Choosing a Law School

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. Below we briefly review each of these factors.

Career

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.

Law Specialties

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.

Costs

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.

Academic Environment

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.

Researching Schools

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.