Where you decide to attend law school is an extremely important decision that will reverberate throughout your career as a lawyer. There are approximately 200 ABA accredited law school and each of them come with their own advantages and disadvantages that you will need to sift through as an aspiring law student. The law school you go to is an extremely important decision and it will have far reaching consequences. Your law school will influence what geographic area you will practice in, what type of law you will practice, your student loan debt, and your overall law school experience.
Read on to learn about what kind of impact the law school you select will have on your law school experience and initial legal career.
Do Law Firms Care Where You Went to Law School?
An important consideration for law school applicants is whether the school they attend will be a factor in a law firm’s decision to hire them. Some law firms care about which law school you attended, especially for your first job as a junior attorney. BigLaw firms tend to recruit exclusively from highly ranked law schools, but mid-level and small firms are much less concerned with what law school you attended.
BigLaw firms are notoriously picky in the selection of their applicants. The Skadden’s, Davis Polk’s, and Akin Gump’s of the legal world have a heavy presence in T14 law schools but rarely pay much attention to applicants from lower ranked schools. If your eyes are set on a BigLaw firm job you will want to attend a T14 or near-T14 school.
For most other law firms, location and connections developed before and during law school matter far more than an Ivy League law degree.
Job Opportunities Vary Significantly By Law School
Job opportunities are of paramount concern for applicants searching for a suitable law school. The ABA releases statistics on law school graduate employment data but law schools also maintain active public records of graduate employment data. Applicants reviewing statistics on employment data should be careful with the number that they analyze. The employment statistics are typically divided between “Bar Passage Required” and “JD Advantaged”. Applicants should place a much higher emphasis on Bar Passage Required statistics as JD Advantaged does not require a law degree.
Should You Go to Law School Where You Want to Practice?
While it is true that you do not have to attend law school in the state where you wind up practicing, there are other reasons why you should consider the area where your law school is located. You do not necessarily have to go to law school in the state where you want to practice but there are some advantages to studying in the same state. Your alumni network will be significantly stronger in the area where you studied and job opportunities will be more accessible.
If you have a specific state where you plan to reside after graduation, you should be aware that the vast majority of law schools are considered local or regional schools. This means that their alumni network is most concentrated within a specific state or region and that it will be more difficult to break out into another job market.
Local law schools that have been around for a while are going to have a strong in-state alumni network. This provides a lot of opportunities to develop connections for internships and entry-level legal positions. One way to confirm a law school’s geographic advantage is to check out the school’s statistics on where its graduates practice. ABA accredited law schools are required to offer information on employment statistics and typically the school will show what states it’s graduates practice in.
What If You Don’t Know Where You Want to Practice Law?
If you are uncertain about what state or region you want to practice law, I suggest that you attend law school in a major city. Not all law schools in major cities are top-quality law schools, but they do tend to have wider alumni networks, which is a considerable advantage for someone that does not know where they want to reside.
The Exception to the Law School Geographic Rule
Generally, it is true that you should seriously take into account a law school’s geographic location before you attend. This rule has one major exception and that is if you attend a T-14 or near T-14 law school. If you obtained a 167 or above on your LSAT score you should be able to obtain admission into a top law school. Highly ranked schools in the T-14 and near T-14 range tend to have widely dispersed networks around the U.S and even internationally. Graduates from these schools tend to have little difficulty breaking into a diverse array of legal markets around the country. If you have a high enough LSAT score and GPA these options might be open to you.
Some Law Schools Specialize in Certain Areas of the Law
Not all law schools are the same in terms of their quality of individual programs. It is important to analyze a J.D program as a whole, but if you have in mind a specific practice area, you can also analyze the quality of a law school’s individual programs. A useful analogy to keep in mind is undergraduate majors. An undergraduate institution will typically have an overall ranking in terms of quality of education, but individual programs may far exceed a school’s overall ranking. If you plan on majoring in Marine Biology you probably don’t want to attend a college in the mountains, even if the mountain college is better ranked overall.
Some law schools are well known for specific programs. George Washington University Law School punches above its weight in the field of Intellectual Property. Students transfer to George Washington every year with IP law specifically in mind. Columbia Law School is one of the best law schools for Corporate Law. St. Louis University Law School and Georgia State University Law School have two of the best healthcare law programs in the country.
Other law schools may punch above their weight in Criminal Law, Environment Law, or various other programs. Overall, it is important to look at a law school holistically, but if you have a specific program in mind it is well worth your time to check out who are the leaders in the field.
Law Schools Vary Significantly By Cost
Law School is extremely expensive, almost prohibitively so. The ABA did a survey on the average debt of law school graduates and the results were stunning. The average in total loans at graduation was $165,000, and more than 75% of those surveyed reported that they had at least $100,000 in student loans at graduation.
The cost of a law degree is an important aspect of selecting a law school and you should be aware that there is significant variation among different law schools. Columbia charges the most tuition at $70,000+ a year. On top of that, you have to add thousands of dollars more a year for housing. On the low end of the price range you have law schools like the University of D.C, University of North Dakota, and Brigham Young. These schools all charge less than $15,000 per year in tuition. Most schools don’t charge nearly as much as Columbia, but most of them are not as inexpensive as Brigham Young.
There is something even more important than sticker price tuition. That something is merit based scholarships. Many students receive scholarships from the school they are accepted into to entice them to attend. For many students, the sticker price is just the starting price and it has no where to go but down.
Law School Class Sizes Vary Significantly
Class sizes is another important reason why it matters which law school you attend. You can expect significantly less face to face time with professors at law schools with huge classes like GW, Georgetown, and Harvard. The typical 1L course will have one hundred or more students in a single classroom at these law schools. Opportunities to create good relationships with your professors are significantly fewer than if you attend a smaller law school with smaller courses. Luckily, sharing a Torts class with one hundred other students is not a typical law student experience if you are not attending a mega size law school, most other law schools will average less than fifty students in a single 1L class , and course sizes get progressively smaller as you move on to 2L and 3L year.
Law School Bar Passage Rates Vary Significantly
One of the most important considerations for any law school is how well will a particular law school prepare you for the Bar. The ABA maintains statistics on every ABA approved law school in the country and these statistics are publicly available. Law school applicants should compare first time Bar passage rates to identify how well a law school you are interested in holds up to the competition. A particular law school’s high Bar passage rate certainly is not a guarantee of success (even a few graduates from Harvard fail every year) but it is an indicator of whether a particular law school is adequately preparing its students for the rigors of the Bar Exam.
Applicants should also be aware that some states have more difficult bar exams than others and this can skew results. California has a notoriously difficult Bar Exam and has an incredibly low Bar passage rate compared to the vast majority of other states.
You probably now know how important the law school you attend really is. Selecting a particular law school will significantly impact your total student loan debt, job opportunities, and your likelihood of passing the Bar. These factors are all important in making a determination of which law school you choose to attend.