When it came time for me to choose a school, it felt like basically the most momentous, weighty decision I faced in my life thus far. Sure, I had to choose a university before, but this was a law school, this commitment could essentially define my career. Believe me, I put off the decision as long as I could, but you know, those deposits sure do add up …
There are so many factors to this choice, and the variables apply differently to each person. Before you start making endless pro/con lists that eventually devolve into “has Chipotle .25 miles closer to campus” (been there done that), here are a few of the game-changers to consider:
- Cost of attendance
It’s no surprise that law school is expensive. Now, the starting salary of the legal field is significantly high, but most people don’t want to spend most of their salary on paying off student loans. Scholarships can be a big help in defraying costs, so don’t take them for granted! Most of the time, these scholarships just cover tuition – the other thing to consider is living expenses. As much as you will feel like you’re selling your soul to law school, you will still have to eat, have a place to sleep, and pay for gas/transportation costs for the commute. Rent and living expenses vary a lot from city to city. So, if you got a huge scholarship to a school in Manhattan, just keep in mind you will probably make up for it in rent payments for your shoebox apartment. If you didn’t get as big of a scholarship to a certain school but you’re living at home, you’ll be saving a lot in the cost of living department. A little math can go a long way.
2. Region of practice
I have it on good authority (aka pretty much every lawyer that I talked to) that going to law school in the state you would like to practice in is often more important than the ranking of your school. This was SO helpful for me in narrowing down my law school choices. Unless you’re going to a top 10 law school, it’s probably more beneficial for you to go to school in the state you want to be a lawyer in rather than going to a higher ranked school outside of that state. The professional network you develop while in law school will open many doors for you. Going to school out of state is by no means professional suicide, it will just require more effort on your part when it comes to preparing for the bar, cultivating a network, and seeking out internships and jobs.
You can’t avoid it. Law school rankings are a pretty good way to suss out a law school’s reputation from a non-biased party. The US News and World Report, for example, weighs things like bar passage rates, retention and graduation rates, faculty to student ratios, and employment statistics to assign each school a ranking. Now, I wouldn’t live and die by these rankings, because some of the factors are somewhat qualitative, as evidenced by the varying rankings across different rating organizations. The other thing about rankings – they’re subject to change, and they often do year to year. Slipping a few spots in a year isn’t anything to lose sleep about, but a continuous slide or a large dip should be a red flag. Conversely, law school with a steady hold on rankings or a school with consistent upward mobility demonstrates the school is doing something right.
4. Gut feeling
Some would argue that this one probably shouldn’t be on the list. But I think there are some intangible factors that should definitely be part of a major life decision, and gut feeling would be one of them. Personally, my gut has pretty consistently lead me in the right direction, which is why I trusted it when it came time to make my final law school decision. I was pretty much set on one school in my home state that was higher ranked, but I decided to take a quick trip to visit another school on my list anyway. As soon as I set foot in the door, an overwhelming feeling hit me that this was the place I was meant to go to school. My pride still dogged me over rankings for a few days, but I could not ignore my gut. Then it occurred to me, effective legal arguments are crafted with ethos (credibility), logos (logic) and pathos (emotion). Why shouldn’t this apply to choosing a school too? Trusting your gut is part of the process.
Bottom line: Do your research. Know what schools have better programs for what you want to do. Consider the area (both legal and geographical) that you would like to practice in. Factor in your scholarships and the cost of living in the city you may attend law school in. Once you have it narrowed down, go on school visits. Fitting in may sound cliche, but you’ll be making lifelong friendships and professional relationships in the next three years. If a certain school screams yes, don’t ignore it.