If you want a J.D. from an ABA-approved institution, there are 204 schools you can apply to. Most of us can’t apply to all 204. And why would you want to? That would be expensive and a huge waste of time.
So how do you figure out which law schools to apply to? There are four key factors to consider.
Rankings are important for two reasons: A) They can help predict which schools you’ll get into, and B) They dictate how prestigious your degree is seen to be.
Regarding Point A: Your LSAT score and undergraduate GPA factor heavily into a law school’s admissions decision. Schools generally make their yearly admissions data public, so you’ll be able to get a good sense of whether your scores make you a competitive candidate for any given school. When I applied, the bulk of my applications were to schools where my scores were between the 25th and 75th percentiles of admitted students’ scores from the previous year. You should apply to at least one “safety” school where your scores would make you a shoo-in (i.e., above the 75th percentile), and you should also consider applying to at least a couple of higher-ranked “reach” schools that you’d love to go to, but where your scores are less competitive (i.e., below the 25th percentile). That will still leave a lot of schools to consider, but it should eliminate schools you’re vastly overqualified for and, if any, schools you’re underqualified for.
Of course, this calculus is altered to various degrees by “soft factors” (undergraduate course of study, ethnic/racial background, recommendations, work experience, etc.), so keep that in mind when considering the range of schools you’re likely to be accepted to.
Wherever you decide to go to law school, that’s where you’re going to live for the next three years of your life — and quite possibly where you’ll build a professional network and begin your legal career. It seems obvious, but many people don’t consider whether they’d actually like to live somewhere before applying to a law school there. There are plenty of factors that might limit your search geographically: wanting to stay near family, your future career plans, your significant other’s career, even the weather. It’s like I always say: if you can’t stand the heat, don’t apply to Arizona.
I cast a geographically diverse net with my applications. I decided I wanted to live somewhere other than Michigan, where I’d lived my whole life, so I applied to schools on the East Coast, on the West Coast, in the South, and elsewhere in the Midwest. And, for good measure, I applied to the University of Michigan in case I changed my mind.
If, like me, you’re not particularly attached to any part of the country, but you still want to narrow your search geographically, consider whether you want to live in a big city (NYC, LA, DC, etc.), or a college town (something more like Ann Arbor, Chapel Hill, or Boulder).
It’s okay not to know what kind of law you want to practice once you graduate. But if you do, or if you have a particular legal interest that’s motivating you to go to law school, it can help you decide which schools to apply to.
To use myself as an example, I knew that the reason I was going to law school was to study, and eventually practice, gender and sexuality law. In researching law schools, I looked at whether the school had a law journal that focused on those topics, whether it had a legal clinic or classes on those topics, whether it had professors who could serve as mentors in the field or could help me network, whether the school had a good reputation vis-a-vis public interest work, and so on. Several schools quickly rose to the top of my list, while others fell so far short of my criteria that I was able to take them off my list entirely.
Find out which schools have good programs in the field of law you’re interested in. These aren’t always your typical Harvard/Yale/Stanfords: for instance, Vermont Law School, while not a Top 14 (or even a Top 100) School, has a very highly regarded Environmental Law Center.
Newsflash: Law school costs a lot of money. As a prospective law student, the prospect of six-figure debt is equally scary regardless of the actual number. But there’s also a big difference between $100K of debt and $250K of debt.
There’s a lot to consider when thinking about the cost of any particular law school: besides the actual price tag of tuition and books, there’s the cost of living (I can say from personal experience that it costs a lot more to live in New York City than it does to live in Michigan), the likelihood that you’ll receive a grant or other financial aid from the school, and whether you’ll be willing to part with personal savings or able to receive financial assistance from family members to reduce the amount of loans you’ll need.
That said, when it comes to law school, you generally get what you pay for. A degree from a more prestigious school directly correlates to your future earning potential, but it will almost certainly mean that you’ll have to work harder to pay off your student debt. Only you can decide whether it means more to have a degree from the most prestigious school you’re accepted to, or to come out of school with as little debt as possible (or something in between).
These four factors should all help you adhere to my number 1 piece of advice (yeah, I buried the lede — go to law school and then sue me!), which is:
Only apply to law schools you might actually go to.
It sounds like common sense, but it’s deceptively difficult not to apply somewhere just so you’ll have the option to think about it later. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and money if you skip applying to schools that aren’t prestigious enough for you, are located somewhere you don’t want to live, don’t have resources for what you’re interested in, or that are priced above what you’re willing to spend.