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There are 190 law schools in the United States that are accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA). Applying to law school is a costly and time-consuming endeavor, but not nearly as costly or time-consuming as attending law school. Since you will likely leave law school with a personal debt somewhere between $60,000 to $150,000, take the time now to carefully research different law schools and find the ones that are the best fit for you.

Start by thinking about what you want from a law school. Draw up a list of law schools that meet your criteria and then revise your choices based on your chances of admission. While your GPA and LSAT do not begin to tell your whole story, unfortunately they are the primary criteria that admissions committees use to differentiate among applicants.

Don’t underestimate your qualifications and abilities; at the same time, be realistic about your expectations in a highly competitive process.

Ramapo College urges you to only consider ABA-accredited schools. They are the only institutions whose degrees entitle you to sit for the bar anywhere in the United States. Non-accredited schools, which may seem attractive because of more generous policies regarding low LSAT scores or lower tuition, are often a mixed bag in terms of quality. More importantly, in many states, you cannot sit for the bar unless you attended an ABA-accredited institution.

Your primary source of information about the law schools should be the ABA-LSAC Official Guide to ABA-Approved Law Schools, available as a free searchable online database on the LSAC website – you can also purchase the book version at LSAC’s online store. The guide provides an array of information about each school, with links to the schools’ official websites. This is the most reliable source of information about law schools and should be consulted before you begin checking out various secondary materials (commercial guides, websites, blogs, etc.).

Lawyers and law students can be quite informative about their own law schools, but please remember one important caveat: with rare exceptions, any given lawyer or law student has only ever attended one law school. They have little or no basis for comparison and can only tell you about their particular experience. Keep in mind also that any two graduates of a school can emerge with very different impressions of the experience. Make sure you ask them for the basis of their opinions, and not just their conclusions.

Developing Your Criteria

The following are some of the most important factors to consider:

National vs. regional schools: Are you more interested in a school with a national reputation that attracts students from many places and whose graduates get jobs across the nation? Or are you more interested in a school with a regional reputation attended by local students whose graduates tend to get jobs in the immediate area? Each has its individual strengths and weaknesses and should be considered by each applicant. Regional schools generally offer a strong network of alums in the area while national schools tend to offer a brand name diploma that will open doors almost anywhere. National schools also generally require higher LSAT scores and GPAs.

Location: Where do you want to live after law school? Most lawyers’ first work experiences are in the same general area as where they attend law school. Also consider whether you want to study law in an urban environment with many clinical opportunities, a diverse population, and summer law clerk positions, or in a smaller town where the pace is slower and the living expenses are lower. In what sort of an environment do you work best?

Diversity: What is the make-up of the student body and faculty? Are they diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, national origin and socioeconomic background? Does the school have a reputation as fostering a particular political point of view? Most law students learn better in an environment that provides a range of opinions, backgrounds, and assumptions. If you are a member of a minority group, do you want to seek out schools that have faculty and other students who share your background and experience?

Facilities and resources: Is the law school affiliated with a university? Is access to a large academic research library important to you? Has the law library been keeping up with technological advances? Do the facilities provide a learning environment in which you feel comfortable? Are there programs or courses available outside the law school that you want to pursue in addition to your J.D.?

Faculty: What is the academic and experiential background of faculty members? How accessible are they? What is the faculty-student ratio? What percentage of courses are taught by adjunct faculty? How many of the faculty are minority and/or women? What are the publications and reputation of faculty in specific areas of law that interest you?

Specialization or focus: Law school education is not as specialized as college education; there is no law school “major.” However, some law schools, particularly more selective ones, are known for a particular specialization or focus. (For example, the University of California, Davis, offers a certificate in environmental law.) Other law schools may offer specialized joint degree programs, permitting a student to simultaneously pursue a J.D. and Ph.D. in certain fields, or a J.D. and an M.B.A. There is often a significant advantage in cost and time associated with combining the degrees. If you have a specific interest in a related field, this should be part of your law school application planning. Note, though, that such joint programs are not for everyone, and you should think carefully about your professional goals before applying including the possibility that the application process may involve acceptance to both the J.D. and Ph.D. programs separately.

Student body: What is the size of the entering class? How large are the first-year classes? What does the admissions profile tell you about the quality of the student body? Is there diversity among the student body? What is the overall atmosphere? Are students friendly or are they overly competitive? Is there much student interaction outside class? Are there journals, projects, or student organizations for minorities, women, gays, and lesbians?

Cost: What are tuition, fees, housing, and book costs? For state schools, what are their requirements for in-state tuition? Is financial aid need-based or are merit scholarships available? Does the school have a loan repayment assistance program (LRAP) for public interest work? What is the average debt of recent graduates?

Student life: Where do most students live? Is housing provided for first-year students? If not, does the school offer assistance in locating off-campus housing? What is the cost of living?

Placement: How effective is the placement office? What percentage of the most recent graduating class is employed? In what types of positions and what geographic area are they employed? What are typical starting salaries? How many students move on to judicial clerkships? What assistance is available for graduates not interested in working in law firms?

