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Cornell University

Choosing a Law School

With 204 accredited law schools in the United States, how do you decide where to apply and ultimately which school to attend? It will be important to balance factors that address your personal preferences with those that affect your chances of admission. Do not let the search for "long shots, good chances, and sure things" govern your selection process. Begin by assembling a list of law schools based on criteria that are important to you, then revise your choices according to your chances of admission. This systematic approach should help limit frustration and confusion during the process of applying to law school. Selecting schools carefully will help reduce the time and expense of applying to an excessive number of schools.

Factors to Consider

Consider the following factors and determine which are important to you:

Criteria for Selection

National/Regional Schools. Does the school attract applicants from across the country and abroad, or are most students from the region in which the school is located? Do most students want to work throughout the country or in the school's region following graduation?

Faculty. What are the academic and experiential backgrounds of faculty? How accessible are they? What is the faculty-student ratio, and the number of full-time vs. adjunct faculty. Is the faculty diverse? Are they publishing and involved in ongoing cases?  

Facilities and Resources. Is the school affiliated with a university? Do students have access to courses from a range of academic disciplines to supplement their legal curriculum? Is the library equipped to permit students to conduct intensive research and study? How helpful is the library staff? How accessible are electronic databases such as Lexis and Westlaw? In general, do the facilities provide a comfortable learning environment?

Student Body. What is the size of the entering class? What does the admissions profile tell you about the quality of the student body? Where did students study as undergraduates and what are their geographic backgrounds? Is there diversity in interests and personal/cultural backgrounds? What is the overall atmosphere–are students friendly or overly competitive? Is there much interaction with fellow students outside the classroom?

Special Programs. What courses are available in specialized areas? What joint degree programs of interest to you are available? What opportunities exist for practical experience, including clinics, internships, etc.? What specialized institutes, journals, or organizations exist in your areas of interest? Does the school demonstrate a commitment to women and minorities through special programs?

Career Services. What advising and resources are available to help you find a job? Is career counseling available? How many employers recruit at the law school and who are they? What percentage of the class has positions at graduation? In which types of positions and geographic areas are they employed? What is the percentage of graduates holding judicial clerkships? What assistance is given to students not interested in working in law firms? What is the bar passage rate for recent graduates?

Student Life. Is housing provided for first-year students? If not, does the school offer assistance in locating off-campus housing? Is the school located in a safe area? What is the cost of living? What types of cultural opportunities are there? Does the school provide recreational facilities?

Costs. What are tuition, housing, and transportation costs? Is financial aid exclusively need based, or are merit scholarships available?

Reputation

The issue most often discussed by prospective law students, yet the most difficult to define, is reputation. A number of factors contribute to a school’s reputation, including faculty, facilities, career services, reputation of the parent university, etc. Though a number of law school rankings are available, most factors evaluated are not quantifiable, and therefore you should not perceive the rankings as accurate or definitive. Selectivity at law schools, however, is one factor which can be quantified; you can gauge a school's relative selectivity by comparing the number of applicants accepted to the overall number of applications. 

Schools can be divided roughly into three groups:

  • Schools with national reputations that tend to appear in various "top ten" lists. They draw students from a national pool and offer geographic mobility to graduates.
  • Schools with good regional reputations that are attended primarily by students from the region, who may want to remain in the area following graduation, but who may also seek positions throughout the country.
  • Local schools that draw students primarily from the immediate area who want to practice there following graduation.

Non-Traditional Alternatives

You should be aware that some law schools offer alternatives to fall admission in a full-time law program. Evening divisions and part-time programs make it possible for students to work and study law simultaneously, earning a JD in four years. A few schools on the quarter system allow students to enter mid-year. Summer entry and/or summer courses can accelerate the degree program from three to two-and-a-half calendar years. And finally, some law schools have created summer trial programs, which allow borderline applicants to prove themselves capable of legal study in time for fall entrance.

Publications and Online Resources

Determine what is most important to you as you evaluate law schools and decide on a list of potential schools. Make sure your research is thorough and includes discussions with lawyers and current students at law schools in which you are interested. After you complete your research and compile a list of schools, meet with a pre-law advisor to discuss schools of interest to you.

There are a number of resources designed to help you research and evaluate law schools. Resources listed below are either available online or at the Cornell Career Services Library in 103 Barnes Hall.