Choosing a Law School
Law School Features to Consider
The academic qualifications of the student body are important to consider. It's a good idea to select a law school where you will be challenged by your classmates. Try to select a school where your averages will not be significantly different from those of your fellow law students. Because of the important role of student participation in law school classes, your legal education might not be as rewarding as it could be if you are not challenged by your classmates.
You might also inquire about the diversity of the student body. Are a majority of the students the same age, race, gender, and so on? Remember, differences among students will expose you to various points of view; this will be an important aspect of your law school education.
Find out how many students are in a typical class. Much of the learning in law school depends on the quality of class discussion. Small classes provide essential interaction; large classes (and the Socratic method) provide diversity, challenge, and a good mix of reactions, opinions, and criticism.
It is also important to find out the total number of students enrolled at the school. Not surprisingly, the larger law schools tend to offer a larger selection of courses. Of course, more doesn't always mean better, and no one student has time to take all the courses offered at a large school. However, if you think you want to sample a wide range of courses, you are apt to have more opportunity to do so at a law school with a large faculty.
Part of the law school learning experience takes place after class with fellow students and with members of the faculty. Check to see whether faculty and students are on campus for a substantial part of the day.
Larger schools may also offer more extracurricular programs, greater student services, and a larger library. However, faculties and administrators at smaller schools may be able to give students more attention, and students at smaller schools may experience greater camaraderie. The size of a school is a personal consideration. Some students thrive in large schools; others prefer a smaller student community. Ask yourself which kind of student you are.
You will undoubtedly want to assess the faculties of the law schools you are considering. School catalogs and websites will give you some idea of the backgrounds of the full-time faculty—what specialties they have, what they have published, and their public service activities. If the catalog tells you only where degrees were earned, ask for more information. You may also want to check the latest edition of the Association of American Law Schools' Directory of Law Teachers, which is available at law school libraries. It may help you to know that some members of the faculty have interests similar to your own.
Is the faculty relatively diverse with respect to race, ethnic background, gender, degrees in other fields, and breadth of experience?
A faculty with diverse backgrounds will have various points of view and experiences. This diversity will enrich your legal education, broaden your own point of view, and help prepare you for the variety of clients you will work with after law school.
How many full-time professors teach how many students—that is, what is the faculty/student ratio?
Although some of the most prestigious law schools are famous for their large sections in the introductory courses, they also provide smaller classes, clinics, simulations, and seminars in advanced subjects. According to the ABA Standards: Rules of Procedure for Approval of Law Schools, it is not favorable to have a full-time faculty to full-time student ratio of 30 to 1, or greater. Some schools may be especially attractive to some students because of their small faculty-to-student ratio.
Are some of the teachers recognized as authorities in their respective fields through their writings and professional activities?
Law school catalogs and websites vary widely regarding information about faculty. Some merely list each faculty member's name along with schools attended and degrees earned. Others may provide details about publications, professional activities, and noteworthy achievements, particularly when an individual is an authority in his or her field.
Are there visiting professors, distinguished lecturers and visitors, symposiums, and the like at the schools you are considering?
Law school lectureship programs are a good means of presenting the knowledge and views of academics outside of the particular law school you attend.
The Library and Other Physical Facilities
Chances are you will spend a good deal of time in the law library, so be sure to investigate the library and all that it has to offer. There are several factors to consider when assessing a law school library: the quality of the research resources, ease of access to both print and electronic resources, staff, facilities, and hours of operation. It is also good to determine if the library participates in regional or local networks for information retrieval and interlibrary loan.
Knowing that a library has a volume count of 250,000 or 2.5 million by itself does not provide good information about the quality of the library's collection, so it is vital to look at other factors. All ABA-approved law schools must maintain a library that has the research materials considered essential for the study of law; this includes both primary and secondary sources. Determine how many copies of these essential materials are available and if they are also available in an electronic format. Look to see if the library has any special collections or other important historical materials. If you plan to focus on a particular legal area, be sure to inquire about the library's resources on that topic. Find out all of the electronic resources to which the library subscribes (look beyond Westlaw and LexisNexis) and see if it is possible to access them remotely from off campus. If the law school is affiliated with a university, explore the print and electronic resources of the other campus libraries for possible cross-disciplinary research.
