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Choosing a Law School
Students definitely should consult the ABA-LSAC Official Guide to ABA-Approved Law Schools early in their search for law schools. This very informative book can be purchased directly from LSAC; you also may borrow one from the Director of Pre-Law Advising or use the copy available on Reserve at Orradre Library. This guide supplies a great deal of information on every ABA-accredited law school in the U.S. You should also consider visiting those schools in which you are most interested. In addition, several Law School Forums are presented around the country to which most law schools send representatives; they provide an excellent opportunity to gather information and make school contacts. Forum admission is free. For more information regarding dates, times, and locations, visit LSAC's official website. The Pre-Law Advising Program at Santa Clara has in recent years sponsored a law school fair on campus in the fall (check with the Director for details).
Since all law schools charge a non-refundable application fee typically between $50 and $75, most students will limit the number of applications. Be aware that LSAC offers a fee-waiver program for students who cannot afford to pay the LSAT or LSDAS fee. Additionally, many law schools offer an application fee waiver for students who are granted a waiver through LSAC. See the LSAT & LSDAS Registration Information Book for instructions on how to apply. Law school admission offices sometimes make application fee waivers to the Director of Pre-Law Advising and may give them to interested students at law school fairs.
The decision about which law schools you should apply to is a very personal one and will vary considerably from applicant to applicant. Formulating the individual list, however, usually involves the consideration of three factors: economic, personal, and academic.
The Economic Factor
The economic factor entails not only the actual dollar costs of law school tuition, books, room and board, etc., but also a consideration of what one gets for the money. The annual tuition can vary considerably from (for the 2012-2013 academic year) $46,806-$50,373 for California residents attending California public universities (e.g., Hastings, U.C. Berkeley) up to (for the 2012-2013 academic year) $41,790-$48,870 at private law schools such as Santa Clara or Stanford. Of course, living expenses, particularly housing costs, vary as well; it is much more expensive to live in San Francisco, New York, or Washington, D.C., as compared to Austin, Texas or Madison, Wisconsin. For example, the total expenses for the 2012-2013 academic year at Stanford Law are estimated at nearly $77,529. Availability and cost of transportation is also a consideration. The cost of books and supplies will everywhere be considerably more than that paid as an undergraduate. You should inquire about the availability of financial aid at each institution. Finally, you should also reflect on the type of legal work you would like to do upon graduation and the remuneration that such work typically offers. It can be difficult to pursue certain careers in law when you are burdened with debt incurred while in law school.
The Personal Factor
You will also want to consider the acceptability of the school's location (climate, urban versus rural setting), distance from home, recreational and cultural facilities available, etc. In addition, you should think about where you might wish to practice upon completion of law school. For the select few who can gain entrance to the most prestigious law schools, obtaining a position practicing law after law school may well not present much of a problem, but competition is fierce for the highest paying jobs and law firms are under increasing pressure to lower salaries (and hourly billable fees to clients) for new and inexperienced lawyers. Most students should work on making contacts in the profession and aggressively seek part-time or summer employment in law firms while still in law school in order to increase their chances for landing a job upon graduation. Those who wish to work in Los Angeles, New York, or Washington, D.C. would logically look closely at law schools within or very near to those cities. You should also think about the type of learning environment you prefer; law schools vary in terms of their competitiveness and "supportiveness." Also, you should pay attention to the difficulty of the bar exam in the jurisdiction in which you intend to practice.
The Academic Factor
The most significant factor in your law school choice is the academic one. It is often not where the applicant would like to go to school that dictates his or her choice, but where admission can be secured. After you receive your LSAT scores, realistically appraise your chances of getting into the law schools of your choice by using the data found in the ABA-LSAC Official Guide to ABA-Approved Law Schools. Most schools submit to the Guide a detailed chart illustrating the acceptance rates for applicants with a given GPA and LSAT score.
It is advisable to submit some applications to all three categories of law schools:
1. "Long Shots" are schools which have "numbers" (median GPA's and LSAT scores) significantly higher than yours. Applications should be made to one or more desired schools in this category with the hope of standing out from the other applicants in other areas and gaining admission. Admission to these schools is very competitive: even students with 4.0 GPAs and very high LSAT scores (170 and above) are not guaranteed an offer of admission. According to the 2012 Princeton Review rankings, the ten toughest to get into schools are in order: Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Virginia, Columbia, U.C. Berkeley, William & Mary, North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Penn, and Chicago. For example, in 2012 Harvard Law School received about 5400 applications, offered admission to some 860 of these applicants, and about 560 of them enrolled.
