There are a variety of criteria that can affect your choice of schools. School reputation, curriculum, location, tuition rates and faculty-student ratios all can play a part in your decision. Probably the biggest is the simple fact of whether you have the requisite grades and LSAT score to get admitted to a particular school.
Law School Reputation
The popular weekly magazine, U.S. News and World Report publishes annually a ranking of every accredited law school in the country. The rankings are based on a variety of objective criteria such as class size, library size and other variables. The so-called “Top Twenty Schools” in this ranking are the most sought-after law schools by students and law firm recruiters.
Naturally, many law schools disdain these rankings. The deans of a number of law schools got together a few years back and published an open letter regarding therankings. The letter essentially said that the student’s choice of law school should be about much more than rankings. I certainly agree with the premise.
However, generally speaking, students from the highest-ranked schools will have an easier time finding employment following graduation. That said, there are numerous jobs out there, which can be found in a variety of ways. Many of these employers are happy to employ lawyers from mid or even lower-ranked law schools.
Students who either do not have the requisite LSAT/GPA numbers, or who do not want to incur substantial debt may choose a lesser-ranked school and have extremely rewarding careers. In addition, as discussed below, these students frequently are able to commence their careers free of burdensome student debt and are therefore relieved of the pressure of having to take a job they won’t really enjoy.
You Don’t Necessarily Get What You Pay For
There are many good regional schools in the United States. Most of these are state schools, with reasonably tuition for in-state residents. Other schools are nationally recognized. These are the so-called “prestige” schools.
You can get a good idea of which law schools are viewed as the most desirable schools from these rankings. Many law school representatives disdain these rankings on the basis that they are not comprehensive and do not consider all of the factors that make a law school. Regardless, these rankings are generally accepted in the legal community and law firms. Most prospective law students consider these rankings as gospel.
The statement I am about to make will be considered by many to be heresy. Having known and worked with numerous lawyers who have graduated from a variety of law schools, I have become convinced that the quality of legal education among schools is actually pretty similar, regardless of which law school you choose.
Let’s face it. There are only so many variations program. Even Socrates himself could only vary the Socratic teaching method in just a few ways. Class outlines and subject matter are so universal that a veritable cottage industry has emerged selling commercial outlines. Your legal education is less about the school itself and more about what you make of it. Some of the most successful lawyers come from the worst schools, and vice-versa.
And as far as bottom lines go, the bottom line to your legal education is your bar card. Without it, you cannot practice law. So, the ultimate goal of law school is to pass the bar. This is so, despite the conventional wisdom that the purpose of law school is to teach you how to “think like a lawyer”.
I overheard my first year Contracts professor talking to a group of students after class one day. He frequently held court after class and students ostensibly to would ask questions about a finer point of law. In reality, they were hoping to earn a few brownie points with the professor.
One student asked the professor whether a particular area of law would be tested on the bar exam. The professor responded, “We don’t worry about your passing the bar. You take BARBRI for that. We teach you to think.” As an aside, BARBRI is the commercial bar exam preparation course that the majority of bar examinees take, in order to prepare for the exam.
With all respect due that professor, my response to that comment is that law professors don’t worry about the bar exam, because they don’t have to take the test. By the time students are faced with the bar exam, they are but a distant memory to the law school professor. In other words, there is no real accountability to help law students pass their bar exams.
This attitude is prevalent among the top law schools: “we teach you to think.” In my opinion, this is an overstatement. I would argue that law schools, especially the top schools, are overplaying their role in the development of students. Instead, the typical “Type A,” overachieving, 165-170 LSAT, 4.10 GPA entering law student has already demonstrated the ability to “think” long before they entered law school.
I would further argue that law schools are taking credit for the intelligence of a group of incredibly bright people, who were that way long before they ever thought about law school.
Certainly, while in law school, you will hone your deductive and analytical reasoning skills. You will learn how to sift through facts, apply those facts to legal principles and develop analyses to predict how a rationally thinking judge will rule on an issue. But your law school will not teach you this process. You must understand it, both from a macro and micro perspective, and master it. And by the way, you still have to pass the bar exam.
The lower-ranked schools, on the other hand, focus substantial energy on equipping their students to pass the bar exam. Bar passage rates are a source of huge pride for these schools. Many of these schools have much higher passage rates than the nationally ranked prestige schools. They provide strict curricula, with bar exam subjects being the primary focus. These schools offer few esoteric legal subjects, but instead require students to take the tough courses, such as secured transactions, commercial paper and the like. And their students pass the bar.
Finally, the declaration that BARBRI alone will enable you to pass the bar exam is a reckless assertion. To rely solely on BARBRI as your bar preparation guarantees that you will have ten of the most stressful weeks of your life following law school graduation. As is discussed throughout this book, regardless of where you are in your legal studies, you need to know the law. This is true for bar exam purposes and it is true for law school exam purposes.
Learning legal reasoning is important. However, as is discussed in my book, "Law School Labyrinth", knowing the law is critical to your developing legal reasoning skills.
A “name” law school may be a great career ticket; however, if the school is unwilling to teach you the law, perhaps your tuition dollars are better served at a lower-ranked school with a rigorous curriculum. And if you're thinking about law school, you need to pick up a copy of my book: Law School Labyrinth- A Guide to Making the Most of Your Legal Education (Kaplan Publishing, March 31, 2009.