Reference librarians and other professional librarians serve a vital role in the law library. Consider how many professional librarians work in the library and what percentage of librarians have a law degree as well as a library and information science degree. Are there a sufficient number of reference librarians for the number of students and faculty being served? Do the reference librarians offer courses and workshops in legal research techniques, and—if so—how many or how often? Is the library staff helpful? Law schools with evening or part-time programs should make professional reference librarians available in the evenings and on weekends, so be sure to look at the reference desk hours. Also, determine if it is possible to contact the library staff via e-mail or real-time chat.
Since you will need to spend much of your time in the library, make sure its hours will accommodate whatever schedule you might have. While it is not necessary for a library to be open around the clock, it should be open before classes begin each day and remain open well into the night and on weekends. Consider if there is a designated area in the library or law school to accommodate 24-hour study after the library closes.
Be sure the library has an adequate number of comfortable seats with at least enough carrels to accommodate a reasonable number of students at any given time. Either in the library or elsewhere in the law building, there should be suitable space for group study and other forms of collaborative work. Does the library have a variety of seating configurations so that students can find a comfortable spot to engage in intense study and research for long periods of time? In addition, consider if there is a food facility within the library, law school, or on campus that maintains generous hours throughout the day, evenings, and weekends.
Access to technology should be available not only in the library, but throughout the law school building and the university. Robust wireless connectivity is essential for efficient research and communication between students and professors, so ask about the quality of the wireless network. Although computer labs are no longer as vital to law students given the proliferation of laptops and netbooks, it may be helpful to determine if there is a computer lab in the library or elsewhere in the law school and whether there is a dedicated information technology department to handle law student technology needs. The information technology department should maintain extensive hours, similar to those of the law library, so that students may conveniently have their technology questions answered.
The range and quality of academic programs is one of the most important factors to consider when choosing a law school.
Almost all law schools follow the traditional first-year core curriculum of civil procedure, criminal law, contracts, legal research and writing, legal methods, torts, constitutional law, and property. Do not assume that all law schools have programs that suit your personal needs and special interests. If you don't have any specific interests in mind—and many beginning students don't—try to make sure the school offers a wide range of electives so that you will have many options. A thorough grounding in basic legal theory will enable you to apply the principles learned to any area of law to which they pertain.
In fact, you shouldn't overemphasize your search for specialties; most law students are not specialists when they graduate, nor do they need to be. Generally speaking, new lawyers begin to find their specialties only in the second to fifth years of their careers. A well-rounded legal education is the best preparation for almost any career path you take. The schools' individual websites will tell you a good deal about academic programs. You may also wish to ask school representatives questions such as: Does the school offer a variety of courses, or is it especially strong in certain areas; what sizes are the classes, are seminars and small-group classroom experiences available, and are there ample opportunities for developing writing, researching, and drafting skills?
Beyond the content of law school courses, other academic program considerations may be of interest to you as a prospective law student.
Joint-degree programs allow you to pursue law school and graduate degrees simultaneously. Almost every combination is available at some institutions. Additionally, many law schools allow you to create your own joint-degree program, even if no such formal program is in place. Among the more popular degrees are the JD/MBA and the JD/MA in such areas as economics or political science. For details, check the individual school listings or check the law school's recruitment materials.
Master of Laws (LLM) Programs and Special-Degree Programs
Many law schools offer advanced degrees that allow students to take graduate-level law courses. The LLM degree is quite common and usually is tailored to individual interests. Some schools offer master of laws degrees with particular concentrations, such as a master of laws in taxation and master of comparative law. Students may enroll in LLM programs only after having received the JD degree.
A few schools also offer very specific, special-degree programs. Some of these specialties include a Doctorate in Civil Law, Doctor of Juridical Science, and Doctor of Jurisprudence and Social Policy. Schools also may offer certificate (or otherwise-designated) programs. Finding out what types of advanced degrees a law school offers may help you determine the emphases of the school.
Part-Time and Evening Programs
Part-time programs may be offered either in the evening or the day. For the last two years, approximately 7 percent of first-year law students have enrolled in law school part time. The conventional wisdom is that if you are financially able to attend law school full time, you ought to do so.
Part-time programs generally take four years to complete instead of three years. While fewer than half of law schools offer part-time programs, if you have economic constraints that make attending a full-time program difficult, then a part-time program offers the opportunity to study law while you are working.
Many law schools offer students authentic experiences as lawyers by involving them with clients. The best clinical programs involve students in actual legal situations, simulations of such situations, or a combination of both, either at the school itself or in the community. Clinical programs at some schools offer a team-teaching approach; practical, professional skills are taught along with traditional classroom theory. In this manner, faculty can advise and work closely with students.