2. "Reasonable Chance" schools have numbers approximating yours. Apply to an appreciable number of schools (perhaps 4 to 8) in this category that you are willing to attend. If the schools in this category are properly identified, about a 50 percent acceptance rate should result.
3. "Sure Things" are schools that have numbers clearly below yours, but that you would attend if your applications to schools in the other two categories are unsuccessful. Applications should be made to one or more schools in this category as a hedge against the worst possible situation.
Navigating the Ranking Systems
U.S. News: The most recognized and cited -- but by no means definitive -- law school rankings are those issued by U.S. News and World Report. Schools are organized into the top 100, then placed unranked into the categories of third and fourth tiers. Schools are ranked by a composite score of four weighted areas: quality assessment (40%), selectivity (25%), placement success (20%), and faculty resources (15%). With few exceptions, the same fourteen schools have ranked highest since the first publication in 1987. These schools are often referred to as the top 14, or T14. Because U.S. News relies heavily on opinion surveys (40% for quality assessment), this consistency is criticized as resulting in a feedback loop that perpetuates the T14.
Princeton Review: Law school rankings and ratings from this leader in standardized test prep can be accessed by registered Princeton Review users (setting up an account is free). The site does not name one overall "best" law school, but offers 11 different lists of the top schools in specific categories, such as "Best Classroom Experience" and "Best Environment for Minority Students." Rankings are based on data from school reports and student surveys.
Hylton: The Hylton rankings eliminate "clutter" from the data used to form the U.S. News rankings. The composite score incorporates only LSAT medians and peer assessment from the U.S. News' survey of law professors. Although differently ordered, the top 14 schools as measured by Hylton and U.S. News are the same. J. Gordon Hylton is a professor at Marquette University's Law School.
Leiter's Educational Quality Rankings: Rather than awarding composite scores, Leiter presents various and focused comparisons based on both statistics and surveys. The ranking system identifies three factors central to a good legal education: quality of faculty, quality of student body, and quality of teaching. These are useful supplements to overall rankings. Brian Leiter is a law professor at the University of Chicago School of Law.
Vault: Vault rankings incorporate survey data rather than traditional statistics on admissions or educational quality. Nearly 400 hiring partners and recruiting professionals rated new associates on their "research and writing skills, knowledge of legal doctrine, possession of other relevant knowledge (e.g., science for IP lawyers), and ability to manage a calendar and work with an assistant." In short, Vault lists the 25 schools which produced the most marketable graduates in the private sector. Vault rankings do vary somewhat from U.S. News, e.g., University of Wisconsin Law is 25th in Vault, 35th in U.S. News; University of Iowa Law is 19th and 27th; Yale Law is 10th and 1st. A career information and survey site, Vault released its first set of law school rankings in 2008.
Internet Legal Research Group: The ILRG compiles raw data from 185 U.S. law schools, which can be sorted by factors such as GPA, LSAT, student to faculty ratio, bar passage rate, and percent of students employed at time of graduation. Also on the ILRG's website is a re-ranking of the U.S. News' top 50 schools after cost-benefit analysis. The ILRG maintains PublicLegal, a categorized index of web-published information on law and the legal profession.
The Consus Group: TCG awards composite scores that include published rankings (50%), selectivity (25%), placement (10%),and yield (5%). Founded by practicing attorneys and management consultants, TCG analyzes contracts, agreements, and other areas of interest for the business and legal communities.
Cooley/Brennan: Published in "Judging the Law Schools," these rankings use equally weighted empirical data and are designed to measure schools' educational effectiveness. The 40 data points comprising the index include total J.D. enrollment (bigger is better), total minority enrollment, J.D. foreign national students, total applications, typical first-year section size, median amount of grants/scholarships, and library seating capacity. Schools can be compared by overall ranking, individual factor, or state. Authors Don LeDuc and Thomas Brennan are president and former president, respectively, of Thomas M. Cooley Law School.
Top Law Schools: TLS consolidates the latest law school rankings into one chart, allowing for comparison among ranking systems and years. Top-Law-Schools.com is an online resource and forum for law school applicants.