How To Evaluate the Best Law Schools

So you've decided to go to law school - congratulations! Now how do you choose the best law school? You could go a published ranking, such as the one put out by US News and World Report, but relying solely on such lists is a big mistake.   To understand why, you have to understand how the rankings are compiled.

Different factors such as matriculation rate, bar passage rate, and statistics of teacher publications are quantified for a particular school and measured against those of other law schools. The law schools that boast the highest cumulative scores when all factors are considered are ranked as "Tier 1" schools, the next grouping is "Tier 2," and so on. If you select a Tier 1 school, the theory goes, you can be assured that your degree will be sufficient to qualify you for consideration in the most competitive large law firms (although that alone, of course, won't guarantee you a job).  The problem, of course, is that different lists will produce different results - even though they all consider the same data. How can that be? It's because of the weight given to each factor. For one list, graduation rates may be more important than bar passage rates; for another list, the most important factor might be "number of graduates placed in jobs within one year."  

Instead of relying on some faceless magazine editor to decide which factors are most important for your education and your career prospects, evaluate law schools based on your own needs. In other words - create your own ranking list based on factors that carry the weight you decide is appropriate. Here's how: 

  1. Decide what your needs are. Do you need to stay in your state for family obligations? Do you need to attend a part-time program? Are you interested in a joint degree program - say, J.D./MBA? What class size do you prefer and do your best work in? If you're not tied to your current state, or if your state boasts more than one school, what geographical area or features would feel most like "home" to you? Would you prefer mountains or sea? Small town or large city? Are you interested in a particular program or course of study? You wouldn't necessarily choose a school in a landlocked Midwest state if your dream is to open your own admiralty practice, for instance. Whatever is important to you, list those factors that will help you decide which schools are most likely to deliver. 
  2. Next, decide which of those factors are "musts," and which are "desires." Ask yourself, "If a law school was free and had every single one of these factors except factor A, would I go?" If the answer is no, then factor A is a mandatory factor. If the answer is yes, then it's a desired factor.
  3. Sort the law schools according to your criteria. One helpful format for this kind of analysis is a matrix. List the factors you've decided on in Step 1 across the top of a spreadsheet or table in a word processing document. Down the left side of the table or spreadsheet, list 20 schools that appear to meet your minimum criteria. 

    Let's take a hypothetical potential student - Sam. Sam lives in Virginia, works as a policeman and has a family of four. Sam therefore needs a part-time program. Sam first starts with a pool of all accredited ABA schools - accredited, because he wants to practice law after graduation, and accreditation is required for bar admittance in almost every state. So Sam would research all the schools that had part-time programs. Let's say there are 50 in the United States, but only 20 are east of the Mississippi (these are made-up numbers). Three of those are in Florida, and Sam can't stand high temperatures and humidity, but he also doesn't like large cities that are cold, so he also eliminates the five in the New England/Northeast area. That leaves 12 schools - a very manageable number. These 12 schools he lists on the left side of his matrix. Now, he can evaluate each school on the basis of his "desired" criteria - whether that's by way of a descriptive narrative, a numbered scale, or some other method.  

  4. Research the schools carefully. Don't just rely on the school catalog. This is far too important a decision to leave up to the school admissions staff whose job it is to sell the school to potential students. While a visit isn't necessary at this stage, if it's feasible you may want to consider a tour. Get on the Internet. See if you can find current and former students. One trick is to visit the website of your state bar; if it has a member directory that's searchable by city, you should be able to locate attorneys in your city who went to the school (assuming their law school is listed, which it often is). Call those attorneys and ask for a brief interview; offer to conduct it via email. Your goal at this stage is information - as much as possible. 
  5. Now, start to condense the information you obtained in Step 4 into short, brief statements such as "large classes" or "biggest student body" or "forested campus" or "30 mins from beach" - whatever reflects those desired factors at the top of your matrix. 
  6. Analyze the schools on the basis of your information. 
  7. Rank the schools in descending order. Which school has the most of what you're looking for in a law school? Which is a close second? Continue until you've ranked each of the schools you've listed. 
  8. A word about tuition costs: to the greatest extent possible, given your unique circumstances, try not to evaluate schools based on cost of tuition. The reasons for this are simple. First, cost is not a reliable predictor of value in law schools. Value is, after all, highly subjective, and highly dependent on each individual's needs, as we've seen. Second, financial aid can substantially assist you no matter what school you pick. Finally, you should go to the "best" law school you can afford. Figure out which of the law schools could qualify as "the best" according to your criteria; then - and only then - should you consider cost. 
  9. Now that you have the schools ranked, it's an excellent time to schedule a visit (if you haven't done so already). Try to meet and talk to as many students as possible. Ask to sit in on classes (with the professor's permission, of course). Check out the library. What are the facilities like? The physical plant? The "best" law school in the country won't feel like the best if plaster's chipping off the ceiling into your morning coffee and the heat isn't working. Also: take a moment to assess your intuition during each visit. Find a quiet place to sit, and "check in" with yourself. How does the place "feel" to you? Can you see yourself here? 
  10. Now - and only now - check the rankings to see where your preferred schools lie. Why now? Because if you consider it before now, the desire to succeed might unconsciously color your evaluation of the schools that are more highly ranked. Why consider the rankings at all, then? Because the rankings aren't completely meaningless - they analyze data that does have a bearing on the quality of education you will receive.

    If the school is ranked 189 out of the 192 ABA accredited law schools, that might be a red flag to investigate. Don't, however, eliminate a school that's otherwise perfect for you simply because it isn't in the top ten, or switch two schools' rankings on your list simply because "the list" thinks it ought to be that way. Trust your own judgment, but consider the rankings as just another factor to be thrown into the mix. Adjust your rankings accordingly.

  11. Now you have your final ranking, and you can begin applying to the schools on the list that are still under serious consideration. Hopefully, once the acceptance letters start pouring in, it will be a relatively easy matter to consult your list to see which school of the many that accepted you is ranked highest on your list.


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