Selecting a Law School

Last Updated: July 7, 2013

Gerald Lee Wilson, Ph.D.
Duke University

Selecting a law school, like most of life's important decisions, is a process which does not lend itself to quantification and is too important to be determined by the flip of a coin. Likewise, there seems to be an "embarrassment of riches" when it comes to the number of people willing to give advice on the matter and the amount of resource material available. So how does a person select the "best" or "right" law school?

The applicant should begin the process by taking advantage of available printed and people resources.  Probably the best resource in the former category is the Pre-law Handbook published annually by the American Association of Law Schools and the Law School Admission Council.  In many cases the best people resource can be a college or university pre-law adviser.  The rise of pre-law advising to the position of a sub-profession in the last decade or so has come as a direct result of the increasingly competitive nature of law school admissions.  In many undergraduate institutions the pre-law adviser(s) and members of his or her staff can serve as information sources, coaches, confidants and strategists as well as writers of recommendations.

The next step in the selection process is that of organizing the factors to be considered in making the decision in some sort of logical order with designated priorities.  For almost everyone there are at least three major factors as well as a host of other considerations, which may be major to some applicants, minor to others, or possibly can serve as "tie-breakers" in the final stages of the process.  The major factors, shorn of sophistication and put in question form are:  Where can I get in?; What are the job opportunities when I graduate?; and How much will it cost?  Other factors to be examined include location, size, reputation of the law school, offerings and atmosphere, and, legitimately, a person's "gut reaction" to a particular school.

The first question, "Where can I get in?", is one that can best be answered by comparing the credentials of the applicant with the admissions profile of recent entering classes of the law schools in which the applicant has an initial interest.  At this point, conventional wisdom would suggest that the applicant follow the same procedure that he or she probably followed in applying to college.  That is, the student should set up three categories of schools and apply to an appropriate number of schools in each category.  The categories selected are, of course, relative and determined by both the credentials and the particular desires of the individual applicant.  The first category, the "long-shot" schools, is the one in which the student lists those schools which he or she would most like to attend, but which seem to be the most difficult in terms of gaining admission.  The second category, the "possible schools," is comprised of those schools the applicant would be perfectly happy to attend and on the basis of available information present at least a "fifty-fifty" chance of admission.  The third category represents the "safe schools," those which are not the applicant's first or even second choice but are acceptable and do offer the opportunity for an individual to receive a quality legal education.

The implicit assumption throughout this suggested approach is that the "numbers" (Undergraduate Grade Point Average and Law School Admissions Test Score) are the crucial factors in determining admissibility to law schools.  This is, in fact, true for virtually all law schools and, indeed, in a number of cases (especially state law schools) the "numbers" seem to be the only factors considered.  Before approaching the UGPA in a purely quantitative sense as an admissions factor, it is probably worthwhile to pause and reflect on what the UGPA represents both as achievement and as preparation for law school.  The guiding principle here comes from a statement made by a law school admissions officer to a group of undergraduates.  He said simply, "a student should not mortgage his or her undergraduate career for the sake of law school."  This is true in the dual sense that a UGPA should represent performance in demanding courses as well as selection of a curriculum that provides a good broad background.  In general, it does not matter what major a student chooses or what specific courses he or she takes if these courses enhance a student's ability to think critically and communicate effectively both in oral and written form.  The student, of course, could benefit from some study of history, political science, English, economics, philosophy and the like, but the only specific course that a prelaw student should consider a "must" is a course in basic accounting procedures.

These comments refer to what the UGPA should mean to the applicant.  What does the UGPA mean to the law school admissions committee?  If the numbers are right, many admissions committees will attempt to assess the strength of the applicant's total curriculum and the difficulty of individual courses insofar as such an assessment can be made.  Many committees seem to be willing to take into account an upward progression in the UGPA.  This is especially helpful to that applicant who was miscast as a pre-med during his or her freshman year or who experienced difficulties adjusting to college.

The LSAT, officially defined as "a half-day objective test designed to measure certain mental capacities important to the study of law....," represents the other half of the "numbers" factor.  The words "other half" of the factor were deliberately chosen since this score is generally given equal weight with the UGPA by admissions committees. Students can and should prepare for this test though the specific manner of preparation is very much an individual matter.  Some students have found materials published by the LSAC and included in the LSAT/LSDAS packet quite adequate.  Others purchase commercial test preparation booklets and, increasingly, it seems students are enrolling in commercial prep courses.  Hopefully, with the institution of the new LSAT and the scoring scale of 120 to 180, some of the importance placed on the LSAT as an admissions factor will be diminished.

