On your journey to law school, deciding where to apply and where to ultimately attend are some of the most important decisions that you will make. While a school's reputation and ranking certainly should represent significant components in your decision-making process—especially with today's job market—they cannot be the only considerations.
Here are four other key factors to help you choose the right law school for you:
1. Location: If you are going to a top 14 or even a top 25 school, national brand recognition will often outweigh the importance of location. Otherwise, however, location is absolutely essential.
You should try to decide where you want to live after law school and aim to attend a school in that same geographic area. This will give you access to many more job opportunities, as the majority of law firms recruiting at your school will be local.
You will also have a much larger alumni network at your disposal if you remain in the same region. For example, if you know you want to live in Boston but you go to law school in Chicago, you will have dozens of connections in Chicago after graduation but likely very few in the Boston area.
2. Specialized programs: If you already know what kind of law you want to practice, find a school that specializes in that subfield. If you know that you want to pursue a career in intellectual property law, for example, you should seek out schools with exceptional intellectual property law programs.
Even if these schools are slightly lower in the overall national rankings, they will likely be the better fit for you. Your commitment to focus your law school education early on will likely impress future employers and can thus be very useful in helping you secure your first job.
[Explore all the U.S. News Best Law Schools specialty rankings.]
3. Campus: You can only learn so much from glossy brochures and flashy websites. Visit the schools you are considering to discover what the culture and community is really like on each campus.
Talk to students to find out more about the environment. How competitive is it? What is the social scene on weekends? You should also explore housing facilities, looking into on-campus and off-campus options.
Lastly, experience some of the extracurricular activities. While you should be able to easily find a list of student organizations on each law school's website, actually attending a meeting of a group in which you're interested will be much more revealing and informative.
[Read more about making the most of your law school visit.]
4. Opportunities: In the current economy, it's essential to obtain pragmatic, hands-on experience to supplement your classroom education. For each of the schools you are seriously considering, research the academic and professional opportunities offered outside the classroom. These might include clinics, journals, or externships (with firms, companies, or judges) that you can complete during the school year.
Also, conduct careful due diligence regarding the career services offices at each school to determine how robust they are, how much personalized assistance you can expect to receive, and how much of the career services staff is dedicated to law firms versus the public sector versus the nonprofit sector. Ideally, you will choose to attend a school where a substantial portion of the career services staff is focused on your particular areas of interest.
Check back next Monday for advice on negotiating your financial aid package.