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Experts Answer 6 Vital Law School Questions

Before committing three years and $150,000, aspiring law students need to analyze all the arguments.

Working as a paralegal first can give prospective students a glimpse at the day-to-day realities of being a lawyer.

Working as a paralegal first can give prospective students a glimpse at the day-to-day realities of being a lawyer.

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Careful planning is the name of the game these days for people considering law school. The overall percentage of new grads employed has fallen every year since 2007, with just under two thirds of the class of 2011 finding jobs that require bar passage, according to NALP—the Association for Legal Career Professionals.

Fewer than half of those jobs were at law firms, and far more graduates than in past years found positions in smaller or mid-size offices instead of large firms, which often offer higher pay. Overall, the median starting salary for 2011 grads working full time fell to $60,000, down about 5 percent from a year earlier. Starting pay at law firms fell even further—to $85,000 from $104,000.

Given the sobering numbers, experts say that you should begin your law school search by getting a genuine sense of what lawyers do and a clear idea of what you hope to accomplish with a law degree. To help prospective applicants navigate the rest of the process, U.S. News pitched six key questions to several dozen professors, attorneys, and law students.

[Find tips and advice for applying to law school.]

1. Will it be easier to get in this year? Earning admission is still a competitive process that hinges on an applicant's credentials, including LSAT score.

But over the past two years, the number of law school applicants is down more than 22 percent, according to preliminary data from the nonprofit Law School Admission Council. And early data for fall 2013 suggests the numbers could fall another fifth this year alone.

Roughly half of law schools have reduced their incoming class sizes for fall 2013, according to a November 2012 Kaplan Test Prep survey. Still, "for most students, it should be much easier to get in to the law school of their choice than in any year in recent memory," says Frank Wu, chancellor and dean of the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

Fewer applicants overall means that those with lower credentials might have a better shot at getting in at a reach school. "Schools will be dipping much deeper into the pool than they would have in the past," says Brian Tamanaha, professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis School of Law and author of Failing Law Schools.

Financial aid packages could get better, too. Forty-seven percent of law schools increased aid to students for 2012-2013, according to the Kaplan survey.

[Learn more about paying for law school.]

2. Should you work first? The verdict, from admissions counselors and hiring partners: Work experience can only help. The job doesn't have to be in the legal field to impress admissions, though working as a paralegal or volunteering for a legal nonprofit can give prospective students a reality check.

Recruiters, too, tend to look favorably upon a substantial résumé. "Firms like that because they're seeing people ... who are ready to hit the ground running from day one," says Richard Batchelder, a partner who leads hiring at Ropes & Gray. About two thirds of the firm's most recent summer associate classes have taken some time off to work before law school, he says.

3. What should you look for in the curriculum? Partners and other people who hire new attorneys are demanding hands-on experience—grads who not only know the principles of corporate law, but who have actually done project work for local small business owners, for instance.

A number of law schools have overhauled their curricula accordingly, expanding clinical courses, beefing up specialized classes on leadership, and adding interdisciplinary and joint degree programs.

Experts advise students to shop around for programs that are strong in experiential opportunities, such as interning with a local judge or working with low-income clients through a legal aid society. Students at Washington and Lee University School of Law, for instance, take an all-experiential third year.

[Check out photos of the top law schools.]

4. When is it smart to go part time? If you do, expect to be in class for a few hours on weekday evenings for four straight academic years and usually at least one summer. Going this route while working will almost certainly leave you very little time for internships, extracurriculars, and volunteering.