Choosing a Law School

Once you have decided that you want to become a lawyer, choosing a law school will be your most important decision. For a few people, deciding which school to go to is an easy decision. But, if you are not in the group that has to stay in a particular area or has a special reason for going to a particular law school, then you are going to have to make some choices. Given the fact that most schools charge an application fee in excess of $50, narrowing down the list of potential schools is important. While we at Law School Coach don’t claim to have all of the answers, considering the following information should make your job at choosing a law school much easier.

What is Your Goal for Law School?

One of the most important preliminary considerations in choosing a law school is to clarify what you want out of your education. One person may already have a job lined up and all he needs is a bar card. Another may be going to law school with an eye towards landing a $200,000 first year salary at Big Firm (if this is you, read our recent Blawg post on the law school myth). These two people will find different factors important when choosing a law school.

So, step one is to do your best to define what your goal for law school is. Where do you want to work after graduation? Do you have a specialty in mind? What are your constraints (financial, geographic, etc…)? Is the prestige of the law school important to you? Would you consider a lower-tier law school if they offered you a scholarship to attend?

Which Law Schools Will Accept You?

The next step is to determine the law schools that you are qualified to attend. This is mainly a function of your LSAT and GPA. Unless you have put a great deal of thought into it, you should only consider ABA accredited schools (most states require this accreditation to be licensed). When reviewing law school applications, committees will put a student into one of three piles: “presumptive Yes,” “presumptive No,” and “further review.” The presumptive Yes students will be accepted unless there is some very negative information in their file. The presumptive No students will be rejected unless barring some very positive information in their file. The further review students will have the most carefully scrutinized applications. Your LSAT/GPA combination determines which pile your application is placed in.

Each year, US News and World Report ranks law schools. This ranking will give you a good idea of the law school’s reputation. The ranking will also give you an indication of how competitive the admissions process will be at a given school.

Law schools publish their acceptance data. Generally, you will be a presumptive Yes if both your LSAT and GPA are at and above the school’s 75th percentile credentials; and, you might be offered a scholarship. You will be a presumptive No if both your LSAT and GPA are below the school’s 25th percentile credentials. You will have a good chance of admission if both your LSAT and GPA are at or above the school’s medians. If your credentials are mixed (one score above the median, the other below), the quality of your undergraduate preparation and how well your application stands out will be the deciding factor. For a nifty program that allows you to input your LSAT/GPA combination and will spit out your highest ranked choices, click here.

Narrow the List of Potential Law Schools

Once you have determined the group of law schools that you have a reasonable shot at attending, it is time to narrow down the list. To do this, start to look at the list with your goals for law school in mind. Are there any places that you are unwilling to live for three years? Are there any schools on the list that are outside of the constraints you have set? Do any of the law schools on the list prevent you from reaching your goal – some firms will only consider certain schools, academics usually come from certain schools, etc….

Probably the most important factor you will consider is where you want to practice law. If you want to practice law in a certain geographic area, you should strongly consider schools from that area. Look at the local firms’ websites to get an idea of the law schools that are prevalent for lawyers from that region. Certain law schools have more clout regionally than they do nationally. If you know you want to live and practice in Kentucky, your best bet will probably be a Kentucky law school (there are only 3 to choose from). For a geographic listing of approved law schools, click here.

Hopefully, there is more than one law school left on your list. If the above exercise leaves you with only one school, or no schools, you will need to reconsider your goals for law school (unless you are a presumptive Yes).

Once you have then narrowed down list, it is time to start submitting your applications. It is not a bad idea to throw in a law school that is a little above your qualifications (reach school), and to keep a safe (fall-back) school on your list.

Considerations for Your Final Law School Choice

Hopefully, several of the law schools on your list have offered you admission to their class. Perhaps others on your list have put you on their waiting list. If you have followed the above recommendations, none of the schools that you have been accepted to are schools that you would not consider attending.

Have any of the schools offered you a scholarship? Do you have a clear first-choice? Are there big differences is tuition between the law schools that have accepted you? Which school is the highest ranked? Do any of the schools have a clinical program that is important to you?

If there are a couple of schools that leave you with a tough decision, you should consider visiting the campus. Ask the students questions, see what kind of vibe the place has. Is this a place you are comfortable spending the next three years of your life? What is the culture of the school—competitive or relaxed? What about class size? Does the school provide an area for 1L’s to study?

Why Shouldn't I Just Choose the Highest Ranked Law School that Accepted Me?

For most people the law school ranking should not be the deciding factor in law schools. The reality is that the schools on your list are going to allow you to accomplish your goals. Only the top 10 law schools are sufficiently prestigious that simply going there will do a lot for a law student in terms of career opportunities. Beyond that, things get more complicated. The schools that follow surely carry prestige, but employers will no longer pay attention “just because” a particular applicant went to the school. The individual’s ability and law school results matter more. That’s not to say that a school’s reputation becomes irrelevant. It remains relevant, but outside the top 10 it becomes less important.

In general, if you have a choice between a “Tier 1” (top 50) law school, and a lower tier school, the Tier 1 School should have an edge in your decision. Also, if you know what kind of law you want to focus on, law schools are ranked by specialties such as: Health Care Law, Trial Advocacy, Intellectual Property, and International Law. If you are interested in a particular type of law, a high ranking on the specialty list should be given significant weight.

Ranking becomes less important when you are choosing between similarly situated law schools. For instance, going to the #20 law school (George Washington) versus attending the #30 law school (UC Davis) is not going to give you a prestige factor edge. This is also true for schools in Tier 3 versus Tier 4.

Once You Choose a Law School

Inform the law schools of your decision as soon as you make it. If you are not accepting an offer, notify the school in writing so that they can offer the seat to another applicant. To reserve your seat, we recommend that you send your acceptance letter by certified mail/return receipt requested. Be sure to review your acceptance packet and comply with the law school’s procedure for accepting the seat, including the payment of a seat deposit (credited against your tuition). Usually your initial decision will be due by April 1.

Understand that choosing a law school is not an irrevocable decision. If you are wait-listed at a better school and get a late offer, you are not bound by having already accepted admission at a different school, though you may lose your seat deposit. Just make sure to let the schools know as soon as possible.

For more tips, be sure to check out the Law School Coach Guide to Law School Admissions.