Applying to Law School: Five Important Factors to Keep in Mind

Students in Knewton’s LSAT courseoften ask our advice about wherethey should apply to law school. By “where,�? they mean “which schools�? – but they also mean it literally, as in “where on the map.�?

It’s a tricky question to answer. Law school rankings can help identify the top 20 or so schools in the nation – but they certainly can’t tell you if a school is right for you.

So: how do you find the law school that will be the best fit for you? Here are five important factors to keep in mind:

1. Where you want to practice.

No one expects you to have a crystal ball, but it is important to think about the geographical areas in which you might be interested in practicing post-law school. For example, the University of Alabama and Washington and Lee are both ranked in the mid-30s in the 2010 Law School Rankings by U.S. News and World Report. But just because they’re similarly ranked doesn’t mean they offer similar job prospects nationwide. As this data shows, 27% of Washington and Lee students remain in Virginia post-graduation; 70% of University of Alabama students remain in Alabama. If you’re looking to practice in Alabama, then, it would be supremely foolish to pick Washington and Lee over U and A. Those who are looking to live and work in Alabama may want to consider the cost of living and the general appeal of the area; check out this site to learn why people are buying property and looking for jobs in towns in Alabama – Bottom line: If you know where you want to practice, try to pick a school with a strong alumni network in that area. It’ll help come job-hunting time!
Earning exceptional grades is one way to make up for attending a lower-ranked school. Local firms will often recruit students at the top of the class. If you want to practice in Lexington, it might just be better to go to the University of Kentucky (ranked 60th) and graduate in the top 10% of your class than to go to the University of Minnesota (ranked 22nd) and only graduate in the top 50%.

2. Prestige.

Let’s face it: a school’s reputation can make a big difference in your job chances post-J.D. Certainly, you should always consider fit first-a highly ranked law school doesn’t necessarily guarantee a great experience-but a big-league name on your diploma (hello Stanford, Harvard, NYU) will increase job prospects no matter where you want to practice. If the top-tier schools are within your range, go for it! Devote yourself to LSAT prep, and use your score to determine the top-ranked schools within your range early on in the admissions process.

3. Big market or small market?

If you’re hoping to practice in a major city, your chances at a job will be much improved by attending a top-ranked school, anywhere in the country. Firms in San Francisco won’t necessarily draw more grads from Bay Area law schools; in other words, attending a top school in NYC is unlikely to put you at a disadvantage. In smaller cities and towns, however, who you meet in law school is crucial to your professional success. If you’re hoping to practice in a smaller, more localized region, try to attend the best school in that region-and then network, network, network.

4. Quality of life.

Don’t forget that what happens outside of law school is often just as important as what goes on inside. Cost of living, summer job markets, access to culture, student involvement, and other quality-of-life metrics are important to consider. Don’t go to a law school in a city in which you’ll be miserable. This is 3 or 4 years of your life-don’t push your personal happiness aside!

5. Area of interest.

Is practicing in a certain area of the law more important to you than practicing in a certain part of the country? It might be worth venturing away from your home region to attend a school that offers better job prospects or has a reputation for stellar teaching in your field of interest. For example, if you’re interested in oil and gas law/energy regulation, you probably want to go to Texas-it’s where you’ll find jobs, and Texas law schools are most likely to specialize in this field. Environmental law your thing? Head to the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, both fertile grounds for practicing in this area. UC Berkeley’s Boalt Hall and Lewis and Clark (in Portland) offer two of the best environmental law programs in the nation.

In the end, be careful not to put too much stock in data and rankings. Yes, research is important – but often, trusting your intuition will take you much further. Good luck with your applications!

This post is authored by Kristen Kennedy, one of Knewton’s top-notch LSAT prep teachers. (She also attended Northwestern – so she knows a thing or two about getting into law school.) Kristen is also a guest on the Law School Podcaster show, Comparing LSAT Test Prep Companies: Which One is Right For You?

For more information on this topic, check out our podcast, Choosing the Right Law School: Understand the Factors that Affect Where You Want to Go To School.