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How Do You Choose a Law School?

3L at Washington & Lee Law

I recently gave a lecture at Barnard College in New York City to the undergraduate environmental law class, taught by Professor Peter Bower (an excellent resource for any student thinking about law school.) Although I spoke substantively about constitutional law provisions, I also touched upon the pre-law experience and how to choose a law school. This includes the LSAT, GPA, and law schools.

I attend Washington & Lee School of Law in the very rural Lexington, Virginia, cushioned in between the Blue Ridge Mountains. Before this, I had no connection to Virginia. I had grown up (in a lot of states) in the Midwest, Northeast, Florida and Texas. But no Virginia. Because of this foreign background, potential employers, friends, and legal contacts all asked me why I chose to attend Washington & Lee. My answer has become short and sweet: “Well, I knew Washington & Lee had a really good national reputation, and it had a small class size which I really liked, and they gave me a really nice scholarship.”

I’ve come to realize what the important factors are in choosing what law school to attend.

  1. Location. Location. Location. Unless you attend a T14 law school, geography should be a big factor in choosing a law school. If you want to work in Chicago, go to one of the Chicago schools (UChicago, Northwestern, Notre Dame, etc.) If you want to work in New York City, go to one of the New York City schools (Columbia, NYU, Fordham, Brooklyn Law, New York Law, etc.) You want to work in D.C. for the federal government? Go to Georgetown, American, Catholic, or George Washington. Firms, agencies, entities, lawyers know the reputation of the regional schools in their area. If you know you want to practice in a certain area, look at those schools in the area as well (unless you’re fortunate enough to get into a T14 school and are able to afford it.)

  2. Scholarship. Law school is expensive, too expensive some say. Unlike undergraduate for many, law school only provides scholarship money based upon merit. Looking at your GPA, LSAT score, and your institutional and experiential background, law schools might award you a financial scholarship. This is pivotal in a lot of ways. When I was applying to law school, many had this mentality that they would go to the highest ranked law school they got into. I can proudly say I did not do this. If you go to the highest ranked one, you very likely will have no or very little scholarship. Most law schools average around $45,000, not including living expenses (and oh goodness, paying for the bar and the bar review class.) Having a large debt coming from law school loans can and likely will affect what you choose to do with your career. Those dreams you had of serving the public interest sector? Gone. Can’t pay your bills.

  3. Unique features. There might be some very unique aspects of a law school that makes it especially attractive to you as a prospective law student. The school might specialize in a certain field. For example, Vermont Law is ranked quite low overall. However, it is consistently ranked #1 for environmental law, and the environmental law world knows this. Or, the law school might be well-known for its small size. Washington & Lee traditionally has about 120 students per class; and they have recently decided to cut that number down to 100 students per class. Similarly, Dickenson Law School of Penn State has about 60 students per class. That small class size might be very attractive to students who want that individualized attention.

There are numerous reasons why to choose a certain law school. But the dominant determining factors of employment placement seem to indicate a strong correlation between the school’s location, the student’s loan amount after three years, as well as unique traits of a school. Above all, I cannot stress how geography affects a person’s chances of employment in a certain area. Ask the relevant questions at every law school you’re considering. Where do graduates end up? What type of sector? How many loans? The key to choosing a law school is to accumulate as much knowledge as possible about each possibility, sifting through the information, and analyzing all of those facts to the goal you aim to achieve.

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