How to Choose a Law School
By David Yellen
Dean, Loyola University Chicago School of Law
There are about 200 accredited law schools in the United States, including nine in Illinois. Schools may be large or small, urban or rural, private or public, among other differences. Because there are so many variables to consider when going through the important process of selecting a law school that is right for you, I would like to offer my advice on five factors that will likely help you to make a good decision:
Which factors are most important to you, and how you weigh competing considerations, are very personal decisions. However, if you carefully think through each of these factors, you are more likely to make a good decision.
Some students come to law school with a strong idea of the field in which they would like to practice. If you know that you want to work in health law, tax, intellectual property, or some other specialization, then certainly you should give special weight to schools that have strong programs in your chosen area. If you simply know more broadly that you plan to work in litigation or transactional work, explore the school's offerings in those categories. Be sure to look beyond the school's description of its program, though. Get in touch with students or recent graduates, to see whether the opportunities promoted by the school really exist.
If, like most new law students, you only have a general sense of what your career as a lawyer will look like, the particular programs of the school you select may not be as important. Still, you should look carefully at each school's offerings. For example, what kinds of opportunities are there for developing the practical skills of lawyering? Skills training, or experiential learning, takes three main forms: live client clinics (representing clients in real legal matters, under close faculty supervision), simulations (a sophisticated form of role-playing) and externships (working for academic credit for a judge or public sector law office). Many law students consider these experiences to be the most valuable of their second and third years of law school.
Most students decide to attend one of the "best" schools to which they are admitted. That decision is certainly understandable for several reasons. One is the inherent psychic reward in having been admitted to a highly selective institution. The other is the expectation that one's job prospects will be enhanced by having graduated from such a prestigious school.
How should you determine and weigh a law school's prestige and reputation in deciding where to enroll? I know that many, if not most, prospective law students consult the U.S. News (and perhaps some other) rankings. That is fine, even though like most law school deans, I could explain the many shortcomings of the rankings. My advice, though, is to keep the rankings in context and also consider a broader view of a school's reputation. Look at how the school's graduates are perceived in the legal community. The "Superlawyers" publication can be helpful.
By all means, don't choose a school simply because it "ranks" a bit higher than another school that appeals to you more. Even during your brief time in law school, the rankings will shift around a bit. And in my experience, employers think of schools in rather large groupings and evaluate them over a long time horizon.
Also be aware that the pursuit of higher rankings can divert resources from actually providing a higher quality educational experience. I would be nervous about any school that seems to place too much emphasis on their standings in the rankings.
Although probably not worthy of being repeated three times as in the real estate mantra, the location of your law school should be an important consideration. Unless you are attending one of a tiny number of elite schools, your law school will have a stronger reputation in its home area than in other parts of the country. In addition, through internships, part time jobs, volunteer activities, mentoring programs and various law school events, you will be likely to meet a number of alumni in the area. These sorts of contacts can form an important base in your budding legal career. Taken together, these factors means that your employment prospects will probably be stronger in the area where you attend law school.
Does this mean that must first decide where you want to live after law school and only apply to schools in that location? Certainly not. Many fine schools are located in small legal markets. An increasing number of schools are developing strong alumni networks around the county. However, location should be a factor you consider. The more open you are to spending at least a few years after law school in a particular place, the more carefully you should consider schools there.
Graduating from law school with a large debt load is frightening, and can affect your choices for years to come. If you are considering law schools that will leave you with very different amounts of debt (either because of tuition differentials or scholarships you are offered), figure out what your monthly loan payments are likely to be after graduation in each case. Don't overestimate the likelihood that you will receive one of the sky-high starting salaries you may have read about.
If you are offered a scholarship, pay attention to the details. Under what circumstances will you retain or lose your scholarship? Many schools impose a law school grade point average requirement for retention, but there can be significant differences in where that level is set. You might prefer a lower scholarship that you are more likely to keep for all three years than a slightly higher scholarship that you have a better chance of losing after a year.
This is the most intangible of the factors I am recommending you consider. You will be spending a great deal of time at the law school you select. You will probably forge relationships that will be important for the rest of your life; like me, you may even meet your future spouse. You want to pick a school where you think you will be comfortable. Law school is hard enough; if you really don't like your school it can be much worse.
Every school has its own "feel". Many factors go into this: size, location, attitude of faculty towards students, religious affiliation (if any), orientation towards public service, to name just a few. If possible, spend some time sitting in on classes and chatting informally with students. Do they like their school? Would they choose to attend if they had to decide all over? No school is perfect, and you are sure to hear some complaints about every school you visit. But through this exploration, you should be able to tell which schools feel right for you.
Enrolling in law school is one of the major milestones in one's professional life. Good luck as you embark on this exciting process.