Students planning to attend law school have a variety of success indicators they should consider when choosing where to apply, and many resources with which to consult. Most of these are based on raw data: location, numbers, scholarship retention, rankings, and employment rates. But one is not. It’s a factor that no internet source, brochure, or twitter feed can give you information about, and may, in many cases, be the most important factor. Let’s get to the data first:
1. LSAT Scores and Undergraduate GPAs
Most students will apply to a combination of reach and safety schools, but by looking at the numbers an applicant can apply to schools where there is the best chance of gaining admission – even with reach schools!
All law schools publish profiles of the last year’s incoming class, including information about that class’ LSAT and undergraduate GPA data. Most prospective students ask about the median LSAT score and GPA, but what happens if your LSAT score or GPA is below the median? How can you figure out the chances of admission?
In addition to publishing the medians, all schools publish their 25th and 75th percentiles for both LSAT and GPA. These other percentiles will help gauge the chances of being admitted to a particular school. The important information is the range between the 25th percentile of LSAT scores and GPAs and the 75th percentile of LSAT scores and GPAs. This spread is where 50% of the previous year’s incoming class fell numbers-wise and is a school's “sweet spot” in terms of admissions. If below a school’s median but still within the range, then you know you still fall numbers-wise where that school indicates the most successful law students lie.
Applicants should be realistic in applying to law schools but if there is a school or schools that are “dream” schools for you, then you should apply even though they are long shots. Sometimes, not often to be sure, miracles do happen.
But, perhaps more importantly, is the fact that the student should not make an admissions decision but let the law school make the decision and the school cannot if the student does not apply. Also, if rejected you will not spend the future wondering, “What if I had applied to school X?” and can be satisfied that whatever school is chosen, that it is the appropriate school for you.
2. Scholarships Awarded and Scholarship Retention
Many students receive funding to help pay for law school, and scholarships are the source most applicants turn to first.
When applicants begin to consider a school, they should look beyond how many scholarships are offered. To get a sense of how likely an applicant is to get a scholarship at a particular school, look to the LSAT and GPA medians. The closer the applicant is to those numbers, the more likely the applicant is to receive a merit scholarship.
The applicant should also check and see how many scholarships were awarded and retained. Why? The higher the retention rate, the more likely the applicant is to keep the scholarship throughout the time at that school.
Schools are required to post data referencing how many scholarships have been awarded and how many have been eliminated on their Standard 509 Disclosure which is available on every law school’s website.
Sidebar - Beware of Choosing a School on the Basis of a “Specialization”
Making a choice primarily on this basis can be fraught with danger. More specifically, sacrificing quality and opting for a school that advertises an area of specialization of interest could be a real mistake for at least two reasons.
First, many special programs are based on a small number of faculty members who may not be teaching at that school when a student is eligible to take these classes.
Second, and more likely, however, is the real prospect that the student may change his or her mind about specializations when exposed to various areas of the law that the student has little previous knowledge about.
3. Bar Pass Rates
Simply put, a person can't practice law until he or she passes the bar. Some schools consistently position their students to successfully pass the bar on their first try.
Bar passage rates may be an indicator of the quality of education in the foundational course levels; the courses taken the first year. While it is ultimately up to the student taking the bar to pass the exam and the majority of Bar Exam studying occurs after graduation, there are some schools known for consistently better bar pass rates than others.
Compare the school of interest to others being considered (even ones that may not have been in consideration!) and see where that school stands among its peers with the state average for passage.
4. Employment Rates
This numeric indicator reveals overall employment of a graduating class ten months after graduation, as well as how many of those graduates are employed in full-time work in a position that requires or prefers a JD.
Why look at this the statistic? It reveals the school's commitment to helping their students obtain full-time employment and also may be an indicator of the job market in the area in which the school of choice is located or in the applicant’s area of interest.
If the ultimate goal of attending law school is to obtain a legal job, then this is the number that to look at.
An applicant can look at a school’s NALP Employment Summary and ABA Data Placement Summary to see what types of jobs a school’s alumni are getting after graduation. Not only ask how many students received job offers in the student’s geographical area of interest but how many WANTED jobs in that area.
5. Location! Location! Location?
Where is the school located and how important is that? This means not only for the three or so years the applicant will be enrolled in the school, but also for the future career.
In terms of the future, the school’s reach in terms of job placement may be significant. If the school is a “national” law school in terms of placement then location is significant only as it relates to where the applicant wants to live and study for three years.
In considering a state or “local” school, then the overall question is, “Is this state or school in a place where the applicant wants to live and practice in the future?” Intermediate questions certainly include items like lifestyle, likes, and internship possibilities.
Finally, there is one last factor that all applicants should consider when they compare law schools and choose which one is best for them. This one will not be supported by raw data , nor will an applicant find charts and graphs on Google or the schools’ websites that analyze this factor. But it could be the most important factor.
What is the feel of the school?
Have you visited the school?
Met with students?
Spent time in the area where the school is located?
What do you know about living and studying in the area?
These are all factors that should be equally as important in the decision on where to attend school as the numerically based ones. The most attractive school based on numbers may become the least attractive if it doesn't "feel" right.
A visit should be scheduled and the applicant should ask to meet with students and professors.
When you schedule a visit, note the following:
All schools make a point of the availability of faculty to students and one way to verify this is to note the location of faculty offices. Are they readily accessible?
When attending a class, observe both the level of discussion in the classroom and the relationship of the faculty to the students. Does the faculty member make an effort to get to know students? Is there a general feeling of respect and friendliness between the two?
Finally in terms of finding a fit, is the school a community of scholars that you want to be a part of? Schools do, in fact, have “personalities.” Does that school have a “personality” that is appealing? To repeat, “Does it feel like the right school for you?”
In the end, as suggested above, this may be the most important factor.
Author's note: I would like to extend my sincerest thanks to Dean Gerald L. Wilson for his contributions and edits to this blog post. Dean Gerald L. Wilson is a founding member of PLANC and was elected its first chair in 1984. As the person who compiles and co-edits the Book of Lists and edits the SAPLA Handbook for Pre-Law Advisors, he is widely recognized as the preeminent pre-law advisor in the nation. He has been the pre-law advisor at Duke University for four decades.