The legal field puts a high premium on prestige, and a big part of that is the school that you go to. Some law schools offer nearly automatic access to the most desirable jobs in the country (the Ivy League in particular, but there are others as well), and those schools are at the top of most students’ wish lists. Of course, the most highly regarded law schools are extremely selective, and are out of reach for most students. This is why applicants generally try to apply at “safety” schools as well as “reach” schools.
It’s easy to feel like the law school application process is about nothing but numbers—your GPA, your LSAT score, U.S. News and World Report rankings… and it’s that last one that causes the most long-term trouble for some people. If your law school choice strategy comes down to accepting an offer from the highest-ranked school that accepts you, you may be doing yourself a grave disservice, especially if you’ve applied indiscriminately.
As you begin the process of choosing the schools to which you will apply, it’s important to remember that law school is meant to be a springboard to the career you’ll have for the rest of your life. Taking that into consideration means that you’ll need to assess more than just a school’s ranking; here are a few things that can play a part in your decision:
Geography: To me, this seems like the most important factor; unless you’re one of the lucky few at the very top schools, where graduates can go nearly anywhere, it’s more likely than not that the state in which you attend law school is the one in which you’ll eventually practice. This happens for a variety of reasons; maybe you take summer jobs near your campus so you can avoid the hassle of apartment subletting, and one of those jobs leads to a permanent position. Or maybe your school emphasizes bar exam preparation from the very beginning, leading you to feel that you’re best-prepared to take the exam in your law school’s home state. There can be many things behind the transition from “temporarily staying” to “permanently domiciled,” but no matter how it happens, the result is the same.
So don’t choose a school in the North if you can’t tolerate temperatures below 50 degrees, telling yourself that it’s only for three years; there’s a good chance you’ll find yourself shoveling snow for the next decade after you settle in. The same goes for schools that are far from your family if being close to the nest is important, or any other kind of location issue. It boils down to this: don’t bother applying if you can’t stomach the thought of moving there, because there’s a good chance that it’s going to be a longer-term commitment than you anticipate.
Specializations: Along with location, you should also pay attention to a school’s specializations. Sometimes a school is ranked in a lower tier but has an excellent program in a specific area. For example, one fourth-tier school is well-known among intellectual property attorneys for its outstanding patent law program. If you’re dead set on practicing in a specific field, considering a school’s niches can help a less highly-regarded program to acquire a new desirability.
Alumni networks: This ties in closely with Geography, because most schools’ alumni are in the same geographic region as the school itself. But it can make a real difference in choosing a law school, because sometimes an alumni network is your ticket to future employment. Say, for example, you’re set on practicing law in State A someday. There are several law schools there, ranging from the first to the fourth tier. Graduates of the first tier school usually go on to lucrative offers in major cities around the country, and relatively few of them stay in State A; the fourth tier school, on the other hand, has a large student body and most of its many graduates remain in State A, creating a vast number of possible contacts for you as you head into the job market. In that case, the fourth tier school might well be the better choice for you.
It would be a lie to tell you that numbers don’t matter when you choose a law school; they obviously do. But as you evaluate schools, make an effort to consider more than just a school’s ranking; considerations about geography, specializations, and alumni networks can help you focus on finding the perfect school for you, and set you on the way to the career you’re dreaming of!