It’s a question I tend to get on occasion: “I’m planning to go to law school, I’m thinking of going to X, Y, and Z law schools . . .” OR “I’ve applied to law school and gotten into X, Y, Z law schools, what should I do?”
For the civilian turning law student, the decision is obviously one that is personally important, and certainly important for professional development reasons, too. Picking a loser of a law school can result in all of the nightmare scenarios that appear in the news almost daily (e.g., poor job prospects, high debt, and plenty of regret and buyer’s remorse to go around).
Of course, picking a “winner” of a law school these days can still conceivably leave you in the same spot, but it will make your odds a whole lot better.
You’d think that with the rigors of getting through undergrad, studying for and taking the LSAT, and making sure you perfect your law school applications, picking the law school of your dreams should be the easy part. It isn’t. The advice provided below isn’t the only way to go about picking your law school, but hopefully it will show you where your priorities should be. This advice also assumes you’re going to law school for legitimate reasons (i.e., to practice law).
First, a couple preliminary points. The law school that is sending you shiny brochures and acceptance letters is not on your side. They are trying to sell you something. Therefore, treat the information you get directly from the law school with the same scrutiny you would treat statements from a used car salesman.
In fact, it is my hope that after you get the acceptance letter, you put the rest of the materials they sent to the side, and look at their sales pitch last.
Second, the U.S. News & World Report Rankings aren’t going to help you. Law schools have gamed them in the past, playing fuzzy math (perhaps to the threshold of fraud) and will continue to do so in the future. As such, the starting salaries and average employed nine months after graduation numbers are illusory at best, an outright lie at worst. Here’s how you handle U.S. News & World: after you buy it, take a black Sharpie and black out the salary and employment figures. Better yet, get a friend to do it for you so you don’t unintentionally consider the value of those numbers as you black them out. If you’re going to U.S. News & World at all, you shouldn’t let the elements of the rankings that are utter horse-hooey enter into your decisionmaking.
NOTE: While it may be true that U.S. News & World report is encouraging more candid disclosures from participating law schools, law schools are still self-reporting institutions. Expect the numbers on employment and starting salaries to remain disingenuous for some time to come. Sen. Barbara Boxer is also beginning to put the heat on the ABA to compel a change to disclosure requirements, but until the ABA takes a more active regulatory stance on law schools, or until the USG subsumes the ABA’s role as a regulator, you’re not going to see any clearer transparency in law school disclosures or the publications that distribute them.
With that out of the way, here’s my preferred way to go about picking your law school. Assume for the purpose of this exercise you’ve already received a few acceptance letters (or wait-list letters for that matter). Where should you go from there?
(1) Prepare a list of questions you seriously want to know about the law schools to which you are admitted. These questions should be regarding issues you consider to be of high-priority, e.g.: (a) How well will the law school’s strengths correspond with your strengths or interests?; (b) How many people at this law school practice the kind of law you are interested in practicing?; (c) How does the social and academic atmosphere at the law school measure up to your expectations?; and so on. The more detailed understanding you have for your expectations (both academically and professionally) from law school, the more pointed questions you can prepare.
(2) Track down actual students actually attending the law schools you are considering, and reach out to them. Unlike the law school that is trying to get you to throw $100k plus at them for the privilege of attending, current law school students have no vested interest in whether you attend or not. They’re also going to be able to give you a more candid perspective of what law school is all about and, more importantly, what the specific law school you are considering attending is all about. They have to live with their decision to attend that law school every single day, for better or for worse. Of course, some students are going to have extreme views about their law school on both sides of the spectrum. Some will be virtual mouthpieces for school administration (if they start rambling on about the “versatility” of the J.D. degree, they may very well be in this group). Some will be bitter at their law school experience to the point that their claims will be highly suspect (their response may will likely be laced with profanity). Many should respond somewhere in the middle.
With the vastness of social networking (think Facebook groups, Linkedin, law school student forums) and the fact that many law schools post photos of students involved in student groups, you should be able to find a handful of law students from each school you’ve been admitted to, and (respectfully) request them to answer your questions.
NOTE: Law students are busy as hell, so if you don’t hear from them for awhile, don’t hold it against them.
(3) Track down lawyers in the family, lawyers who are your friends, lawyers who are doing the kind of thing you want to do.
Everyone knows a lawyer. You can’t swing a dead cat in this country without hitting a lawyer (and subsequently getting sued for aggravated assault with a kitteh).
These friend and family lawyers may not be in the midst of law school, but they still operate in the legal marketplace, and they are still informed by their law school experiences. Any friends who are recent grads can spell out their job hunt experience, and hopefully help you set proper expectations as you head to law school. If any of these friends are alums of a school you are considering, seek out school-specific information. If they are school alums AND are practicing the kind of law that interests you, pry them for school-specific and career-specific guidance. For friends who aren’t recent grads: they’re advice may be less helpful, but they will have the perspective of what older, hiring lawyers might be looking for in a candidate. They should also be aware of the state of the legal market, and can tell you how many cold calls and resume letters they’re getting each month from unemployed law grads and attorneys. They can clue you in on the type of candidate getting hired, and the kind of money those candidates might be getting for their background and experience.
