There are more than 200 law schools in the United States that are accredited by the American Bar Association.
All of them have talented faculty members. Across the board, these schools do most of the same things: offer the same basic core courses and interesting electives; seminars that allow students to examine unique areas of the law in small-class settings; skills-training courses and activities; clinical programs in numerous substantive areas of practice; journals that enable students to hone their legal writing and editing skills; and organizations to network with alumni. Most institutions also offer academic and service programs that support their school communities as well as the broader areas around their campuses.
A law school education is a process that trains individuals to represent and serve others. It is also an extraordinarily enriching personal experience.
Since the late 1980s, U.S. News & World Report’s annual ranking of law schools has become a resource upon which some individuals rely to an absurd extent. Year after year, many students feel compelled to attend a school that is ranked number 20 rather than 29, or number 62 rather than 72 — solely because of these numbers.
For some, gaining admission to a school that U.S. News ranks in the Top 14 (T14) has rather bizarrely become the gold ring to reach for as a measure of one’s worth. This list is the go-to resource for students prone to allowing others to make decisions for them and unwilling to expend the effort of researching the many law schools and figuring out which one really will be the best fit for them.
Conduct Your Own Cost-Benefit Analysis
U.S. News certainly provides some useful information. As you are looking into law schools, you’ll be well-advised to investigate the specific information that has factored into their rankings, like a school’s student-to-faculty ratio and its rates of both bar passage and job placement. Reviewing the overall rankings, as well as those of specialty programs, are good starting points, but they should not hold more weight than any other resource in your law school search.
The websites of individual schools usually provide highly detailed figures on placement, class profiles, and admissions statistics. In addition, it is only by researching each school that you will get in-depth information about what types of clinical programs, journals, and elective courses are offered.
These sites also help you to get a sense of the ways in which a specific school allocates its resources. You should review course listings and descriptions, clinical programs, journal offerings, and faculty biographies. If you think you are interested in pursuing a career in environmental law, for example, it does not make sense to choose the law school that is ranked 72 but offers only two environmental law courses (which may, moreover, be taught by visiting or adjunct faculty). Instead, it may be a better idea to take a look at a school that U.S. News ranks, say, 93, but that offers six environmental law courses, four regulatory law courses, and boasts an environmental law journal, an energy law clinic, and has six full-time faculty members who focus their teaching and scholarship on environmental, energy, and regulatory issues.
You’ll also want to keep in mind that law school is much more than merely an intellectual training program. These years will likely be your last official ones as a student. If you are passionate about hiking, skiing, and bicycling hobbies, doesn’t it make sense to attend the law school that is located in a setting with access to these pursuits? This would allow you to maintain a healthy balance while studying, offering you experiences that may not be available by attending law school in Manhattan — just because these NYC schools are ranked higher than others that are a better fit.
You will spend three precious years of your life in law school (or four if you attend on a part-time basis). You will devote many hours to studying and participating in other law-school related activities, but you must maintain balance and continue to enjoy the activities that are important to you. Be sure that the geographic setting of your law school is right for you.
Law school is also where you will build the foundation of your career. Your classmates may be the first group of people to be in your professional network. You will likely refer cases and receive referrals from them later in life. The alumni from your law school, likewise, will be people to whom you look for mentoring and networking assistance throughout your career. This is why the culture, spirit, and atmosphere of the law school you choose are important. Do you want your professional network to be collaborative and collegial, or do you want it to be competitive and cutthroat? The law school you attend is the club you’ll belong to. You have to be comfortable and proud of this membership.
Decide (After Doing a Lot of Legwork)
As you decide which law schools you will apply to (and ultimately which you’ll attend), you certainly should review rankings (including those in U.S. News) and online discussion boards. But it’s crucial that you dig more deeply and research what different schools have to offer — paying close attention to those factors that appeal to your individual interests and career objectives.
Spend hours on individual schools’ websites, and attend fairs and forums where you can talk with admissions officers. Visit some law schools, sit in on classes, and talk with current students and faculty. See where and how the students are living, and their quality of life at school. Ask the admissions staff to connect you with one or two recent alums who are working and living in the practice areas and geographic regions that interest you.
But above all else, do your homework and make this important decision for yourself. As I mentioned earlier, this may be the last time in your life you’ll spend outside an office environment. Many factors should influence your choice, and the U.S. News rankings shouldn’t make up your mind for you.