ABA-approved schools share considerable similarities with one another when it comes to the basic model for delivering legal education. However, there are considerable differences in size, location, culture, incoming class numbers, and most notably, job outcomes and reputation at the local, regional, and national levels. ABA accreditation operates only as a floor for quality assurance, signaling that a school meets minimum standards. Prospective students must find other means to compare programs and decide where to apply and attend.
Applying to this or that school isn't a decision to take lightly. Smart decisions about where to apply require thoughtful reflection about what you want from your career and where you want to work, as well as which schools you can pit against each other to negotiate cheaper tuition.
In this guide, we recommend a series of questions that lead you from all law schools to a set of schools that make sense for you. Our goal is to help you apply only to the schools that help you achieve your career goals.
You can also build your list of schools using the LST Wizard, which is part of the LST Pro subscription. The Wizard will ask you a series of questions and produce a ranked list of schools based on your input. It will then assess your chance of admission, predict your scholarship, and project your total cost of attendance.
Geography: Where do I want to practice?
We organize the LST Reports around this fundamental question because law schools largely operate in local markets. Few schools actually see a sizable number of graduates leave the region. In fact, 2 in 3 graduates stay in the state in which their law school is located. Usually your best bet is to attend school near where you want a job. This will allow you to network and get a feel for the local market.
Consider where you want to work and use LST to find schools with an objective connection to those locations. This process will eliminate a substantial number of schools. That's a good thing.
Job Prospects: What kind of job do I want?
Over the last few years, the quality and availability of job statistics have greatly improved. The job statistics slice graduating class job outcomes in many ways, which helps you to get a feel for how schools live up to the assurances they provide while recruiting you. A realistic assessment of what you can expect post-graduation will not only help you decide on a school (or no school), but may even help you find a job. For example, if job source data show that those who obtained jobs typically did so through letters or networking, your job search will be quite different than if many students obtained jobs through on-campus interviews or job postings.
Not sure what practice areas and practice settings are a good fit your personality and ambitions? Try the Legal Career Compass, which is part of the LST Pro subscription. The psychometric assessment takes about 45 minutes and helps you find your fit.
The available information is far from perfect. Indeed, the data only represent outcomes less than one year after graduation. While historical by nature, they nevertheless produce a worthwhile proxy because school reputations endure. The first job also carries particular import in the legal profession. More than 4 in 5 graduates borrow to attend law school, with average debt well into six figures. Loans or other pressing financial obligations exist even if your career pinnacle isn't on the horizon. Moreover, the further a graduate gets from bar results, the more difficult it will be to find work as a lawyer, in part because a new crop of fresh law graduates enter the job market each year. While the first job doesn't guarantee your career path—positive or negative—it's an important step on wherever that path takes you. A National Bureau of Economic Research study shows the impact of early-career jobs and salaries on lifetime earnings.
Analyze past performance in light of the school's relevant graduating class size, incoming class size, transfer class size, historical attrition, and recent and projected incoming class sizes. These factors may signal how easy or difficult it will be to find a job when you would graduate.
In trying to foresee your future, consider these variables for peer schools too. For example, if the school with the best regional reputation expands incoming class size, what will that mean for less reputable competitors? The local legal market's capacity for enrollment changes is also relevant. Read the local trade press, talk to local attorneys, and look at job boards. Furthermore, check out econometrics data provided by state government labor departments.
This process will eliminate schools that you don't believe can help you meet your career goals.
Admission: Where can I get in?
Law school admission is based primarily on numerical factors. One's LSAT and GPA are arguably the two most important components of a law school application, though not completely predictive. Depending on the school, under-represented minorities, people with significant work experience, and unique characteristics receive varying types and amounts of "boosts." It's common to submit a "Diversity Statement" with your application—even if the school does not request one—to help show the school how you can be a valuable addition to the class.
Historically, admission has been fairly predictable based on LSAT, GPA, and under-represented status. But with applications and enrollment plummeting around the country, incoming LSAT scores and GPAs have fallen too. Schools also seem to be more "splitter friendly." Every school profile on this site shows enrollment trends to help you get a feel for your chances. LSAT and GPA statistics can also be found all over the LST Reports.
