How to Choose Which Law School to Attend

We’ve been asked to write a bit on how to choose between similarly regarded and ranked law schools — and there’s good news from the start – namely that while a decent number of applicants are not yet in this situation this time of the cycle, the vast majority of applicants will eventually find themselves with choices on where to attend. In other words, unless you only swung for reach schools, you should have a matriculation decision to make this fall between competing schools, and the balance of power will shift from law schools to law school applicants.

These are happy times but weighty decisions, and we’d like to focus on what should matter. First, let’s take a look at some considerations from the applicant’s perspective. We have polled applicants at various times to look at determining factors (as has LSAC), and our most recent results can be seen in this graph.

These results, in many ways, are encouraging — law school applicants care about job placement and cost of attendance. One thing we did particularly note, though, was that the U.S. News rankings play a significant role in many applicants' decision on where to attend. So why do U.S. News rankings matter to so many people? I’d love for you to read this quick piece by Kyle McEntee (of Law School Transparency) before I add my take.

From SCG’s perspective, all rankings are flawed — although rankings themselves can be quite useful if you are aware of those flaws. Think about it like this: is the number 11 school “one worse” then the number 10 school and “one better” than 12? Of course not — those are nearly meaningless ordinalities. Here’s the other side of the coin though. While every year just about every dean of every law school signs a letter coming out against the impact of the rankings, and every year talking heads like me belabor how flawed they are, I also understand from 20 years of doing this that they matter to you. While flawed, they provide information that most applicants may not otherwise get — specifically, they provide a way of targeting schools that applicants should apply to and consider attending based on likelihood of admission, region of employment opportunities, class-size, etc.

So I’m not going to go much further on this topic other than to say: don’t just look at USNWR ranking. Look at the Above the Law rankings. And look at the LST scores. Use them all — and please don’t fixate, if possible, on a school being "one or two ranked higher" than another. It’s completely arbitrary for an individual to make these distinctions, because your desired school choice is not the same as the metrics that go into the rankings.

What then beyond the LST Scores and the Above the Law [outcome heavy] rankings should you consider? Total cost of attendance — which includes the schools' tuition minus your aid AND cost of living factors associated with the geography of the city — is a big one. Information-savvy soon-to-be law students are much more abundant today than in any time in the history of legal education (feel free to high five each other on that, it's impressive), but I am still amazed at how many people say to me "well I have a $25,000 scholarship at X school and only $15,000 at Y school, so the better deal is X" – without knowing that they would still be paying more each semester at X because tuition is that much greater. And that doesn't even factor in cost of living.

Going to the city you want to practice in really matters. How much? I posed this blog question to current law school students and this was their advice.

Fit, for me, is just as important as anything else. Perhaps the most important. This will be three of the most important years of your life – law school is when your professional career starts – and for many, graduate school is when learning for the sake of learning and knowledge (rather than purely grades, pleasing parents, etc.) kicks in. I can say that from first hand knowledge, because it was very much the case for me. Indeed, I am much better at my job now because I embraced learning as an end, not as a means to an end. I'd also add that the friends you make in law school will be your professional contacts for the rest of your life.

A recent Stanford University Study found that in undergraduate experience, rankings don't reflect fit at all. To be precise, "U.S. News and other rankings are based on factors that actually don't reflect what students and parents say they want." You can read more on that study here. I suspect it's a similar situation with law schools and rankings. The best way to find determine fit is to visit. Based on my 20 years on both sides of this, here is precisely what I would do:

  1. I would visit on a random school day and only coordinate with admissions insofar as setting up a class to attend (even then they aren't going to put you in a class with an unpopular professor – it is all orchestrated carefully). Here is a secret about law school faculty and law school students you should know: they love giving advice and mentorship. Take advantage of this! Step out of any shell, if possible, and talk to students at the school. Talk to the professor whose class you attend. Ask them what they like and dislike about the school – especially the students. Repeat as much as you can and see where you feel most comfortable. I have found in admissions that about 75% or slightly more of students will have a clear favorite at some point after these visits. That is simply your instincts telling you where you fit. Trust them!
  2. Also visit on the admitted students day(s). Not to go through the song and dance of it all – trust me, I used to be in charge of those programs. Everything we did, from mock classes to the food we served and the students you met was planned out incredibly carefully and tested from feedback. Our jobs in admissions is to get our admitted students to attend. You are marketing subjects at these, I don't know how else to say it. Rather, visit to get to know the other admitted students visiting. See what they are like, who you feel the most comfortable with, and where else they have visited and might be leaning to. You'll get a lot from the other 0L's here, including future classmates and friends (or for these year's Reddit group – a dating pool!).

Let me conclude with a few anecdotes. My mentor went to Harvard Law School and is the Global M&A chair of Gibson Dunn — an atmospheric arena where prestige means an incredible amount. He also has hired a large number of law students in his career. When I first started Spivey Consulting, I had a client wanting Biglaw weighing a Harvard admit versus a good deal of merit aid from Columbia. I asked my mentor, and he said hands down Columbia. From many years of high-level Biglaw experience and from many angles, he understood that a 1- or 2-spot difference in ranking was meaningless in this specific circumstance. All of this is to say — gather what information you can from rankings, but always take them with a grain of salt. Especially below the tippy top, rankings can change significantly every single year, so putting too much weight on small differences rarely makes sense.

Barring a few incredibly rare exceptions (e.g. Supreme Court Justice), your career is going to be what you make it. I can’t stress that enough. I went to Vanderbilt for undergrad and my doctoral work, and The University of Alabama for business school. My alma maters have never held me back, even in academia, where people care more about academic prestige than anywhere else. I worked hard, I was creative in what I did, and overtime I was lucky enough to be recruited to work at some of the most elite of law schools. I wouldn’t change where I went for my degrees for any reason. I visited the schools, and I had a great feeling for the teaching and opportunities each afforded me.

There are many, many factors that go into choosing a law school. Ultimately, you should collect as much and as high-quality information as you can, and use it all to make a well-thought-out determination based on the relative opportunities and costs of your options. But trust your instincts, because they are actually your mind hard at work knowing you (possibly) in a more unclouded way than you know yourself. And if I have said it 500 times, let me say it one more. If you didn't get into your absolute dream school – I suspect for the vast majority of you – where you go will become that dream school. If you are reading this blog, I suspect you are going to work hard at law school, and the possibilities in front of you are nearly endless. I wish you the very best in whatever decision you make.

–Mike

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