Kristen Kennedy is one of Knewton’s expert LSAT prep teachers. She also went to Northwestern, so she knows a thing or two about getting into law school.
Students often ask us where they should apply to law school. By “where” they mean “which schools,” but they also mean it literally, as in “where on the map.” Law school rankings are handy for identifying the top 20 or so schools in the country, but they can’t tell you if a school is right for you.
So how do you decide where to apply? Here are five main areas to consider:
Prestige. Like it or not, a school’s reputation can be a huge help for your job chances. You should always consider fit first—a high ranking doesn’t guarantee a good experience—but a big-ticket name on your diploma (hello Harvard, Stanford, NYU) will make you a strong candidate for jobs no matter where you end up practicing. If the top-tier schools are in your range they’re definitely worth the reach. Aim for your best-possible LSAT score and use that to figure out the schools at the top of your range early on.
Where you want to practice. It’s not easy to see three or four years into the future, but your likely place of residence should be a factor in your thinking. For example, Washington and Lee and the University of Alabama are similarly ranked schools (both are in the mid-30s in US News and World Report‘s 2010 law school rankings). However, as this data shows, only 27% of Washington and Lee students remain in Virginia after graduating, while 70% of University of Alabama students remain in Alabama.Â If you want to practice in Virginia, Washington and Lee may be a smarter choice than U of A; with more alums in your region, you’ll have a stronger network to rely on when your job hunt starts.
You can also make up for attending a lower-ranked school by earning exceptional grades. Local firms will often recruit students at the top of the class. If you know you want to practice in, say, Lexington, it could be better to go to University of Kentucky (ranked 60th) and graduate in the top 10% of your class than to go to University of Minnesota (ranked 22nd) and only graduate in the top 50%.
Big market or small market? Major cities draw lawyers from all over the country, so firms in San Francisco won’t necessarily draw more grads from Bay Area law schools. In smaller cities and towns, however, it matters much more who you meet during law school. If you plan to practice in a smaller, more localized region, then you will probably benefit from attending the best school in that region because of the contacts you’ll make.
Area of interest. It may be worth leaving your home region in order to attend a school that offers enhanced job prospects or a reputation for great teaching in your field of interest. You might also find that specialties correlate with regions. If you’re interested in oil and gas law/energy regulation, Texas is a great place for jobs and Texas law schools are most likely to specialize in this field. If environmental law’s your thing, the Pacific Northwest and Northern California are fertile grounds for practicing. Lewis and Clark in Portland and Boalt Hall at UC Berkeley offer two of the best environmental law programs in the country.
Quality of life. What happens outside of law school is often as important as what happens inside. Factor in considerations like cost of living, size of the summer job market, access to culture, and student involvement. In other words, don’t live where you’ll be miserable for the next 3 or 4 years.
So, do your research, but remember that logic and data can only take you so far. Don’t be afraid to listen to your intuition regarding which school is the right fit for you. Good luck!