Advice on Choosing Law Schools

Need advice regarding your law school choice? Here are two common scenarios that often face students.

Is it Better to Go to a Law School with a Well-Known Specialty Program, or a Strong National Reputation?

Q: I am a prospective law student who has been accepted by two very different law schools. One is the U. of Minnesota, the other is Lewis & Clark. My primary reason for applying to Lewis & Clark is their environmental law program. My primary reason for applying to Minnesota is their strong reputation. I am from the East Coast, but currently living in Chicago. I know I do not want to practice in the Midwest, but not sure which coast I may want to live on. I have an enthusiastic interest in in practicing environmental law, although I am not sure if I would want to work for a non-profit or a private firm. I worry that while Lewis & Clark has one of the top environmental programs, it is primarily a West Coast school and lacks the strong overall reputation that Minnesota has. IS it better to go to a school with a well-known specialty program, or a law school with a strong national reputation?

A: Traditional wisdom would advise you to attend the most prestigious law school to which you have been admitted -- in this case, Minnesota -- regardless of the eligible schools' specialty areas. Fortunately, you have been accepted into two very fine schools. But you are correct that Lewis & Clark is not widely known on the East Coast. If you think there is a possibility you will come East to practice, you will very likely have more options available to you if you graduate from Minnesota. In addition, many law students change their specialty preferences while in law school, so it is hazardous to choose a school on the basis of a specialty identified before you begin. As a general matter, I also believe that a school's strength in a particular specialty should be a relatively unimportant criterion in making a selection; far more important is the quality of the faculty overall. Except in your third and final year, you will likely spend most of your time studying non-elective courses that are part of the core curriculum of any law school (e.g., contracts and torts). Therefore, the impact on your academic life of a school's "specialty" program is likely to be far less than you expect.

Should I Transfer From My Chicago Law School to UCLA?

Q: I would like to practice law in Chicago, and am currently enrolled in a II-tier school in the area where I am in the top 10 percent of my class. Would it be wise to transfer to UCLA, ranked #16 in the nation? Or should I stay at my school in Chicago?

A: When selecting law schools, its generally a good idea to graduate from a first-tier law school, preferably the highest ranked school you can get into. But when you want employment in a particular geographic area, it's better to graduate near the top of a second-tier school in the same geographic area than to graduate in the middle of your class (or lower) from a school outside the area. The value of an out-of-state diploma from a highly ranked school diminishes the less national the school's reputation. And face it. UCLA -- my alma mater --is not Harvard, Yale, or Stanford.

In your situation, you're well positioned to get a job in Chicago by attending and doing well at a local school, even though its not ranked as highly as UCLA. Going to UCLA can still be a very good decision, though. Your resume will stand out in Chicago as a graduate of a well-regarded California school. And if your grades will transfer, and you feel confident that you'll be able to maintain your performance in a more competitive environment, so much the better.

Then again, the job hunt process itself will be a lot more onerous from a distance. Far fewer Chicago law firms will participate in on-campus interviewing at UCLA. You might want to consider finding your first job at a good law firm in Los Angeles and then transferring to Chicago as a lateral associate.

That's the logic supporting your choice. But many good decisions are made for more subjective reasons. Does UCLA offer academic or clinical courses that you can't get at your school? Are you craving sunshine without humidity? Do you simply need to get away from home? If reasons like those tip the balance in favor of a move, do so without guilt. It sounds like you'll do well whatever you choose.