the school you're applying to is your dream school and that you are comfortable with all or nearly all aspects of it.
- If you are denied admissions after applying Early Decision, you will not be able to apply to the same school for Regular Decision. You can only apply to a school once during an admissions cycle.
- If you know you will need financial aid to attend law school, think very, very carefully about applying Early Decision. If admitted you will have to attend the school, regardless of whatever financial aid they may (or may not) offer you, and you will not have a chance to review any financial aid offers potentially made to you by any other schools.
- You have five possible admissions results when applying Early Decision: Admit, Deny, Defer, Held, and Waitlist. Make sure you understand what each of them means.
- Admit: If you are admitted via Early Decision by a school, that decision is binding, and you must immediately withdraw all other applications from all other schools.
- Deny: If you are denied admissions by a school when applying Early Decision, you will not be able to apply to that school via Regular Decision in the same admissions cycle.
- Defer: If you are deferred, your application will be moved to the rest of the pool in the regular admissions cycle and will be re-reviewed then.
- Held: Being 'Held' is very similar to being deferred—your application is transferred over the regular applicant pool and will be reconsidered then. For both deferrals and helds, if you are admitted during the regular admissions cycle you are no longer bound to accept the offer of admission, and you do not need to withdraw any other applications you may have in the works.
- Waitlist: If you are waitlisted after applying Early Decision (as is an option with Georgetown Law School), you are basically put on the same waitlist that you would be placed on if you applied Regular Decision and were waitlisted. However, being waitlisted during Early Decision decisions also means (much like when you are deferred or held) that you are no longer bound to accept the school's offer of admission, even if you are taken off the waitlist and offered a spot in a school's incoming class.
Sound confusing? You bet. That's exactly why you need to be very aware of what you're getting yourself into when applying Early Decision.
Early Action is a more lenient version of Early Decision. The decision is non-binding, and thus is slightly more financial aid-friendly. You have three possible results: Admit, Deny, or Held/Deferred. These mean the same as with Early Decision. However, the con to this nicer admissions possibility is the reply dates—even though they are non-binding, you will still need to submit a response much earlier than Regular Decision, which may affect your decision-making options.
Who offers it?
Not all schools offer Early Action or Early Decision, and some offer it for only certain programs and not for others. Duke Law, for example, offers Early Decision for JD dual-degree programs, but not for the regular JD program. Make sure to read your applications carefully and call the admissions office of each school to clarify any questions.