Moot Court Competitions
Schools that provide opportunities for students to rehearse trial and appellate advocacy in trial team and moot court competitions help them become adept at using interviewing, counseling, research, advocacy, and negotiation skills.
Most law schools have a law review—a journal of scholarly articles and commentaries on the law—and other student-edited scholarly journals. Writing for the journals of a school can be important to both your legal education and your career in law. Thus, evaluating the journals at a particular law school may be worthwhile when trying to choose the right school to attend.
Traditionally, student journal editors are chosen on the basis of academic standing, but writing ability, regardless of class rank, may also be a criterion. Today, a growing number of schools select journal editors by holding a competition in which students submit a previously assigned writing sample to the current editorial board. If you are on a journal, employers may assume you are either one of the brightest in your class, or an outstanding writer—or both.
If possible, check the journals of the schools you are considering. The character of the journal may be a reflection of the character of the institution that supports it.
Order of the Coif
Many law schools have a chapter of the Order of the Coif, a national honor society for outstanding students. Students are elected to Coif on the basis of scholarship and character. Check to see if the schools you are considering include such a chapter.
Academic Support Programs
Programs for students who need or who are expected to need assistance with legal analysis and writing are offered by most law schools. Students are invited to participate in these programs on the basis of either their entering credentials or their actual law school performance. This assistance may be offered in the summer prior to beginning law school, during the academic year, or both. The aim of academic support programs is to ensure that students have an equal opportunity to compete in law school. For further information about academic assistance programs, consult the admission office at the law school.
You can also tell something about a law school's intellectual resources and its students by the number and range of student associations and organizations sponsored on campus. Many schools have chapters of the American Bar Association-Law Student Division; a student bar association; associations for minority groups, such as the Asian, Black, Hispanic, and Native American law student associations; and associations based on religious affiliations. Some, but not all, schools sponsor an environmental law society, a gay and lesbian law student society, a legal assistance society, a postconviction assistance project, an ACLU group, a Federalist Society, a volunteer income-tax assistance program, a law student spouses' club, an international law society, a law and technology society, or a client-counseling society. Through the ABA Commission on Disability Rights, you can access an online directory that lists disability resources and student organizations associated with students with physical or mental disabilities at each ABA-approved law school. Determine which associations are important to you and check individual law school catalogs to see which law schools offer what you need.
Career Services and Employment
One of the tests of a good law school is the effort the institution makes to help its students and graduates understand their career options and find satisfying employment. Planning a career in law requires students to integrate their legal education and personal goals in the context of the employment marketplace. Some students begin law school with a clear idea of how they expect to use their legal education (although they may change their minds along the way). Others are uncertain, or see a number of tempting possibilities. The career services office, faculty, and alumni of the school are valuable resources in the process of understanding and selecting among the many opportunities available to lawyers.
The first role of the career services office is to educate students about career opportunities in all sectors, including government and public service, law firms of all sizes and specialties, corporations, and so forth. To accomplish such a task, a law school may arrange panel presentations, meetings with practicing lawyers in different fields, and a library of career information materials. Career services professionals also collect and distribute vital information and resources, teach students job-search strategies, such as effective interviewing skills and employment research, and discuss students' individual interests, options, and presentation.
In most schools, only a small percentage of the class gets jobs through on-campus interviewing. Therefore, it is important to investigate the additional support provided by the career services staff and the experiences of the school's students and graduates in finding jobs. Career services offices are concerned about all students, not just those at the top of the class rankings. Most spend a great deal of time and effort working with students individually and marketing the school to potential employers in order to increase students' options. Here are some questions you may want to ask about a school's career services:
- What programs does the school offer to introduce students to career options? Do they seem interesting, relevant, and timely?
- Are the career-counseling professionals accessible, respected, well-qualified, and supportive?
- Are the school's faculty and graduates involved in educating students about their career options?
- What types of employers, and how many, recruit on campus each year? What are the average number of interviews and offers per student? What percentage of students obtain jobs through the on-campus interviewing process?
- What positions have graduates taken in recent years? What jobs do students take during the summers?
- In what locales do students and graduates work? Are these employment profiles changing?
- What are the average or median salaries for the school's graduates?
- What percentage of students have accepted positions by graduation; within six months of graduation?
- Does the school offer career counseling and information for its graduates?
Pro Bono Programs
Many law schools have programs that offer students the opportunity to put their classroom instruction to work by offering services to the community at no charge. These programs often concentrate on helping indigent and marginalized populations. The programs vary in scope and style, but you should inquire at the law schools to which you are applying about their particular programs.