Bar passage rate: What percentage of the school’s graduates pass the bar exam the first time they take it? This figure will give you an idea how strong the school is in giving students a well-rounded, legal education. Although all law schools do not gear their curriculum to bar exams, it is another criteria you may want to consider. Bar passage rates can vary from as low as 50% to almost 100%. It’s another way to compare different law schools.

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Reputation / Ranking

This is the criterion most often discussed by prospective law students and the most difficult to determine because it is so subjective. You need to decide what is important to you and not rely on someone else’s “ranking.” In particular, once you leave the set of 10 or 20 schools considered “national” law schools, the rankings are completely meaningless in conveying any universally useful information about any given institution. The 40th ranked school is not objectively “better” than the 120th ranked school.

Placement information suggests that when it comes to finding a job, graduating from a prestigious school is less important than graduating high in your class. You are more likely to do well at a law school in which you feel comfortable. Although graduates from prestigious schools may begin their careers with more options, as your career progresses, your professional accomplishments will mean more than where you earned your J.D.

The law schools themselves have almost unanimously rejected the ranking system – LSAC has summarized some related issues (link below).

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Narrowing the List

Once you have decided what you want from a law school, then you can begin to narrow your search. Application fees range from $40 to $80. Many schools offer discounts if you complete your application online, with several schools allowing for free applications online. Being selective saves you time and money. (Please note, though, that fee waivers are often available for applications). However, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Apply to a range of schools including some safety schools, some competitive schools, and some long shots.

Your goal at this point is to apply to enough schools so that you will have some choices in the Spring. You’re not yet deciding where you will attend law school, you’re gathering information: Will this school accept me? Will I be offered any financial aid? Once you have this information, then you can make your final choice. If you have the money, it is worth applying to enough schools to give you several choices.

There are many resources designed to help you learn about and evaluate law schools. The ABA/LSAC Official Guide to ABA-Approved Law Schools is available free online. It includes a searchable database of all ABA-accredited schools, with an array of information and links to the schools’ own websites. A hard copy can be purchased through LSAC.

There are many resources available on the internet for researching law schools. Please see our links page for some of these.

In addition, every school has its own website and most still produce catalogs (although a number of schools have moved completely to electronic catalogs available on CD-ROM or on their website). You can order your own copy directly from the school.

There are also many book-format guides to law schools, available in most bookstores. As you begin planning for law school, you may wish to browse through these books and see whether you particularly like the format or content of any of them. If so, it may be a worthwhile purchase.

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Meeting Law School Representatives

LSAC sponsors Law School Forums in several cities including Boston and New York. Representatives from almost all of the law schools nationwide attend these events, allowing you to do a lot of research at one time. The Boston and New York forums are normally held in October. Check the blog for any information about local or regional law school forums.

Be aware that meeting with law school representatives at these forums does not guarantee admittance but can give you an idea of their criteria and the representatives can often answer some of your specific questions that Ramapo College or the law school websites cannot.

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Visiting Law Schools

Of course, visiting law schools is the best way to learn about them. Visits can tell you much more than catalogs ever will. If you are accepted at more than one law school, make every effort to visit each school before deciding which one to attend.

When you visit a particular school, call the admissions office and ask them to help you plan a visit. If school is in session, ask if you can sit in on a class. Talking to current students will give you a good “feel” for the school. If possible, ask the admissions office at the law school to arrange a meeting with a Ramapo College graduate now attending the law school. Many schools sponsor open houses throughout the year for prospective students. See the Pre-Law blog (link below) for regular announcements of these events.

Before the visit, make a list of the things you want to find out about. Check your list during the visit to make sure you haven’t forgotten to ask any questions.

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Undergraduate Preparation / Choosing Major / More

There is no prescribed course of undergraduate study for admission to law school. The best guide is to follow your own personal and academic interests so that you will be motivated to excel. In selecting students, law school admissions committees look for individuals with a well-rounded, liberal arts education.

According to the American Bar Association’s Section on Legal Education, good lawyering requires certain core skills including:

  • Analytic and problem solving skills
  • Critical reading abilities
  • Writing skills
  • Oral communication and listening abilities
  • General research skills
  • Task organization and management skills
  • Commitment to the values of serving others and promoting justice

In addition, lawyers need an increasingly broad range of knowledge including:

  • A good understanding of history, particularly U.S. history
  • A basic understanding of political and legal institutions
  • Familiarity with ethics and theories of justice
  • A grounding in economics
  • Basic mathematical and financial skills
  • An appreciation for diversity and cultural interdependence

In law school, you will study the legal principles underlying specific areas of the law; in your undergraduate classes, you need to acquire the core knowledge and skills upon which your legal education will be built. Since law deals with a wide variety of human conflicts, the more you know about the diversity of human experience, the better prepared you will be to study law.