There are a variety of online tools available to help you predict admissions outcomes, as opposed to eyeballing the admissions data quartiles. One example is our own LST Wizard. Beware that these predictors use historical admissions outcomes to predict your outcome.
The law school application process is not cheap, so we don't recommend wasting money with pointless applications. However, if you have a shadow of a chance and the school would help you meet your career goals, give it your best shot. Realize, though, that law school costs more for those who barely get in because of how law schools make scholarship/tuition discount offers.
Costs: Can I afford it?
Though education is not quite a traditional investment, practical considerations require that you analyze the price of pursuing an additional degree, as well as how you will pay. If you have cash, you will need to consider the opportunity cost of using it for law school instead of another investment. If you will finance the degree with student loans, you will need to consider how much you will owe when your first payment is due—and whether you will be able to make that payment. Costs are among the most predictable items on your career path; engage in careful financial planning.
We want to help you with the financial planning. You'll find a number of tools on this site to do so.
- Projected Debt at Repayment. The amount a graduate will owe when borrowing the maximum amount allowed by the law school. The figure, along with the monthly payment on a ten-year plan, is on each state report, the national report, and the school comparison page. The figure is as of six months following graduation when the first loan payment is due; assumes no interest pre-payments; and accounts for tuition increases based on the school's five previous years of tuition. Interest accumulation calculations are time-sensitive—based on semester disbursement periods—and use a blended rate based on projected interest rates.
- Hypothetical Price Discount Table. The previous figure includes no discounts that ease your debt burden, whether from a scholarship or savings or family contribution. The table includes 24 tuition and cost of living scenarios. The table is available on the cost tab on every law school's profile. It uses the same assumptions as the previous figure.
- Financial Worksheets. You can also fill out financial worksheets for schools under consideration. From the data you input, as well as the interest rates you project, we will calculate your personal projected debt at repayment and/or expected cash expenditures. The debt figure will appear anywhere the projected debt at repayment figures appear. Your financial worksheets will appear on the cost tab.
- LST Guides on Paying for Law School. Check out the guides that are relevant to financial planning on the right (or bottom).
Figure out with as much precision as possible the price you will pay, how you will pay that price, how much debt you will owe, and how much your monthly payment will be. The process and the results will help you see whether law school makes sense for you in light of your likely salary after graduation, and whether that salary will allow you to meet your obligations and expectations. When analyzing salary information, pay careful attention to response rates so that you can get a feel for what the numbers actually mean.
For a myriad of reasons, pursuit of a law degree sets students back a lot of money—now or later. Understanding the associated costs and attempting to make an educated guess about what life would be like in various career scenarios will help you figure out whether law school is right for you and, if it is, which school provides the best opportunity for the life and career you desire. Risk is expected in any career decision, but only you can decide how much risk you're willing to bear.
Add Some Schools Back In
At this point, you have a set of schools that make sense for you in light of your career aspirations, obligations, and financial position. Consider adding schools to your list strictly for strategic price negotiation. The more ammo you have to approach your desired schools with, the better your chances at negotiating a better price.
Do not expect that law schools will make their best offer right away. Schools are strategic with their discounts/scholarships and you should be strategic with your financial future. In particular, be prepared to negotiate for a larger discount and better terms. You can negotiate the scholarship retention stipulations (GPA or class rank) placed on you. You can also negotiate whether future tuition increases affect you by stipulating that your discount will increase with future tuition increases.
The fact is, the school wants you to attend. You would not have been admitted otherwise. Schools across the country struggle to meet enrollment needs. Tell the school you are not comfortable with its price and the debt you will encounter; then suggest that a better deal will keep the school in contention.
Schools respond well to competing offers. You can expand the number of competing offers by expanding the list of schools you apply to, even if you apply to some schools just to leverage their scholarship offers for better offers at the schools that would actually meet your needs. Remember, their budgets and jobs depend on filling an incoming class with great candidates and merit aid offers are not charity. However, it's also important to keep in mind that schools will only respond to schools that they deem worthy. The U.S. News rankings are worse than useless most of the time, but they do provide a shortcut for determining whether one school considers another school a peer.
As with the rest of the application process, preparation is paramount. Use cost projections that you create to explain why you believe you need a better deal. You'll be thankful both when your first payment is due and in 10 or 20 years.