What should you look for in a law school? Well, there’s a lot to consider. But don’t worry: we’ve broken down all the criteria you need to research, so you can find the best law school (or schools!) for you and your career goals.
Location is arguably the single most important factor in choosing a law school.
Location has an outsize influence on your entire law school experience. It affects your internship and other experiential learning opportunities, alumni and professional networks, post-grad job prospects, and more. Your ability to relocate for law school will have a tremendous impact on your options. And like many JDs, you may end up settling down in the area after you graduate too.
Are you hoping to get into a particular legal industry? Location may color your career opportunities as well. For example, Boston has a burgeoning tech corridor (thanks to Facebook, Google, and Amazon moving in nearby), so intellectual property law jobs are flourishing. New York City has its world-leading financial district, meaning lots of corporate law and compliance work. And, certainly, Washington, D.C., is where you want to be if politics and policy are in your future. Law schools often cultivate stronger programs related to nearby industries as well.
In many ways, you should get to know the surrounding city almost as well as law schools themselves. What’s the average starting and median salary for lawyers? What are the major local industries, and what are their legal hiring needs? What’s the track record of major firms in the area? What professional organizations are there, like bar associations?
Granted, you can take your JD virtually anywhere—especially now, thanks to many states accepting the Uniform Bar Exam. But you can make your life easier by attending a law school near the opportunities that matter most to you.
Admitted student profile
Law schools publish median LSAT scores, GPAs, and other admitted student stats, offering a snapshot of their average student. This is your chance to see how you stack up, and it can give you an LSAT score to target, if you’re still studying.
Keeping in mind the average admitted student profile will likely change from year to year, does your academic profile make you a reasonable contender for admission? Perhaps more importantly, are you a competitive applicant, both for admission and financial aid? Is the law school a “reach,” “safety,” or “match” for you?
That being said, don’t rule a school out purely based on the admitted student profile. (Law schools look at more than just these stats.) Rather, keep track of the data and use it to make an informed decision when you finally sit down to apply.
Cost and financial aid
Law school is a hefty investment, and you are looking for the best possible ROI. That means you need to consider a lot more than a school’s sticker price. There’s no exact formula, but your financial aid package, the opportunities the school affords you, and the type of law you want to practice all affect a school’s value.
Attending a law school where you’re a more competitive candidate might translate into more generous financial aid package. But going to a more expensive school might make more sense if it can better help you reach your goals.
Researching this criteria will help you determine the potential ROI of the law schools you’re considering. It’s then up to you to decide if a school is worth the cost.
What’s the average financial aid package for incoming students and for all students (because awards can change after 1L year)? What scholarship opportunities are available and are you eligible? What’s the average indebtedness of graduates? What are the tuition costs for one year, total costs for one year, and overall projected total program cost? What’s the projected annual student budget estimate? (Law schools are required to share this, as well as scholarship retention data.)
Once you research the answers to these questions, you can get a good sense of what your annual costs might be by doing some basic math. It’s then up to you to decide if a school is worth the cost, once you have your admission offers—and financial aid packages—in hand.
What do you want to do with your JD? You might enter law school with a clear career path in mind, or, like many incoming students, you might be weighing your options.
In either case, your interests may change throughout law school. You might go in gunning for a spot in an environmental law firm and fall in love with family law, immigration, or tax law. That’s why it’s important, during the research phase, to assess a JD program as a whole, as well as your ability to explore your options.
Also research the legal industries that interest you, including their projected growth. While law careers are relatively stable nationwide, with projected 6% growth in the coming decade according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, some legal specialties and job markets are growing more than others.
In many ways, faculty are the real heart of any law school.
They teach, of course, and share expertise forged through years of practice in the real world. They mentor students, often on their own time and on a personal level. They contribute to the reputation and ethos of the institution through their academic research and extracurricular offerings. They even help determine the future of the law school by spearheading new academic programs and initiatives.