Law school admissions officers will be evaluating your overall academic performance in order to decide whether you have the intellectual ability and motivation to succeed in law school.

Choosing a major

Law schools accept students from a wide variety of majors. There is no specified pre-law major. The only course of study law schools frown on is one that is not rigorous.

If possible, it is a good idea to do a double major, or a major and a minor. This ensures that you will have upper level courses on your transcript from at least two disciplines. Doing well in those courses demonstrates your intellectual breadth.

Students who want to pursue specialty law practices, such as environmental law, international law or patent law, will find they are a stronger candidate on the job market if they have an undergraduate major in a relevant field. Other specialty practices require knowledge of a second language or other cultures.

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Choosing courses

The selection of courses that you take as an undergraduate is just as important as how well you do in the courses. Law school admissions committees are looking for students with a broad, liberal arts background. Your General Education requirements will start you off with a good distribution, but it is up to you to continue this diversity as much as you can.

A strong candidate’s record will include:

  • upper level courses in the social sciences (environmental studies, law and society, political science, psychology, sociology), humanities (history, literature, philosophy), sciences, scientific methods, and ethics
  • an appreciation and understanding of other cultures and languages
  • a focus, passion, or strong interest in some area that is evidence of an ability to excel

Not everyone who successfully completes law school will practice law. There are jobs in teaching, public policy, government, and the private sector where lawyers work as well. In these jobs, the breadth of your general education will be an important asset.

A good approach is to choose challenging courses from demanding professors. Follow up your survey level General Education courses with upper level seminars and research courses. Try to get as much practice as you can doing critical thinking and writing.

Strong writing skills are essential for success in law school and as a lawyer. You should make sure that you take at least a few classes in which you will get honest, detailed feedback on your writing. Seek out courses where you will be expected to write several papers. Don’t put this off until your junior or senior year — good writing skills will serve you well regardless of whether you ultimately go to law school, and developing those skills should be a priority during your undergraduate career.

Make it a point to get to know your professors. Go to office hours; take smaller, upper level courses; work independently with someone you respect. If you make a favorable impression on your professors, you will gain important allies when it comes time to apply to law school. A professor who really knows you and your work can write a much stronger recommendation that someone who just looks at a grade book.

Foreign language proficiency is not a requirement for admission to law school. However, it may increase your employment prospects after graduation depending on the type of law you practice.

Grades

Good grades in hard courses demonstrate academic excellence. Compiling an impressive record is a critical first step in the process of getting admitted to the law school of your choice.

Avoid using the pass/fail option as it doesn’t give enough information to evaluate your performance in that course. Law schools may assume the worst about a “Pass” grade and calculate it into your grade point average (GPA) as a D.

If you do have a “Pass” grade, ask that professor to write a recommendation describing the course and assessing your performance. If you did not have an option for a grade in a particular course, such as an internship, make that clear in you application materials.

Clear up any Incomplete grades before you apply to law schools since they adversely affect your GPA and the quality of your transcript.

Avoid repeating courses unless absolutely necessary. Although Ramapo calculates your GPA without reference to the first time you took the course, most law schools and the LSAC recalculate your GPA to include both grades. Of course, try to do well in the class the first time out.

Although law school admissions committees look favorably on a high GPA, that alone will not determine either your acceptance or rejection. Supplement your application or use your personal statement to point out your strengths and explain any dips in your academic record due to illness or other extenuating circumstances. Point out a steadily improving trend in your course work. If you have returned to school after an absence, calculate your GPA since you returned (if it’s higher) and include that figure in your application.

Don’t be discouraged if your GPA is lower than the average for schools to which you want to apply. There are other factors which admissions committees consider. When it comes time to fill out applications, the Pre-Law Advising Center can help you identify and highlight your strengths.

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Computer Literacy

The practice of law is becoming more and more dependent on computer technology. As a law student, you will use personal computers to organize information, conduct legal research, prepare written assignments and manage and keep track of your time. The more comfortable you are using computers when you start law school, the easier it will be for you to learn the specific legal technology.

It is well worth your while to take the time now to learn as much as you can about using computers.

The Potter Library offers training in legal research using LEXIS/NEXIS and in computer research using databases in social sciences, humanities, and science.

Take advantage of these resources before you get to law school.

Non-academic activities

Law schools are also interested in your extracurricular activities, work history, internships, and community service. Your experience outside the classroom demonstrates the skills you have acquired and what you have learned about yourself that makes you a stronger candidate.

These activities also indicate that you are a well-rounded person who has the social maturity to be part of a demanding law school community, and to then take on the unique responsibilities of practicing law. A strong work history, combined with an impressive academic record, shows your commitment to hard work and perseverance.

However, over-involvement in non-academic activities, no matter how meaningful, will not excuse or compensate for a poor academic record. Law schools are looking for students who can successfully balance competing demands on their time.

Law school applicants who have taken time off since graduating from college will want to highlight their work experience since graduation. The weight given to your work experience versus your education will depend in large part on how many years you have been out of school.

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