Most importantly, if you are finding that lawyers don’t do the kind of thing you want to do, please ask yourself why you are committing yourself to law school, and reevaluate your approach to your career. Please.
4. Visit the “scam” blogs. Seriously.
The financial collapse in 2008 had lots of unintended consequences for the market in legal education. Perhaps the least intended for law schools was that many of their brightest students, students who had worked themselves to exhaustion while in law school, were now facing unemployment. And some of them were a little angry about it. The angriest have launched themselves into the blogosphere, playing a “Paul Revere”-type figure to prospective students, and often falling on deaf ears.
If they have something bad to say about a school you’re considering, they’ll say it.
And you owe it to yourself to investigate the worst things that can be said about the institution you are considering to call your alma mater. Start be looking for your school in a blog the likes of Third Tier Reality, a few other “scam” blogs, and if anything you read significantly concerns you, run it by the law students and friend lawyers you reached out to above. If anyone is in a position to put perspective on an angry blogger, it’s them.
The scam bloggers are the appropriate counterbalance for your prospective law school’s admissions brochures. Just like the law schools, you know what the scam blogger’s slant is going to be before you get started. The only difference is that the scam blogger isn’t asking for $100k and three years of your time.
5. Google the shit out of your law school.
Law schools make the news all the time: find out the reasons your prospective law school is making the news. Skip this step at your own peril. Skipping this step would leave you in the dark that Thomas Jefferson School of Law is getting hit with a class action suit for fraud, that “beloved” professors at Emory think the student body should be happy enough to “move to Nebraska” and join a firm where they “won’t make the big bucks”, and that George Mason’s School of Law has announced to the world that receiving an A on their transcript is completely F#$%ing meaningless.
Keep in mind, this is only news within the last couple weeks.
6. Now (and only now) should you give that glossy brochure from the law school that admitted you a good look.
Look at what the law school is promising you with a heightened degree of scrutiny, and compare it to everything you’ve heard from steps 1-5. How close does the school’s sales pitch match what you heard from their students? From family/friend lawyers? From their sworn enemies? How does the law school look in light of any recent news on it? Be skeptical. Be demanding. Remember: look at them like you’d look at a used car salesmen: if something sounds strange or doesn’t add up, you’re best not to ignore it. You will likely have an admissions contact once you get your acceptance letter– seek a reasonable explanation from them. Don’t disclose the sources who prompted your concern, especially if those sources are current students: just approach the admissions office out of position of legitimate curiosity.
Gauge any answers you get. Are they direct? Dodgy? Did they even answer your question? If the line sounds fishy and you established friendly relationship with a current student of the school, run it by them. The administrator may tout the school’s programs/clinics/fellowships, and so on– find out how easy they are to get, and how helpful they really are. They may try to show off the numerous law journals and moot court teams– take the same approach. They may brag about their curriculum in a specific area of the law– take the same approach. If that school’s particular strength area of the law doesn’t interest you, ask about the area of the law that does. Who are the professors that teach that area of the law? What did they do prior to becoming a law professor? What do your current student contacts have to say about them? You get the idea.
7. Are they giving you money?
If the answer is no, and their appearance is lackluster, send them to the bottom of your priorities list. If the answer is yes, and they’re providing the kind of education that matches your personal objectives, move them up. If they’re somewhere in the middle, you’ll have to use your own personal discretion.
8. Are they a regional law school, or do they have national reach?
You may or may not care about this. If you plan living in Toledo, Ohio the rest of your life, maybe you’ll be happy with the University of Toledo. But if you want to move out and get a job under the California sun, your “Made in Toledo” J.D. isn’t going to get you any special favors. Plus, even in Toledo, you’re going to be competing against lawyers from law schools that are nationally recognized.
Unless the money and quality of education are REALLY good, and you REALLY want to stay in your area, prefer the nationally recognized law schools to the regional ones.
9. Look at where you list stands, think about it really hard, sleep on it. If you wake up without any new questions or reservations, you will know the law school that is right for you.
And make sure you do all of this within the deadlines needed for you to issue a final acceptance. Naturally, you can start steps 1-4 before you’re even accepted.
Of course, this isn’t the only way go about picking a law school, it’s just one way. But, the steps here should put the right kind of information in your hands, and keep you from being led astray or entering the school-house gates with the wrong expectations.
Regardless of how you go about picking a law school, I encourage you to do so in a way that keeps your eyes open, your expectations realistic, and your concern for your own future and career development very real.