What you’re looking for in a law school depends largely on your career goals—why do you want to be a lawyer in the first place? But it also depends on a number of other personal factors, including geographic preferences, intellectual interests, and desired learning environment. The following are some of the most important factors to consider. LSAC also offers a very good set of pages about choosing the right law school (as well as some good tools). And NALP—the experts in tracking the legal profession and lawyer employment—has developed a great list of questions to ask about placement issues.
National vs. regional schools: Are you more interested in a school with a national reputation that attracts students from many places and whose graduates get jobs across the nation? Or are you more interested in a school with a regional reputation attended by local students whose graduates tend to get jobs in the immediate area? Regional schools generally offer a strong network of alums in the area while national schools tend to offer a brand name diploma that will open doors almost anywhere. National schools also generally require higher LSAT scores and GPAs.
Location: Where do you want to live after law school? Most lawyers’ first work experiences are in the same general area as where they attend law school. Also consider whether you want to study law in an urban environment with many clinical opportunities, a diverse population, and summer law clerk positions, or in a smaller town where the pace is slower and the living expenses are lower? In what sort of an environment do you work best?
Diversity: What is the make-up of the student body and faculty? Are they diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, national origin and socioeconomic background? Does the school have a reputation as fostering a particular political point of view? Most law students learn better in an environment that provides a range of opinions, backgrounds and assumptions. If you are a member of a minority group, do you want to seek out schools that have faculty and other students who share your background and experience?
Facilities and resources: Is the law school affiliated with a university? Is access to a large academic research library important to you? Has the law library been keeping up with technological advances? Do the facilities provide a learning environment in which you feel comfortable? Are there programs or courses available outside the law school that you want to pursue in addition to your J.D.?
Faculty: What is the academic and experiential background of faculty members? How accessible are they? What is the faculty-student ratio? What percentage of courses are taught by adjunct faculty? How many of the faculty are minority and/or women? What are the publications and reputation of faculty in specific areas of law that interest you?
Specialization or focus: Law school education is not as specialized as college education; there is no law school “major.” However, some law schools, particularly more selective ones, are known for a particular specialization or focus. Other law schools may offer specialized joint degree programs, permitting a student to simultaneously pursue a J.D. and Ph.D. in certain fields, or a J.D. and an M.B.A. If you have a specific interest in a related field, this should be part of your law school application planning. Note, though, that such joint programs are not for everyone, and you should think carefully about your professional goals before applying.
Student body: What is the size of the entering class? How large are the first-year classes? What does the admissions profile tell you about the quality of the student body? Is there diversity among the student body? What is the overall atmosphere-are students friendly or are they overly competitive? Is there much student interaction outside class? Are there journals, projects, or student organizations for minorities, women, gays and lesbians?
Cost: What are tuition, fees, housing, and book costs? For state schools, what are their requirements for in-state tuition? Is financial aid need-based or are merit scholarships available? Does the school have a loan repayment assistance program (LRAP) for public interest work? What is the average debt of recent graduates?
Student life: Where do most students live? Is housing provided for first-year students? If not, does the school offer assistance in locating off-campus housing? What is the cost of living?
Placement: How effective is the placement office? What percentage of the most recent graduating class is employed? In what types of positions and what geographic area are they employed? What are typical starting salaries? How many students move on to judicial clerkships? What assistance is available for graduates not interested in working in law firms?
Bar passage rate: What percentage of the school’s graduates pass the bar exam the first time they take it? This figure will give you an idea how strong the school is in giving students a well-rounded, legal education. Although law schools do not gear their curriculum to bar exams, it is another criteria you may want to consider. Bar passage rates can vary from as low as 50% to almost 100%. It’s another way to compare different law schools.
Attrition and transfer rates: How many students leave after the first year, either to go to another school or to simply drop out? Does the school experience a net gain or loss after the first year?