First, consider geography. What region(s) of the country are you considering? Do you prefer schools in cities or college towns? Are you including schools in the region where you intend to practice law? These considerations may seem trivial, but they can have a significant impact on your law school experience and even your employment prospects. [Note that geography is not as significant a factor if you are considering law schools ranked in the Top 14 because these schools have strong national reputations.]
70% of attorneys end up working in the state in which they graduated law school. This is partly due to it being the path of least resistance, partly due to the availability of networking, and in large part due to the fact that a large percentage of law school graduates find jobs through On Campus Interviews (OCIs). If you don’t select a local law school, consider possibly budgeting for some travel to the market where you plan to work after law school to develop networks, or perhaps spending a summer during law school working/interning at a law job in your destination city.
Lawschooltransparency has a nice map that shows not only the law schools located in each state, but lists all the law schools that place a significant number of graduates into jobs in that state. This is great way to research law schools that are well positioned to get you a job in your destination city.
Just like when you were searching for undergraduate schools, you’ll want to apply to a range of schools. After identifying certain state(s) or region(s), you should narrow the list of schools in those areas by considering the schools’ admissions criteria.
When applying to law school, the most important two pieces of your application are your GPA and LSAT. So you should find out the following for each school you are interested in: (1) median GPA/LSAT, (2) 75th percentile GPA/LSAT, and (3) 25th percentile GPA/LSAT. Consider choosing a range of schools to apply to, including 2-3 “target” schools (where your GPA/LSAT = median GPA/LSAT), 2-3 “reach” schools (where your GPA/LSAT < 25th percentile GPA/LSAT), and 2-3 “safety” schools (where your GPA/LSAT > 75th percentile GPA/LSAT).
The total number of schools that applicants apply to varies widely. There is no “correct” number of schools to apply to. A note about “safety” schools: Don’t apply to a bunch of schools as safety schools if at the end of the day you would not go there. Picture yourself in a scenario where this is the only place you get in. Would you go? Or would you wait and reapply next year? Assume that you will not be able to transfer law schools. Transferring after 1L year is sometimes possible but it is not a reliable exit from a law school you do not like. You also would likely be charged sticker price if you transfer law schools, making it less desirable for some applicants.
The American Bar Association collects data from accredited law schools including helpful employment data that shows what type of jobs graduates go into, where, and whether they are in jobs that actually use their law degree.
It publishes that information in the form of “Standard 509 Information Reports.” These reports are also collected and synthesized in a digestible way at LawschoolTransparency, which allows you to search by school name or location, and allows you to select multiple schools to view side by side.
“Bar Passage Required” jobs are the ones where you need to be licensed to practice law. “JD Advantage” jobs are jobs which don’t require you to practice law, but having that JD degree probably gave you an advantage in hiring. If a law school’s data shows that only 50% of graduates get a full time bar passage required job, that means you are flipping a coin as to whether you will find a law job when you are done and should be very concerning.
You can also see what percentage of students go into public interest jobs, legal clerkships, regional (small to middle sized) law firms, and national firms (big law firms). If a school shows 10% or less graduates going into national firms, assume that you will likely need to graduate in the top 10% of the class to get a Big Law job. At a public interest heavy law school like CUNY where only 2.7% of graduates go into Big Law, you should assume that you am limiting yourself from being able to do Big Law at that school. If you are unsure whether you might want to do Big Law or not, then you may want to pick a law school that tends to produce more big law attorneys.
Given the current legal employment market, it is important to carefully consider the amount of debt that you take on during law school. Paying full sticker price to attend law school can run you up to $250,000, a staggering amount of debt to carry for the next 30 years. So think long and hard before paying full sticker price for law school.
When comparing scholarship offers from multiple schools, be sure to look at the bottom line cost of attendance – don’t just compare scholarship amounts offered by each school in an apples-to-apples manner. For example, attending Wisconsin Law School as a Wisconsin resident with no financial aid offer (~$25,000/yr) is less expensive than attending a school that offered you a $15,000/yr scholarship toward a tuition of $45,000/yr. The $15,000 scholarship might seem tempting, but the bottom line cost is the more relevant factor. By applying to a range of schools, including target and safety schools, you are more likely to receive an award of merit-based financial aid from one or more schools.
Similarly, be sure to factor in the cost of living for each school.
Don’t forget to consider Return on Investment (ROI) in your calculations as well. Median salaries can be very different from school to school. Taking on more debt may be worth it for students planning to go to top schools and going to work for a large national law firm with high starting salaries. Applicants who plan on going into low salary public interest jobs may want to go to a lower cost law school or may plan to apply for scholarships beyond merit based aid and/or Public Interest Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) programs.
The US Department of Education College Scorecard shows median salaries, debt load at graduation, and shows you what an average loan payment would look like at a particular law school. To find the law school data, search for the school, then scroll down and click on Fields of Study>Show all available fields of study>Law – First Professional Degree.
For more information on costs and scholarships, see our Financing Law School page.
Make every effort to visit a school and to attend Admitted Students Day/Weekend if current health recommendations allow for it. If you are unable to attend, try to request a stipend to visit on another date. When you visit, speak with as many current or admitted students as you can. You would be spending three years with these potential peers. So gather as much information as possible while visiting, then listen to your gut when comparing schools. Since some law schools have only offered virtual tours at some points due to the pandemic, make sure you are taking advantage of every opportunity to connect with the law schools at virtual law fairs, admissions events, and so forth. You can also ask the admissions office for the contact information to connect with current law students if you cannot visit, or you can reach out to student organizations on campus. Connecting with identity based student orgs such as a local chapter of the Black Law Students Association or a chapter of QLaw (the Queer Law Student Association), for example, can be a good way to find out more about what it’s like for other law students on campus with whom you identify.