Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Due Diligence, Searching for Law Schools

Many of the Zen students insist that all they care about in a law school is its ranking. While the idea behind the numbers might be justified--a law school's perception among employers plays a huge role in finding jobs afterward--that does not mean that someone else's opinion should dictate your own.

The simple fact is this: not everyone can get into the top 14 schools, and the variance between these schools is largely based on their specialty areas, specific professors, financial assistance, and regional/national/international reach for post-law school positions. These factors are not necessarily correlated with school rank, as we noted in our interview with Jordan Kovnot; while Fordham University is ranked 30th by U.S. News, it is in the top 10 by every measure of placement for its graduates at the top law firms.

Clearly, there are factors beyond rankings that should be considered by law school applicants, even for those who are only after top-paying jobs. While Columbia and New York University are both top 10 law schools based in New York City, a state school such as Fordham offers (slightly) cheaper tuition, less stringent GPA and LSAT requirements, and equal opportunity for placement at a prestigious law firm after graduation.

A good place to start your law school search is by narrowing your choices to where you will reasonably be offered a seat. Use these articles from Zen of 180 to help you set LSAT goals, and then use LSAC's official guide to help you narrow down your schools into three tiers.

We also added a search bar above the posts that only searches the top law school's and LSAC's official websites. If you type, for instance, "UCLA's entering class profile," Google will only return information from UCLA School of Law's website, and not from any extraneous companies or even UCLA's School of Business entering class profile. We thought it would be helpful to sift through information on the top schools without having it filtered through a second, or third, opinion.

Factors to consider as you search through the material:

  • Where do you want to work?
People preparing for the LSAT often forget the end goal of law school: finding a job in law somewhere. If you are certain that you only want to work in a regional market, as one of our interviewees decided, then there is little need to worry about applying to highly-ranked regional schools outside of your target market.

For EF, it would have been silly to attend the University of Washington School of Law, even though it is a more-highly-ranked school than her ultimate choice at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law; once you exit the T14, regional schools are best at placing within their region.

  • Where do you want to work?
While we are being slightly flippant, too many of our students say, "Harvard, Yale, Standford" or "whatever the highest ranked school that accepts me" when we ask them to separate their schools into tiers. We want to drive this point home: law schools have specialities, just as undergraduate programs do.

This question is actually different from the first, however, in that it is more geared to the area of law where you want to work: international, healthcare, intellectual property, etc.

For example, if your are dead-set on making a living in a Chicago tax law firm, it makes little sense to apply to the University of Texas, although it is a solid tier 1 law school. Northwestern seems a perfect fit for someone who actually wants to practice tax law in Chicago--you must exist somewhere.

It's worth noting that these specialty departments are often widely divergent from the overall rankings and focused on regional economic forces: two perfect example regions are in California: the Bay Area have intellectual property powerhouses at Stanford and Berkeley to power Silicon Valley's legal needs, and Los Angeles' entertainment studios depend on USC and UCLA grads as agents and general counsels.

Also note, there are plenty of horror stories from people entering law school without knowing what they want to do with a degree. If you aren't sure what specialty you're interested in, it will make your life more difficult than just deciding on a school to attend.
  • How long do you want to be in debt?
It's time to have a frank discussion with yourself about how much financial aid you'll be able to secure, and how much of that will be in loans versus grants or scholarships.

LSAC has quality resources for this issue, and helps you become used to the idea of hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt.

Financing a Legal Education: Investing in Your Future

  • What other degrees would you like to tack on with the JD?
It is becoming increasingly common to pursue a joint degree with the Juris Doctorate, from MBAs to PhDs or just about anything else you'd like at some law schools. Other schools are fighting back against this sea change and force you to defend any interdisciplinary choices. Make sure that you consider whether you'd welcome the diversity of thought offered from such diverse students, or if you'd rather your classmates were focused on constitutional law.

  • Who do you want your friends to be?
If diversity is important to you, check the statistics offered by each school. If they don't post such numbers with their entering class profiles, you can take it for granted that diversity is not that important to them; make sure you're entering a welcoming environment when you accept a law school.

  • Have you talked to a representative?
One of the best ways I found to narrow down my list of schools was to visit an LSAC forum and speak to admissions officers from each school I was interested in. While it's not nearly as accurate a measure as visiting the campus itself, it's also far cheaper and time efficient.

Please, please, don't ask them what your chances of acceptance are. You can find that on your own, and should be asking specifics about the program that you can't find in their brochure. If you expect honest and helpful answers, at least peruse the literature they have available first.

What I like to do is arrive early, pick up the printed information from the schools I'm considering, read through it while I attend sessions, and annotate them with any questions I have that are still unanswered.

In the end, you'll save yourself lots of money, time, and stress by proactively choosing your law schools before you apply. Aside from the fees tacked on by each school, LSAC has a fee of its own. Get your Zen on and hold onto those dollars for the PrepTests waiting for you.