7 steps to choosing the best law school for you

By Merideth Kimble

You can’t find the right school if you don’t know what you want from the beginning. But, how do you choose a school that will lend its name to the rest of your career?

“When you are practicing law, the first question that you ask another lawyer is ‘Where did you go to law school?’ It creates an impression,” said Sarah Zearfoss, assistant dean of admissions at the University of Michigan Law School.

Admissions and student experts suggest factoring in location, size, cost and prestige — finding the best fit, while receiving the best education. With more than 200 accredited law schools to choose from, here are seven things to know to help narrow your search.

1. Know what you want

It’s similar to searching for the right car — you need to ask yourself what options you need, eliminate what you don’t and consider how comfortable you’ll be in the driver’s seat. After all, you’ll be driving it for three years.

“The match between a student’s career goals and the opportunities at the school is one of the most important factors,” Zearfoss said. Because most prospective students are considering studying law for its career benefits, make sure the school can take you where to go, she advised. That means having an idea of the type of law you are interested in, and finding a place with a curriculum, clinics and other opportunities that will help you pursue it.

One caveat, however, is to not let your search get too narrow based on curriculum.

“Review the curriculum, but remember at the end of three years you are going to take the bar exam, and the bar exam is not specialized,” said Ann Killian Perry, assistant dean for admissions at the University of Chicago Law School.

Make sure your legal education exposes you to many facets of law and will keep you interested as your tastes change.

2. Know where you want to be now, and later

Location is key to flourishing in law school.

“Some students need to be near family or support,” Perry said.

Others are ready to go off to have an adventure. Law schools in urban settings may have more resources for students, such as a wide array of internships at law firms, city agencies and government offices. However, big cities can provide lots of distractions. Same goes for beach towns and party schools. A rural town might provide fewer opportunities, but plenty of community warmth and less distraction.

Judd Grutman, a third-year at the University of Michigan, advises applicants to consider accessibility of resources.

“The last thing a law student wants is to waste time doing mundane things,” he said. “Surrounding yourself with amenities means more time for fun.”

Think about the location as a place you may stay after law school, as well.

“The conventional wisdom says you should go to a school in an area where you want to practice law,” Zearfoss said.

Many schools provide a regionally-based curriculum, while others may offer a wider-based law program that translates to fields across the country.

Being in a location where you’ll be happy is as important as being academically secure.

3. Know the size and atmosphere you are looking for

Whether large or small, the size of a law school should be something you feel comfortable with. A big school, like a big city, comes with more of everything — people, opportunities, competition and resources. Diversity is also a plus.

On the flip side, a smaller school can offer an insightful environment.

“Our small size helps foster a close knit community, among both students and faculty,” Perry said. “Our students find a more collaborative effort of learning and exchanging ideas.”

What it all boils down to is feeling like you fit. Do you thrive under cutthroat competition or friendly teamwork? Are you searching for life-long legal buddies or a commuter campus where you can get in, learn and get out?

“I found Michigan to provide a supportive, fun-spirited social network, both within and outside of the law school,” Grutman said. “Being comfortable has been crucial to my personal success. And I have a good time as a result.”

How can you get a feel for the school’s atmosphere? The best option is to visit.  Then talk to current students or alumni and call the school’s admissions office to attend regional events.

4. Know the rankings, then look deeper

For many pre-law students, rankings are their Bibles. While you may not live by them, you’ll probably admit they weigh heavily into your decision-making process. The truth is, they should come with a warning label — ‘For general purposes only.’

“Many factors go into evaluating a school, and I don’t think one ranking can establish a school’s value. It is just one piece,” Zearfoss said.

Perry advises looking at factors you are most interested in, such as specialties, bar passage rates and student-body make-ups. These statistics can offer better insight into what you will gain by attending.

Recent University of Michigan Law School graduate Jane Feddes agrees.

“Rankings are important, but they are not the final word,” she said. “I think it is important to pick a school that gives you the best chance to have a job when you graduate.”

5. Know what others say about the school

The all-important prestige of law school can’t be under estimated. Prospective employers may filter applicants based solely on a school’s name before even looking at a resume.

“When deciding where to go to law school, I wanted not only a place I felt at home, but also a place that made me proud to say I had gone there,” Feddes said. “Prestige is nice and it looks good hanging on your office wall, but it won’t make your law school experience any better or worse. Focus on fit, then sprinkle in prestige.”

6. Know that the ends will justify the means

Law school is an investment. That said, you should pay attention to the price, and make sure the debt matches your career goals.

“It is fool-hearty to choose a school just because it costs $20,000 less if it can’t take you where you want to go,” Zearfoss said. “Your investment is worth it, if it opens doors.”

The simple fact about law school debt is that it’s inevitable. Perry recommends keeping a close eye on financial aid deadlines, as well as application deadlines. Then wait to receive your financial aid package to choose a school based on how much it will cost and the scholarships and grants you’ll get. But don’t rule out the more expensive schools if they are a good fit otherwise.

7. Know how you fit, and apply

After narrowing the field of 200 accredited law schools according to how they fit you, it’s time to see where you fit with them. Applications can get expensive, so compare your personal statistics (GPA and LSAT score) to the schools’ averages.

Typically, students apply to about 11 schools, while some send more than 20 applications. A good rule is to split your field into three categories — stretch schools, likely to accept and slam dunks.

“Even the best candidates will get turned down by some of the top schools because schools look for different things,” Zearfoss said.

All successful searches include being turned down. Just remember, you’ll only be attending one law school.