What did the law school’s faculty do before teaching? Which faculty teach the classes that most interest you? How accessible are they (which you can determine by talking to students, alumni, and even faculty themselves)? How many full-time professors are there, and what’s the student-faculty ratio (overall and for full-time faculty/doctrinal professors only)? What do adjunct faculty teach, and where do they practice? What kind of faculty research and mentoring opportunities are there?
In short, what kind of faculty will be shaping your law school experience?
The size of your law school’s student body can impact classroom interactions, professor accessibility, and opportunities available to you, as well as overall “vibe” of the school.
Bigger classes can mean less one-on-one mentoring but more networking opportunities. More students might lead to more student groups, classes to pick from, and diversity; the trade-off may be an impersonal campus, whereas smaller schools can feel more close-knit.
Granted, you can make a big school feel small. And you can find small law schools with the resources of much larger universities. But it’s important to consider what kind of environment you’re looking for and how you learn best.
How many students are enrolled in the institution? How many are enrolled in the legal specialty programs (like concentrations) you’re interested in? What’s the average class size for doctrinal (core) courses versus electives?
Law schools have different personalities, attracting different kinds of students. What kind of school community and student culture are you looking for?
What’s the student body like? You’ll be spending a lot of time with them and graduating into a world where they’re your colleagues and often strongest connections. Is it a tribe you want to be a part of?
Law students are an ambitious bunch, and you might find some schools have a more competitive vibe than others. Some people respond well to this, thriving under the added pressure; others want a more collaborative atmosphere. In any case, the campus culture can have a huge impact in your productivity and happiness throughout law school.
What’s the student body like? What kind of vibe do you get from them and from other folks talking about them? You’ll be spending a lot of time with your classmates and graduating into a world where they’re your first colleagues and often strongest connections. Is it a tribe you want to be a part of?
Career support and job placements
Career services staff help law students get jobs and internships, as well as prepare for their postgrad careers. Your job, as you research your law school options, is to find out how successful they are in those endeavors.
What percentage of grads are gainfully employed nine months after graduation? Where do alumni work and in what sorts of roles? The ABA requires law schools to publish general employment statistics for the most recent graduating class, though you’ll have to research specific companies and job titles on your own.
It’s also important to look beyond the stats to determine how a law school prepares students for the real world. For example, at New England Law, students start learning about networking, interviewing, and using emotional intelligence in the workplace their first semester through the school’s Learning Experience program.
Alumni outcomes speak directly to the potential of a law school’s education and offer a preview of the lifelong network you would be entering into.
What’s the bar pass rate for the most recent graduating class? (Law schools are required to share this.) What have alumni accomplished? What difference are they making in the profession and their community? What kinds of networking events and mentoring opportunities are available? How involved are alumni in general with their alma mater?
You need practical experience to succeed in the real world, and the more of it you can get in law school, the better.
Hands-on learning opportunities like clinics, pro bono work, and academic research are invaluable and multipurpose: You acquire and hone legal skills like interviewing clients and conducting research. You build your professional network and résumé. You explore and clarify your career aspirations. You solidify the lessons learned in the classroom. And much more.
So while you certainly can find internships on your own, it’s important to see what opportunities and resources exist through the law schools on your list, particularly their clinical offerings. These experiential learning opportunities place you in real legal environments, conducting real legal work for real clients (under the supervision of licensed attorneys). Make sure you know what clinics will be available to you, including how early you can participate and how many you can take.
As important as hands-on experience is, you need the academic foundation to back it up. You learn legal logic and analysis—how to think like a lawyer—in your classes, not to mention the nuances of the law.
FYI, your first-year curriculum will be essentially the same regardless of where you go to law school, so take a look at electives and other curricular offerings to see what sets schools apart. In particular, look for courses in legal niches that interest you.
Beyond your academic interests, what kind of bar exam preparation is woven into the curriculum? What class formats (lecture, seminar, etc.) does the school offer? Last but not least, is the program accredited?! Important note: most states require you to attend an ABA-accredited law school if you want to sit for their bar exam.