In sum, the "numbers" are the major factors in the admissions process but fortunately, in most cases, they are not the only factors.  To put it another way, the "numbers" get the applicant into the ball game; once in the ball game other factors can help determine whether the applicant makes a winning score.  Curiously enough, there seems to be occurring in the law school admissions process a phenomenon somewhat akin to that of economic depression and inflation operating simultaneously.  That is, while the numbers increasingly seem to dominate in determining admissions decisions, other non-quantifiable factors seem also to be taking on increasing importance.  These factors include essays, recommendations and college activities.

The essays, those torturous creatures centered around the question, "Why do you want to go to law school?", or the request, "Tell us about yourself, are getting more than a casual reading by members of admissions committees at many law schools and in close calls may tip the balance.  The schools that request these essays are attempting both to appraise the writing ability of the applicant and to judge his or her motivation for legal studies.  Needless to say, these statements should be carefully written with attention given to neatness, use of correct grammar and syntax, and, of course, proper spelling.

What to say depends on the individual writer.  It is doubtful that a particularly original "why I want to go to law school" essay can be written by anyone.  But the point is not to be original but rather personal.  Since this is the applicant's only chance to present something other than objective data, the essay should be one that reveals clearly the individual personality of the applicant.  The applicant in preparing the essay should carefully avoid the twin temptations of explaining how through the legal profession he or she hopes to reform Western Civilization and of writing in an artificial style which may be imitative of an eighteenth century novel, or worse yet, a government document.  Hopefully the essay will be interesting enough to make the readers want to read all of it.  Further, if the writer has a sense of humor, it might be worthwhile to let a little of that show.  In many cases, the length of the essay will be specified.  If it is not, then the applicant should set a limit of somewhere around two double-spaced typed pages.

If an autobiographical statement is requested, the applicant should at all costs avoid a mere factual, chronological outline of his or her life such as "I was born on April 22, 1987, at Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem and attended R. J. Reynolds High School where I was a hall monitor."  The most effective autobiographical statement is a thoughtful, impressionistic explanation of the crucial events that have shaped the applicant into the person he or she is.  Experiences such as foreign study, producing a play, or significant employment should be highlighted.  If certain books, events or people have been influential in the applicant's life, comment on these will probably be of more value than a list of high school or college activities.  The essay should include at least a paragraph about the applicant's intellectual development, explaining both growth and change.  Extensive research projects or other major individual accomplishments such as publication should certainly be included.

Not only is the essay the best place for the applicant to sell himself or herself and emphasize his or her best qualities, it is also often the one place where any explanations concerning the objective credentials can be made.  For example, if the applicant presents high grades and low LSAT scores, but has a history of poor performance on standardized tests, this should be discussed at this point.  If the applicant's first few semesters in college were weaker ones academically because he or she was miscast as a pre-med, this also should be mentioned.  However, when there is something to be explained, it is probably best to give a simple, cogent explanation and let the committee draw the appropriate conclusions.

Perhaps the most misunderstood part of the application is the recommendations.  Campus lore seems to run the gamut from "recommendations don't really mean anything" to "if so-and-so recommends you, you'll get in."  The truth of the matter may well lie somewhere in between.  Remember what was said earlier about things which can help an applicant make a winning score once he or she is already in the ball game and place recommendations in this context.  Undoubtedly, the most valuable letters of recommendation are those which come from the academic community and more especially those which come from instructors who have actually taught the applicant.  These letters are most helpful if they are both analytical and specific, appraising the applicant's performance in the course, and, on that basis, estimating his or her likely performance as a law student and practicing attorney.  Positive, incisive letters are of far more value than glowing, general ones.

Recommendations from the applicant's pre-law adviser can be helpful if the prelaw adviser knows the applicant, has access to the applicant's total record and is familiar with the law school.  Oft times the pre-law adviser can point out things on the student's overall academic record of which an individual instructor may not have knowledge.  Further, if the undergraduate institution has a track record at a particular law school, the pre-law adviser can compare the applicant with other students who have attended that law school.  In brief, if the applicant has worked closely with the pre-law adviser, he or she will be able to do more than just fill out a citizenship clearance form and this "more" can often be helpful to the applicant.

