Be A Good Consumer: My Talk With A Law School Dean (Part Two)

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Last week, in Part One of our interview, I spoke with Southwestern Law School Vice Dean Catherine Carpenter about law school curriculum – both its importance and its evolution. Today we move on to how curriculum can (or should) influence your choice of law school.

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Most Strongly Supported: We’ve seen a lot of evolution in legal education and the job market recently. But we just did a survey of our summer students, and for most of them, prestige is still the thing that matters most when choosing a law school, often to their detriment. What do you say to students who value a school’s ranking above all else?

Catherine Carpenter: I think one of the reasons students choose based on what they perceive to be prestige – and that’s generally based upon an artificial ranking out of US News & World Report – is the belief that one’s employment chances are better as one ticks up the ladder. And what all of our employment surveys say is that that’s not true for the vast majority of schools. Most schools have very similar employment opportunities. When you get to the rarified atmosphere of what I think they would call the T14, there is a definite change. But when you get much beyond there, the truth is that most law schools’ employment rates are very similar.

I’m going to answer a question you didn’t ask.

MSS: Sure, go ahead.

CC: I think when choosing a school, there are a few things to think about. I think fit is really important. I think curriculum matters. And I’m going to add one other thing: I think scholarship money counts. In this particular market, it’s important to consider not leaving money on the table, if that makes sense.

Putting aside my own law school or other law schools, I counsel a number of students and applicants from around the country, in large part because I chaired the accreditation committee for the ABA, so I know about a lot of law schools. I think that students are well served by being good consumers. It’s important to think about a whole host of factors that go into finding a good fit, and I guess I would really honestly say that clutching US News & World Report is probably the least important. I hear students think about the choice between #44 and #57 – these are distinctions without differences. It’s really better to think about the environment you’re in, what you want to study, the alumni base and how supportive they are in finding jobs for students. Some schools come out better in all of those factors. More money on the table, better alumni base – those are the things to be thinking about, in addition to the curriculum.

MSS: Right. There are so many variables at play, and for every student it’s going to be individual. But I guess my last question would be, what is the one piece of advice you would give to a prospective law student – whether it’s about what to look for, how to look for it, what questions to ask in making this huge decision.

CC: It is a huge decision. I think we all recognize that, and I probably speak for most law professors around the country when I say that we feel privileged – whatever law school we’re at – that students have chosen to come to us.

So I’m going to say that there are four things to look for. I’ll include prestige in there. There’s the richness of the curriculum, depending upon what you want to do. You should also ask yourself, is it a good fit for you? The city, the size of the school, the kinds of support that are offered? For many students, and we haven’t mentioned this yet, academic support and success is critical in a law school program. And then the alumni base. I think that’s important, as well.

Be good consumers. It’s really not one factor, the major overall point is be a good consumer in your decision-making.

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About Southwestern Law School
With a rich history of producing trailblazers in the judiciary and civic leadership since 1911, Southwestern is the second oldest ABA law school in Los Angeles. Full-time and part-time 2-, 3- and 4-year JD programs are offered, as well as 3- and 4-year concurrent JD/MBA programs in partnership with The Drucker Graduate School of Management (Claremont). Located in the center of LA, the campus includes the world-renowned Art Deco Bullocks Wilshire landmark, and the school has many successful alumni and close ties in the entertainment industry, public interest agencies, government and the private sector.

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