When it comes to choosing the right law school, there are many factors to consider that you may not have to consider if attending med school or dental school. The legal industry, as we all know, is not what it use to be. An industry that was once a golden ticket to the good life has now become saturated with attorneys, legal secretaries and worst of all, computers that do document review and other basic first-year-associate tasks. There are two ways to look at this dilemma. One way would be to not enter the legal field at all. Plenty of money still to be made by going to business school. But if you're anything like me, becoming a layer has much less to do with making great amounts of wealth in a short amount of time and much more to do with catering your skill sets and abilities to a life-long career that you can wake up most mornings and be happy to be a part of.
So with that being said, here are 5 of the most important factors to consider before choosing a law school to attend...or choosing to attend law school.
1) Pick a region - Where do you want to practice? Unlike med school, the place you decide to attend law school very well could be the place you practice law in. In fact, it probably will be unless you go to a handful of schools.A lot of students don't know this and are very surprised when their On-Campus-Interviewing only has law firms from around the direct area and they are forced to send out mass mailers to the regions they do wish to practice in. This is not only tiresome but it is very hard to get an interview by sending a cover letter and resume to a big law firm in New York when you are in Omaha, Nebraska. Consider the next 10 years of your life when choosing a law school. Ask yourself, "Is this an area I can see myself living in for the foreseeable future?". Also consider cost of living and the legal market of each region you are considering. Markets like New York are highly saturated, pay high starting salaries like $160,000 but the cost of living equates to around $75,000 in Dallas. Get on a basic COL calculator and do some quick figures before you jump on board with an area because it sounds good. There are a few firms in Dallas that are starting first-year-associates off at $180,000 with no state income tax. That is around $450,000 in Manhattan. Of course, if you are partial to living in a region regardless of COL perhaps the cost of living in New York or California need not be a huge concern.
2) US News Law School Rankings - There are now 202 ABA-approved law schools. Which one should you attend? Many of my colleagues say "Go to the highest ranked school you get accepted to regardless of the tuition and lack of scholarships you may have received". I disagree but they are not that far off. Do not take these rankings lightly. Law school is not like undergrad where you can attend a school in Des Moines, Iowa and then move to Boca Raton, Florida fairly easily and get a pharmaceutical job. Law firms put huge amounts of weight on which school you went to, especially Vault firms or "big law" firms. Secondly firms consider what your class rank was at that school and thirdly they consider everything else. The US News rankings list the top 100 in order and then 101-150 in no particular order and the same for 151-202. Employment data, average starting salary, debt burden, and LSAT score among other things are taken into consideration before the rankings are released each year.
It is traditionally known that the top 14 or T14, as they are known, are NATIONAL LAW SCHOOLS. This means that they hold a very high amount of weight in all regions. The next 10 or so schools are also fairly strong in terms of national presence. These are your Notre Dame's and UCLA's; however there are some stronger regional law schools like SMU and University of Florida that will beat these schools out for their particular region.
3) OCI - On-Campus-Interviewing is an often over-looked tool by many 0L's (future law students) when looking for their fit. If you do not know what OCI is, it is the tool that many law firms use to attract young talent to their firms from certain schools. Better schools have more firms at OCI...generally. After 1L (first year), bids are made by students for interviews with the firms. At lower ranked schools, this is a very competitive process as criteria set by firms is often much more stringent. Example: Top 10% of class. Keep in mind, OCI is the way many law students not only get summer associate positions for their second summer (and sometimes first) but also how they wrap up employment before they graduate. Sites like top-law-schools.com and NALP.org are great sites for looking up legal employers and finding out which OCI's they attend. Also in the back of your mind keep tabs on the OCI-to-student population ratio as a school with only 50 interviewing firms still could be more attractive than one with 70 if they have half the student body. The right law school for you does not have to be the largest.
4) Starting salary-to-Debt Ratio: There is nothing more burdensome and limiting than trying to get married and have a family with $200,000 in government loans accruing interest at 6.8% and 7.9% respectively. And unless you make paying off that debt the highest priority, meaning putting $4,000-$5,000 a month towards the loan, then it will stay with you for a long, long time. Most future law students know what the average starting salary is for the schools they are considering. If you do not I highly suggest you check out the 2013 US News rankings. But a lot of them do not take into consideration the salary-to-debt ratio. This is a fatal mistake because that $140,000 starting salary can quickly be eaten up by those $2,200 per month minimum payments to Uncle Sam for the next 10-20 years. Many students get caught up in starting salary data because it is one of the only tangible things that can be measured coming directly out of law school, however that starting salary is exactly that. A start. Many small and medium-sized firms (2-50 lawyers) start associates out at $60,000 or so but offer fast track career development, getting you in the court room early and teaching you the ropes so in 10 years that salary means nothing and on top of that, you had no debt in the process.
5) Assess the campus lifestyle - This is where you will be spending the nest three years of your life, unless you transfer, so why wouldn't you want it to be the most enjoyable three years you can make it. Take tours and attend as many admitted student days as you can. These can provide valuable on two fronts. One being that you get to see the facilities including library, workout areas, and surrounding housing. The second being that you get the chance to speak with professors, deans and students about life at the school. It's fairly easy to see what a school consider's top priority when you listen to a few students speak about their time there. Does the school have exciting things to do outside of the library? Is there a football team worth watching? These things seem overrated now but on Saturday afternoon when you are all studied out they most likely will not be.
In all, there are many factors to consider when choosing the right law school but if you do not even consider the above factors, you are doing yourself an injustice.
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