In general, with one notable exception, letters from outside the academic community carry little weight with admissions committees.  This exception refers to recommendations from employers in cases where an applicant has had a job that carried considerable responsibility or where something significant was accomplished.  The employer recommendation is of special significance for the applicant who has taken some time off prior to entrance into law school.  One word of caution:  if the applicant has worked for a member of Congress or some well-known figure, he or she may be tempted to have that person write a recommendation on the assumption that the "name" alone will carry a great deal of weight.  In fact, admissions committees can be "turned off" by so-called names.  In most cases, the applicant would probably be better off if he or she had an administrative assistant or the person who directly supervised the applicant's work write the letter of recommendation.

These comments on recommendations and the mention of "names" provide as good an opportunity as any to mention the matter of "pull."  Many applicants know someone who has offered to help and indicated that he or she "knows someone" on the admissions committee.  No one can deny that in some cases, probably a very small number, this approach works.  However, the best way to regard such offers of help is to remember that definition of "pull" which calls it "what everybody thinks he or she has until he tries to use it."  In sum, if someone offers to help, let them, but don't count on its effectiveness.

The final non-quantifiable factor making up the applicant's total credentials is the list of activities in which the student was involved.  Here again, mythology abounds.  On the one hand, admissions committees like to see that an applicant has done something other than "nerd out" in the library, but, on the other hand, they cannot judge the value of any specific activity or the intensity of the commitment to that activity on the part of the student.  Rather than flooding the committee with a long list of activities (which can raise the question of when did the applicant find time to study) it is probably best to list only those which were most important to the individual, reveal something of his or her personality and interests, and help paint a total picture of the applicant.  The applicant should, of course, highlight those activities in which he or she assumed major responsibility or had a leadership role.  A good list of activities in combination with a high UGPA and good LSAT scores can be impressive, but activities alone cannot substitute for the other two elements.

The applicant should also realize that the actual mailing in of all of the application materials should not complete the process on his or her part.  Follow up should take the form of careful monitoring, and if necessary, "gentle pestering."  Within a reasonable time after the application materials have been mailed, the applicant should contact each school to which he or she has applied to make sure that the application is complete.  Many schools do not automatically notify the applicant of the status of the file.  As for the "gentle pestering," this can be effective in those instances where the applicant falls into the marginal
category of neither being an automatic accept nor an automatic reject.  Obviously this is not needed in the former category and is not effective in the latter.  But if the applicant finds himself or herself on a waiting list of in some other purgatorial category, then the act of "gentle pestering" or "friendly persuasion" can sometimes pay dividends.  The applicant should not hesitate to enlist the aid of his or her pre-law adviser in this campaign and should, if appropriate, send further grades, additional letters of recommendation and perhaps more essays.  Though personal interviews with someone at the law school are, in most cases, not encouraged, the applicant should at least inquire as to whether or not such an interview would be helpful in his or her specific case.  In close cases, following this sort of game plan may make the difference.

One last word before leaving the "Where can I get in?" question.  Every applicant, no matter how high his or her academic average and LSAT scores and how strong other credentials may be should apply to as many schools as feasible and to a broad range of schools in terms of admissions requirements.

The reverse side of the "Where can I get in?" question is, "What are the job opportunities for me when I get out (with a degree)?"  Part of the answer to this question is unknowable in advance, part is uncontrollable, and part depends on the individual's rank in class, which is, for better or worse, a real key in getting a job.  The uncontrollable part is the condition of the job market at the time the individual graduates.  The individual's own initiative and hustle form that part which is definitely under his or her control.  In examining material provided by the law school the applicant should study carefully the information on job placement and should not be hesitant about asking hard questions.  Such questions include:  Does the law school have a full-time placement officer? What percentage of the class obtains jobs within a reasonable time after receiving their degrees? What types of jobs do they get? Where are these jobs? How many agencies and firms recruit at the law school? Does the law school placement office offer continuing help if job changes are necessary or desired later on?  Though a good placement office and officer may exist at a law school, the applicant should remember that no placement office can get a person a job; the office can help, but, in the end, the student is the one who gets the job.

Frequently in this chapter such words as "large", "small", "state", "national" and the like will be used when referring to law schools.  Perhaps the best way of defining these terms is to point to some specific examples.  In terms of size, Harvard, whose total enrollment in a recent year was 1782, with an entering class of 551 is an example of a large school.  Duke and Cornell, with total enrollments of around 595 each and entering classes of about 180 are examples of  medium  size schools.  Small schools include Washington and Lee and the University of New Mexico whose total enrollments of 364 and 338 respectively, include entering classes of 133 and 113.

