By Jonathan Cantarero
A fulfilling career in law starts with choosing the right law school. From course selection to campus culture, finding a school that meets all of your needs can be an exciting, if also daunting, task. Here are four factors you’ll want to keep in mind as you go through the process.
For some of us, the process begins and ends with rankings. Rankings give us an easy and comprehensive way to evaluate and compare schools against each other. When it comes to law schools, there are two basic types of rankings: overall and specialty. Knowing and understanding the mechanics of each will help you make the most informed decision.
- Overall rankings – Overall rankings provide a convenient way to compare law schools by offering numerical rankings based on factors like selectivity and job prospects. Other elements usually taken into account include student-to-faculty ratios and bar passage rates. Because of their broad focus, overall rankings are particularly helpful to students who are not tied to a particular practice area or geographic location but are looking for the best all-around institution. At the same time, because these types of rankings are generalized, don’t base your decision on them alone.
- Specialty Rankings – Specialty rankings are most helpful to students who already know what type of law they want to practice. These rankings fall into two categories: practice area and program focus. For practice areas, schools are graded on strength in a particular subject, based on factors like faculty expertise, course selection, and specialized law journals or clinics. Program focus, on the other hand, ranks schools in areas like clinical training, trial advocacy, and class size. Since employers often favor schools that specialize in either the subject area or skills set used in their own practices, specialty rankings are definitely worth exploring.
The price tag to attend law school is a huge consideration for many students. Three years at your average school can easily land you in six-figure debt. Because funding varies between schools, it’s important to have an honest and realistic sense of what you can afford. Some questions you should ask include: will I have to relocate? What is the typical cost of living in that area? Will I be traveling during the year, and how often? Of course, the weight you place on your answers to these questions will depend, in part, on how much financial assistance you’ll get. That being the case, it’s worth exploring the most common funding sources out there, outside of traditional loans.
- Scholarships/Fellowship – Financial award packages are by far the most common and helpful way to pay for law school. Nearly every school offers full and partial-tuition awards to select students based on any number of criteria. Of course, you should always compare these awards against the cost of tuition. Even a generous award can leave you in crippling debt if a school is charging $45,000/year in tuition—which is about the average in the U.S. You’ll also want to find out whether the award comes with any strings attached like a GPA or service requirement. While a service requirement like a teaching assistantship can be a great way to pad your resume, grade minimums are more problematic. This is because law school is a competitive environment where students are usually ranked based on GPA (though more and more schools are dropping this system), so meeting a grade minimum may be a real challenge. One helpful tip is to look at scholarship attrition rates, which are typically listed on a school’s website; you should review this data to see just how easy it is to keep a grade-based scholarship at a specific school.
- Internships, Assistantships, and Fellowships – Not getting a huge award package should not stop you from applying to law school. Even if you don’t get a full ride, there are plenty of other potential sources of income including internships, assistantships and fellowships. For example, many private firms pay law school interns or fellows anywhere from $500 to $1500 per week during the summer. For those interested in the public or non-profit sector, schools often fund these unpaid opportunities through scholarships and stipends. In addition, many schools offer a limited amount of research or teaching assistantships, by placing you with either a faculty member or an institute housed within the school. Work studies is still another option. In either case, you’ll want to check with an admissions counselor to see whether and to what extent these funding opportunities exist at each school.
- Outside Funding Sources – There are literally hundreds of organizations that offer scholarships and similar funding opportunities to students who decide to pursue a law career. The types of awards vary from traditional scholarships for incoming students to stipends for second and third-year students who secure unpaid internships. Beside offering financial assistance, these organizations often provide valuable academic support through mentorship programs, networking opportunities, and bar prep assistance. A word to the wise: since outside funding opportunities often involve longer, more detailed applications, it pays to search and apply for them as early as possible.
The “marketability” of a law school is something every prospective student should take seriously since it plays into a school’s ability to help you get a job. Here, marketability means more than just the school’s reputation (though that always helps), including but its geographic location and program strengths as well. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
- National Reach – The strength of a school’s reputation is connected directly to its national reach. The best way to get a sense of a school’s national reach is by checking their overall ranking. As mentioned above, overall rankings give you a rough idea of a school’s reputation and attractiveness to employers outside of the state where it’s located. The higher the rank, the greater the national reach. The greater the reach, the more options you’ll have upon graduation. If you’re unsure of where you want a law degree to take you, casting a wider net based on a school’s national reach is a worthwhile consideration.
- Geographic Location – There are huge benefits to attending a school in a large market like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. For starters, the bigger the market, the more opportunities for internships and networking during law school. Moreover, there are usually more job openings in close proximity. That’s not to say a smaller market is a bad thing since there is often less competition, and employers in those regions are often more interested in hiring students from schools within the state. Be sure to balance these competing factors before you decide to travel halfway across the country.
- Program Focus – A school’s national reach and location should be viewed alongside its strength in the practice areas you are interested in. Start out by making a list of topics that intrigue you and see whether any schools offer concentration or clinics in those areas. Just as a top school will get you an interview almost anywhere in the country, attending a niche school can be just as attractive to employers who are looking for students dedicated to a particular type of law.
Campus culture is all about figuring out how you “fit in” with a particular school and gauging whether it will be a comfortable experience. Finding a law school that’s a mutual fit is really important because you’ll be spending the better part of each day there, for multiple years.
To get a sense of a school’s culture, consider doing an on-campus visit. These typically involve a tour, a question-answer session, and a chance to sit in on an actual class. More recently, schools have been doing “virtual tours” and online information sessions through platforms like Skype and Zoom. Besides engaging the school directly, feel free to look up information on message boards and forums. Better still, reach out to friends or acquaintances who are alums of the school. I’ve found that even total strangers will be happy to talk about their law school experiences if you tell them you’re looking for help making a decision. Whatever method you choose, you should aim to get answers to some of the following questions:
- Are students competitive or collaborative?
- Do the faculty members seem approachable?
- Is the school diverse in ways that matter to me?
- What is the class size and student/faculty ratio?
- Do I have any family or friends that live nearby?
- What is the “social life” like in the surrounding area?
- Is it a stand-alone school or part of a larger university?
- Does the school emphasize mental health and student well-being?
- Are there any clubs, e.g. for specific ethnic, religious or ideological groups?
The list could go on and on, but the main point is to get a grasp of whether the law school’s culture and atmosphere will make your experience enjoyable or insufferable. Law school is tough, and little things like a gym, meditation room, or just decent food options can go a long way to making it a positive experience. Remember, law school will be life-changing no matter where you land, but choosing the right school will help not only make sure that you have a great experience, but also that you’re fully prepared for a successful career in law. Good luck!
Jonathan Cantarero is an attorney based in New York City. He is a former Graduate Fellow at the City University of New York School of Law (2013-16) and Schulte, Roth, and Zabel Fellow for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest (2014-15). Whenever he is not reading legal briefs or posting on ProFellow, Jonathan, who is also a seminary student, enjoys writing on the intersection of law and religion.
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