LSAT For Dummies (with Free Online Practice Tests), 2nd Edition
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You've taken the LSAT; you've decided to go to law school; but how do you pick the right school for you? Not all law schools are created equal. You may still be able to get a fine legal education at most of them, but understand that different law schools have different characteristics. Some are extremely competitive, while others are easier to get into. Some have excellent practical legal programs, while others take a more theoretical approach to the law. Some offer better financial aid packages than others. You need to decide what you want in a school before you let schools decide whether they want you.

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Where to go for information

Sifting through the vast amount of often conflicting information about law school can be a daunting task. Finding that information in the first place, though, doesn’t have to be hard. Tons of sources are available, some more subjective than others. Here are a few places to look for info:
  • Career placement or guidance offices at colleges and universities: Not only do these offices have lots of information on various schools and career options, but they also may even have real people who can give you sensible advice.
  • Friends and acquaintances who’ve gone to law school: Don’t neglect your personal network! If you know someone who’s gone through this process, pump her brain.
  • The Internet: If you’re interested in a particular law school, check out its website. You can also find numerous websites devoted to legal issues, including law school.
  • LSAC law school information: The Law School Admission Council (LSAC) provides detailed information about law school in a searchable format.
  • Bookstores and libraries: Plenty of books are available about law school, legal practice, and similar topics. (Check out Law School For Dummies by Rebecca Fae Greene [John Wiley & Sons, Inc.].)
  • Law school forums: The LSAC also holds several law school forums in major cities each fall. At a forum, you can speak with real people about selecting a law school, the admissions process, whether law school is right for you, and other concerns.
A wealth of information is out there, so you don’t have to apply to law school in the dark.

Important considerations

Keep these important considerations in mind when choosing law schools to which you want to apply:
  • Cost: This is a biggie. Some law schools are expensive; others are extremely expensive. You need to decide how much money you want to spend (or are able to spend) on your education, bearing in mind that law school debts can stick with you for much of your working life. (Note: Cost often goes hand in hand with exclusivity and prestige, which may mean that spending more on a prestigious school results in a better payoff after graduation.)
  • Location: Where do you want to live? Do you want to be near your family? Do you want to be able to drive to the beach or the mountains (when you’re supposed to be in class)? Do you hate harsh winters? Do you consider yourself an East Coast, West Coast, or Midwestern person? You’re going to live near your law school for nearly three years, so liking the location is important. Location also plays a role in cost considerations; living in New York City is more expensive than living in Baton Rouge.
  • Public or private: Some law schools are affiliated with state university systems, while others are part of private universities. Some public schools are cheaper than private ones, especially for in-state residents. On the other hand, public schools tend to suffer more at the whim of state legislators, who can cut their budgets at the drop of a hat. As for prestige, some public institutions regularly appear in the top of the law school rankings, so you can’t assume that a private school is more prestigious than a public one.
  • Selectivity: Does getting into a school with a minute acceptance rate matter to you? Some schools accept a large proportion of applicants, while others skim the thin layer of cream off a giant vat of applications. This point goes with school rank (see the next section); if selectivity matters to you, then keep it in mind. If you have ambitions of working in the nation’s top firms or climbing the judicial ladder all the way to the bench of the U.S. Supreme Court, you will likely be better situated if you attend an exclusive, highly ranked school. If you want a JD so you can make a better living in your hometown, an exclusive school may not be worth the money it will cost you.
  • Reputation: Reputation is such a nebulous concept; the American Bar Association (ABA) especially hates this aspect of the U.S. News & World Report ranking scheme. Still, reputation can matter. Consider where you plan to practice law; you want to attend a school that people in that area respect.
  • Attrition rate: At some law schools, if you can get in, you’re virtually certain to graduate (barring extreme circumstances). Other schools let in a wider variety of applicants but get rid of many of them before graduation by failing a number of students in their first year. No one wants to get weeded out. On the other hand, schools with high attrition rates can be easier to get into in the first place. If your scores are a bit low but you plan to work like crazy in law school, a law school with a high attrition rate may work well for you.
  • Quality of life: Some law schools are known for being happy places to get a legal education. Students are friendly to one another, social events are at least as important as classes, and the surrounding area is bucolic. Other places aren’t as pleasant, with more competition among students and crowded, ill-equipped facilities. You can get a decent education at either type, but you’ll have more fun at some schools than at others.
  • Campus life: You want to spend your law school years among friends, if at all possible, which often means finding a school attended by people similar to you. Some schools attract younger students, those who have recently graduated from college and attend full time. Other programs may have a higher percentage of older students, many of whom may have day jobs and families and may prefer to attend law school part time. If any aspect of campus life is particularly important to you, take some time to research whether the schools that interest you are congenial places to spend three years of your life.
  • Grading practices: Grades are extremely important to law students; some law firms base most of their hiring decisions on law school grades. Not all schools grade alike, though. Many schools grade on a mean, in which the majority of students get a particular grade (such as B) with only a few getting grades above or below. Other schools grade most classes pass-fail. Still others don’t control grading at all, and grades depend on the professors’ whims.
  • Curriculum: What do you want to study in law school? Do you like large lectures or small seminars? Some schools offer joint degrees, such as JD-MBA combinations. Some schools are known for specialties, such as international or environmental law. Some law schools are very liberal; others are extremely conservative. Bear these points in mind when choosing your school — and your future friends — for the next three years.
  • Opportunities for practical experience: Clinical programs offer students the opportunity to put their legal skills in practice early on, which can be invaluable for finding jobs and working after graduation. Some schools emphasize this more than others, providing ample opportunity for students to get hands-on practice during the school year through clinics and internships.
  • Bar pass rate: You can’t practice law if you can’t pass the bar exam. Some schools have a higher bar-pass rate than others. Don’t think, though, that no one passes the bar from schools with low pass rates. All a lower bar-pass rate means is that the school’s students overall aren’t as well prepared for the bar exam. (Not that law school prepares you to pass the bar; that’s what postgraduation bar review is for.)
  • Where you want to live after law school: This point is more significant than you may realize. If you want to live on the East Coast, you’ll have better luck finding a job there if you attend a nearby law school than if you go off to Washington State. If you want to practice in South Carolina, a degree from the University of South Carolina may be more useful than a degree from the University of Michigan, even though Michigan is ranked higher.
  • Alumni network: You’ll spend much more of your life as a law school graduate than as a law school student. Knowing that the friends you make in law school can help you down the road is great. A strong alumni network can be a valuable resource for the rest of your life.