A further distinction that can be of importance to an applicant is that between a "public" and a "private" school especially with reference to admissions standards and tuition costs.  Since public schools are subsidized by taxpayers, they generally enroll a higher percentage of state residents and charge them less in tuition than nonresidents.  Private institutions, on the other hand, view applications with little reference to geography and charge the same tuition to all students.

A final distinction worth noting is that between "national" and "state" or "local" law schools.  In some cases, because of the constituency they serve, state or local schools may, in their academic program, place more emphasis on state or local law and practice.  This distinction is also significant in terms of admissions standards and placement possibilities.  National law schools actively seek applicants from throughout the nation and generally have broader placement connections.  State or local schools draw primarily from their locality and usually concentrate their placement efforts in the area they serve. When any of the above distinctions are important to an applicant, he or she should check on each school since names can be misleading.  For example, William and Mary is a state school and New York University is private.  Further, many state schools such as the Universities of Virginia and Michigan are also considered to be national schools.

When most applicants wrestle with the questions, "Should I go to my state law school or a school in the state or region in which I intend to practice?", or, "Should I go to a national school?" they are really asking (financial considerations aside for the moment) the job opportunity question.  Probably the best rule-of-thumb answer to this question is that a student should go to the best school he or she can get in; if the best is no better or not significantly better than the one in the state or region in which the student intends to practice, then go with the school in that state or region.  Having said that, the applicant should remember that all schools, including many of the great national ones, may have better placement connections in the geographical region in which they are located.  However, if the school has enough national visibility, getting a job out of the region in which the school is located is not a major problem.

The third major question to be asked by the applicant in selecting a law school, "How much will it cost?", is, unfortunately, increasingly becoming the bottom line for many applicants.  No matter how attractive school x may be and how admissible the applicant is, financial considerations have to be faced squarely.  In weighing whether or not to choose attractive school x over less desirable school y, several factors have to be considered.  First, the applicant needs to assess how much he or she already owes if he or she has been on financial aid as an under¬graduate.  Second, using information provided by the law schools under consideration, the applicant should set up a budget which includes both law school expenses and personal expenses.  Most people don't realize how much they spend in a day or a year.  The applicant should examine how much he or she really spends for coffee, books, movies, auto insurance and the like.  After establishing a realistic budget, the applicant should add up these expenses and compare them with available resources.  To be safe, a ten percent inflation factor should be added to these estimated expenses.  Since most law schools discourage work for pay the first year, or encourage only a limited amount, the applicant should have adequate funds available prior to entry into the first year.

In brief, in choosing which law school to attend, the applicant should ask if school x is really worth it.  The applicant should also remember that the amount of debt he or she may incur as a result of attending school x may limit job options available after graduation.  For example, if a graduate is heavily in debt, he or she may not be able to take a social service or public defender's job, but have to look at higher paying private law firms.  Fortunately, some law schools have instituted "Loan Forgiveness Programs" to encourage students to consider low paying public service jobs.  Applicants should contact individual law schools for further information. Since law school is expensive, the question, "Can I really afford school x?", is a critical one.  Since law school is an investment, the question, "Can I afford not to attend school x?", must be considered also.

Though the questions of admissibility, opportunity and affordability comprise the major factors in selecting a law school, there are a number of other factors to be considered which can take on the role of "tie-breakers" or, in toto can have the same impact on the selection process as the major factors.  Though these are "soft" factors in that in many cases they are non-quantifiable, they merit careful exploration.

The first category of questions to be asked concerns the program and total atmosphere of the law school.  A word of caution is in order for avid catalogue readers.  Since most applicants are among the uninitiated in the terminology of the law and the content of the courses listed in the law school's bulletin, he or she should be very careful in reading the curricular and course offerings.  This caution should extend to examination of special programs or emphases also.  Since a law school education is basically one which focuses on the general practice of law, and specialization most often occurs after graduation from law school, it may be unwise to choose a given law school solely on the basis of a specialized curriculum or program.  Oftentimes, such special areas are contingent on the presence of one or a small number of faculty members who might leave the school to go elsewhere or retire.  The point is, an applicant, in selecting a law school, should never sacrifice overall quality for a specialized program.

At the core of a law school, and that factor which is the greatest single one in determining its quality, is the faculty.  Applicants should find out as much about the faculty as possible.  What is the general reputation of the faculty?  Are they recognized experts in their fields?  What members of the faculty are near retirement?  Is the faculty noted for being a teaching faculty?  What are their teaching styles?  Are they accessible to students outside of class?  Do they have extensive outside commitments?

