Weigh 4 Factors Along With the Best Law Schools Rankings

Beyond a school’s rank, consider legal specialization and career goals when choosing where to apply.

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For prospective law students, the highest ranked school isn’t always the best fit.
For prospective law students, the highest ranked school isn’t always the best fit.

As you consider the new 2014 U.S. News Best Law Schools rankings and the schools to which you will apply in the fall (or the school which you will attend later this year if you have already been admitted), you may wonder how significantly the school's rank should weigh in your decision. Should you absolutely attend the highest-ranked school you get into? Should you apply to law schools based only on their rank? Not necessarily.

I advise the clients with whom I work as a law school admissions counselor to use rankings as a guideline, but not to strictly rely on them as the sole criteria for school selection. The analytically rigorous U.S. News Best Law Schools rankings are great for getting a clear idea of the quality of a particular school as compared with other schools that you might consider.

[Check out photos of the top law schools.]

However, rankings do not necessarily indicate that the No. 1 ranked school is the ideal school for every law school applicant. Consider these four other critical factors in addition to the school's rank:

1. Specialization: If you are considering practicing in a specialized area, especially intellectual property or environmental law, then a law school's overall rank must take a back seat to its strength in that particular area.

For example, Vermont Law School is not a top 14 law school but is considered by many scholars and practitioners to be the clear leader in environmental law. When you are seeking a job in environmental law, the strength of Vermont's particular program will be quite impressive to employers who are, most often, specialists themselves in the field.

[Learn about the factors that decide law school admissions.]

It is most imperative to attend a school at which your desired specialization is highly rated rather than a highly rated school that does not have a strong program, or any program at all, in your specific area of interest.

2. Your ideal job: You probably have an idea of what type of job you will pursue after graduating. Do you have strong feelings about public interest law vs. private practice? If you are leaning heavily either way, it is a good idea to attend a school that has a high percentage of graduates working in your area of focus.

You will be able to find information on graduate percentages by sector on each school's website. If you are strongly pursuing public interest law, but you discover that a school you thought was your absolute top choice places the vast majority of its graduates in private practice, you may wish to reconsider your preference for that school.

[Find out how to make sense of law schools' jobs data.]

3. Scholarships and loan repayment programs: For particularly cost-conscious students and those considering a public interest legal career, scholarship potential and the strength of a school's loan repayment program (in terms of what percentage the school will repay, over what time period, and with what income thresholds) may be more important than rankings.

For example, one such client of mine decided last year to attend University of Chicago with a full scholarship over Harvard University where she would have had to pay full price.

4. Location: If you plan to practice law in New York City, I would advise attending Yeshiva University's Cardozo School of Law or Brooklyn Law School over Indiana University—Bloomington's Maurer School of Law or Arizona State University's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law even though the latter two schools are better ranked. If you already have a city or region in mind where you would like to work, you should strive to find law schools in that area that you would be eager to attend.

This is especially important if you will likely be attending a school outside of the top 14, because law firms in a particular region likely have partners who are alumni from local schools and will therefore be more likely to hire graduates from these same schools. There also may be opportunities to network with local legal professionals, which will facilitate your recruiting.

[Read answers to key law school questions.]

Finding the right school for you will be an art, not simply a mathematical exercise. What do you think of the law school rankings? Let me know in the comments, E-mail me at shawn.oconnor@stratusprep.com, or contact me via Twitter at @StratusPrep.