Choosing a law school is a lot like choosing a college. A wide variety of choices is out there; try to find a selection of schools that really suits you.

Keep ranking in mind

Nearly 200 law schools in the country are approved by the ABA. (Incidentally, you should go to an ABA-approved school; lots of state bars don’t admit graduates of schools that aren’t approved.) Naturally, people have tried to rank the nation’s law schools.

In a field as competitive as law, are you really surprised to know that people are constantly trying to come up with ways to look superior to one another? Law firms like to know the relative rankings of the schools from which they recruit. Law students like to compare their school to others, usually in the hopes of bragging that their school is better than another one. Law school recruiters like to emphasize how attractive their graduates are to prospective employers.

What do you think is one of the main things that U. S. News & World Report looks at when ranking schools? You guessed it — LSAT scores! The higher the average LSAT score of admitted students, the higher the school’s ranking. Other things count, but LSAT scores are very important. These schools are best because their students' LSATs are best, which means the schools are best (wait, that’s circular reasoning!).

The ABA and the LSAC (the folks who create and run the LSAT; see Chapter 1) disapprove of commercial rankings, which try to reduce every law school to a single numeric value, and they have a point. There’s a lot more to an individual school than a number published in U. S. News & World Report. Rankings are random and don’t reflect the true value of the education available at any given institution.

Unfortunately, in the real world, rank sometimes matters. Certain law firms and other employers take their new hires from a specific group of schools, and they very rarely consider applications from anyone who didn’t attend that select group, no matter how good the person’s grades or outside experiences are. The rationale behind this practice is that top law schools have already selected the “best” law students — the ones with the highest grades and LSAT scores — and these people will naturally make the best lawyers. Although in practice that doesn’t always turn out to be the case, you’ll have a hard time convincing those employers otherwise.

However, the law school rankings are far from perfect. Law school rankings change from year to year, sometimes dramatically. A school may be ranked 7th one year, fall to 14th the next year, and jump back to 6th the next. That fluidity alone should be a warning to you not to take rankings too seriously; there’s no way a school’s total quality can change that much that fast.

Are you wondering about how schools are ranked? The following list breaks down the law school rankings (which doesn’t list specific schools):
  • Top ten: These are the top of the pile.
  • First tier: These are the top 50 schools.
  • Second tier: Schools ranked 51 through 100.
  • Third tier: Schools ranked 101 through 150.
  • Fourth tier: Schools ranked 151 through 186 (or so).
Firms that care about these rankings restrict their recruiting to particular tiers. Other firms are more interested in the whole applicant — his grades, interests, commitment to living in a particular place, work ethic, and so on — and interview dedicated students from any school if they seem like good prospects.

Why do some firms rely on these rankings? Reading résumés takes a lot less time if they throw out all the ones from lower-ranking schools. They figure the law schools have already selected a good batch of future lawyers and find it easier to limit their recruiting to those elite schools.

Rank also affects future salaries and career possibilities. Graduates of the highest-ranked law schools tend to have the highest salaries. People who eventually become law professors and major judges also come more often from higher-ranked schools.

Okay, that’s depressing. But, people who barely scrape through the lowest-ranked school still get employed as lawyers, and plenty of them make good money, too. And plenty of folks who graduate from top-ten law schools don’t end up practicing law at all.

What’s the moral of all this? Rankings do matter, but not for everyone and not in every case. So, take them seriously, but not too seriously. More important, look at what you want out of law school and what you want to do afterward.

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