Next in importance to the faculty in determining both the quality of the school and its desirability for the individual applicant is the question of the character of the student body.  As one law school professor has put it, "in law school, half of what a student learns comes from other students both in the formal setting of the classroom and informal interchange outside the classroom."  Size of the student body can often be important to the applicant.  He or she should ask if, in the case of large law schools, the class is sectioned and, if it is, does this sectioning prove to be effective in making the law school experience a more personal one?  It is not only important to note the objective credentials of the entering class, but also many applicants will want to find out where and what type of undergraduate institutions the members of the class come from.  What are the major feeder schools?  In some cases the applicant may feel more at home with students who come from undergraduate institutions similar to his or her own; in other cases, an applicant may welcome a different experience.  This is also true in a geographic sense.  Some students may prefer to be with law students who come, for the most part, from his or her region of the country; others may prefer geographic diversity.  To what extent are women and members of minority groups recruited and enrolled is a question of significance for many applicants.  Since the average age of entering classes seems to be going up and law schools generally react favorably to applications from people who are older, many applicants may want to know how many of the students fall into different age groups.  Finally the applicant may well want to know how competitive the students are.  Though no law school can truly be described as "laid back," some schools are noted as being highly competitive while others seem to be a bit more relaxed and possess more of a cooperative spirit.  The individual has to decide which atmosphere will provide him or her with the best educational experience.

The final set of factors under the general rubric of atmosphere are the "books and bricks" questions.  Though size of the library is important, the more important question is the adequacy of the library resources.  If a law school is part of a university, then questions about the availability and accessibility of the total university library system should be asked.  The applicant should also look at the "bricks."  Are the physical facilities adequate?  What plans are there for expansion if expansion seems necessary?  Additional questions in this category would include questions about housing for students, sports and other non-academic facilities.

Another "tie-breaker" factor of concern to many students is the question of the location of the school with reference to things other than job opportunities.  Some students prefer schools located in large metropolitan areas; others seek a more bucolic atmosphere.  Some students come alive in cold crisp air; others find their minds freeze and their spirits fall when the temperature goes below 70 degrees.  Some like the given life-style of a region; others find certain regional life-styles not to be their cup of tea.  Some find law school more tolerable if they have ACC basketball available; others feel better if snow-skiing is no more than an hour away.  Though location in these terms should never be the major deciding factor, it can be a useful "tie-breaker".
The final two factors to be considered in selecting a law school involve perception and process.  The perception factor centers on the perceived reputation and prestige of a law school.  Lists of rankings are the easiest and most readily available sources of information, but, alas, in actuality, often reflect the prejudices of those participating in the ranking procedures more than the real quality of the law schools.  Yet, such ranking lists can be useful in serving as a starting point in the determination of the reputation and prestige of law schools.  The individual applicant should read carefully as much material as possible, talk to a wide variety of people who are familiar with legal education, and then make his or her own judgments.  After all, there is no "best" law school in the country in an objective sense.  The number one school in the country is that one which best meets the individual applicant's own needs and personal goals.

As a footnote, the applicant to law school is a rational person who probably prides himself or herself on the ability to weigh carefully all the evidence and then make a logical decision bringing the full force of reason to bear on the process of selecting a law school.  But on the theory that "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts," the applicant should remember that he or she, after a careful reasoning process, has the perfect right to make the final selection on the basis of a "gut reaction."  The applicant should trust his or her instincts as well as his or her reason.  Before the final decision is made, ask such questions as, "Does the school feel right for me?", and "Will I be proud to hold a degree from that school?"  In this connection, if at all possible, an applicant should visit the schools he or she is seriously considering.  Selecting a law school sight unseen is a bit like selecting a spouse sight unseen:  on paper everything may seem right, but the "chemistry" may not be there.  Though many law schools do not encourage visits for admissions purposes, all would agree on the value of a visit before making a final choice.
 
Though this chapter has suggested a number of factors to be considered in selecting a law school, in the end, both the process and the choice belong to the individual.  Even if the same questions are asked by individual applicants and similar answers result, the weight each answer carries as a decision-making factor will vary from applicant to applicant.  The only given for all applicants, it seems, is the time and money spent on the process.  So the applicant should plan carefully as he or she enters the admissions battle and remember that opportunity most often comes to the prepared.

* Copyright 1984, Society of American Law Teachers.  This article is a chapter in the revised edition of Looking at Law School:  A Student Guide from the Society of American Law Teachers.  The revised fourth edition was published by the New American Library in 1997.

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