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Excerpt from Chapter 1
Choosing the Right Law School
For many would-be attorneys, the process of picking a law school requires the coolest of calculations: apply to the most elite five or six schools within reach and enroll at the best one you can. All of those considerations that mattered so much in comparing undergraduate colleges-looking for the best campus culture, the place where you felt you fit in-get hardly a moment's thought. "I saw the choice as utilitarian-what doors will open for me for the rest of my life? -rather than as a question of how happy I'd be for the next three years," says Kimberly Parker, Harvard Law class of 1996 and now an attorney for the big corporate firm WilmerHale in Washington, D.C. "You just cannot overestimate the importance the prestige of the degree has for your life." She speaks not only as someone for whom doors have opened, but as an attorney who has recruited young lawyers to her firm.
It's undeniable that in a profession as pedigree-conscious and tradition-bound as law, the name on your diploma will have enormous influence on the trajectory of your career. "If you have a choice between a top 15 or a second-tier school, you're crazy not to go to the top school-the opportunities are so much better," says David Van Zandt, law dean at Northwestern University in Illinois. Graduates of the world-class institutions that sit atop the U.S. News rankings year after year (see table, page 14) are wooed by the most prestigious law firms, offered plum judicial clerkships, plucked for the most visible slots in government and public service, and granted entrée to ultraselective academic jobs. Degrees from these schools hold currency in every corner of the country, and they put alumni on a national stage: these are the people working on Supreme Court cases and merging the AOLs and Time Warners, while somebody else handles the contract dispute between the local restaurant and its supplier. Says Parker: "If you want to practice on the national level, being at a top 10 or top 20 school matters a lot."
Anybody following that most ambitious path thus starts off with a readymade short list: Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, New York University, Chicago, and the 15 or so other truly name-brand, national institutions. What if your aspirations or LSAT scores don't point you toward the top? The quality and stature of school you choose will still be very important to your career success and your geographic flexibility-as will an exceptional performance there.
"Recruiters won't come in the same numbers," admits Patricia Adamski, former vice dean of the law school at Hofstra University in New York and now an administrator for the university. "But the top of Hofstra's class gets offers that meet those at the middle of Harvard's." Generally, she says, students who are in the top 5 or 10 people of their class at good but not name-brand law schools, or even the top 10 percent, can expect to find themselves in demand.
Below the top ranks, other factors besides a school's overall reputation may influence your chances for success. Someone who's bent on getting a public interest job, for example, should know that many cash-strapped nonprofit agencies are especially interested in graduates of law schools that offer students lots of hands-on experience working with Legal Aid clients, for example, because the agencies just don't have the budget to train beginners. Applicants contemplating a career in politics might be wise to opt for the law school at their state university. "You've got to be elected from somewhere," says Andrew Coats, dean of the University of Oklahoma College of Law. The people you meet in a law school like Oklahoma's-your class plus the two ahead of you and the two behind you-will hold many of the state's positions of power in business, law, and government when you're running for office, and they'll probably help a fellow grad regardless of their own political leanings, says Coats. He graduated from the law school himself in 1963 and has been a district attorney for Oklahoma County, a Democratic nominee from the state for the U.S. Senate, and the mayor of Oklahoma City.
For the same reason-a strong alumni network- those who are certain that they want to settle and practice in a given area of the country might want to pick a fine regional law school in that area rather than a more highly ranked law school elsewhere. Still, most say, if you can make it in the top 20, go for it.
No matter how high you're aiming, law deans, undergraduate pre-law advisors, and independent admissions consultants agree (as does U.S. News) that a decision about which school is the best one for you should never hang on its position in a numerical ranking alone. Though law schools may look much the same on paper-a standard first-year courseload, upper-level electives and clinics, lots of library time-comparable schools can have vastly different characters and areas of strength. There's large and impersonal, there's small and collegial, there's merely competitive, and there's "don't leave your notes around," says Stuart Rabinowitz, former dean of Hofstra's law school and now the university's president. Some schools emphasize legal theory (in an ideal system, how should the law work?); others emphasize actual practice (how the law works in reality).
So the experts suggest a more nuanced approach to thinking about quality: find the most excellent cluster of schools that you can get into, and within the cluster, pick the school whose character and culture and curricular strengths suit you best. "There might be 15 to 30 schools for any one candidate," says Katharine Bartlett, dean of the law school at Duke University. And within a cluster, your career opportunities are apt to be very similar. So, says George Washington University's former law dean Michael Young, you can afford to think, "Am I interested in things international? I might pick G.W. over
Northwestern. Am I interested in policy formation through an economic perspective? Yale or Chicago." An applicant intrigued by the "countercultural view of the law" might pick Georgetown, says Young.
"Someone who is thinking of Yale, which is very small and 'all for one, one for all' might be very unhappy at Harvard, a big school of very competitive, very motivated, Type A people," says Mark Meyerrose, a former Harvard Law admissions officer who now advises law school applicants for AdmissionsConsultants, Inc. an independent Virginia-based counseling firm that helps clients get into college and graduate school. (The vast majority of law schools in the country-though not all-have been accredited by the American Bar Association, which means that they've met standards for legal education set by the profession. In many states, a lawyer who holds a JD from a nonapproved school is not eligible to sit for the bar exam.)
The U.S. News rankings-which measure schools by several yardsticks, including expert opinion of their programs, test scores and grades of students, placement record, and bar passage rate-are not intended to drive a decision between numbers three and four or five. But the rankings can help you identify your cluster. ("The difference between the [school] that ranks 4th or 7th and the one that ranks 34th or 37th? Let's not kid ourselves," says Saul Levmore, law dean at the No. 7 University of Chicago.) Then, as you narrow the field in search of the right fit, a number of key questions are worth thinking about.