Are you looking for full-time, part-time, accelerated, or even more flexible law school timeline?
Most admissions folks recommend attending law school on a traditional full-time basis if possible, so you can dedicate all your time and energy to those demanding classes and getting as much hands-on legal experience as possible. But if you want or need to attend law school on a part-time or accelerated basis, you’re hardly alone.
Just be sure to dig research those program offerings specifically, because they may differ from full-time JD options.
Academic support, bar exam prep programs, mental health resources: any law school worth its salt will have these opportunities (and more). They’re worth investigating as you consider law schools.
Figure out what kinds of services your prospective law schools offer and when you can take advantage of them. For example, New England Law offers its Academic Excellence Program starting 1L year; this academic advising program is staffed by full-time faculty members who teach courses and provide one-on-one counseling designed to prepare students for the rigors and unique challenges of law school as well as the bar exam.
Reputation and rankings
You’re trying to get a sense of what attending a law school will be like and what opportunities it will afford you after you graduate. Investigating the school’s reputation is an important means to that end.
The legal world is surprisingly small, especially when you get into a local market or particular niche. A law school’s reputation will precede them. So ask around. What do people actually say about the law schools on your list, and what patterns do you hear?
You can ask personal connections, conduct LinkedIn searches for alumni you might talk to, or just ask law schools directly if they can connect you with folks. Talk to a broad swath of people if you can: current students, faculty, staff, and alumni. You can read reviews left online too.
Though they should be one data point among many, ranking lists can give you insights as to what a law school is known for as well. In reviewing rankings, focus on what’s important to you and, again, look for patterns, like a law school appearing on multiple lists for being a good value or for their strength in a particular legal area.
Student organizations and activities
Student groups can be invaluable in helping you make friends, network, and gain exposure to different legal career paths. They can give you practical experience too, as you help coordinate events or run the organization. And you can set your résumé apart by showing employers what you care about.
Student groups at New England Law, for example, include the Art and Fashion Law Society, Black Law Students Association, First Generation Students Program, Jewish Law Students Association, OUTLaws (LGBTQ organization), and Women’s Law Caucus, among many others.
Maybe the law school is part of a big university you admire. Maybe it has a special history you want to be a part of. Maybe it just has a gorgeous library.
These aren’t deal-breakers, and they likely won’t carry much weight in your final decision. But sometimes, those little things can tip the scales.
General admissions info
In researching all the more objective criteria above, don’t forget about the important admissions details you need to keep track of, like application requirements, fees, and deadlines.
You might want to look into the law school’s waitlist policy and your ability to appeal or get feedback if denied too. Plus, what kind of campus visit and admission event(s) are available? These are invaluable opportunities to preview what your experience at the law school will be like.
What do you want in a law school?
Now that you know what’s important to look for in a law school, what’s important to you? What are your “must haves” vs. “wants”?
When you’re researching law schools, you’re probably going to be looking for very different criteria than you did as an undergrad. Suddenly, having a big, grassy quad seems so much less important. But things like proximity to firms that specialize in your preferred legal field will be critical.
You don’t need to have your legal career plotted out precisely, but you should have some ideas: maybe you want to help people, you want to work in a particular industry, you need intellectual rigor, you enjoy traveling, you want good work-life balance, etc.
You can build on what you learned from your undergrad, master’s program, or post-grad work experience too: maybe you loved being part of a small, close-knit community; living in the country; or exploring a city far from home.
In any case, take some time to really think about what you want in a law school and what you need to succeed in your career. Talk to people who know and care about you. Write down your thoughts. Then use your findings to figure out what you’re looking for in a law school and narrow down your options.
At the end of this law school research process, you’ll be ready to apply—and take the next step into your future—with confidence.
This article originally appeared on the New England Law | Boston site and is republished with permission.