I am a Law School Search Survivor and what I learned from my search was simply this: Nobody ever seems to have the answers you need during that torturous and frightening process. I hope I might be able to have the right answer for at least one. If so, good luck!

WHO ARE YOU

You have got to know this, and you have to be honest to know it. The answer to this question does not include who you hope to be or who others want you to be. You are you, and know yourself better than anyone. Thousands and thousands of law students choose a school based on who they think they are, want to be, or someone else’s opinion. These are the thousands that spend their law school days waxing pathetic about what could have been. Don’t be this person. It is an absolute imperative that you pick a school that fits you, and US News and World Reports does not have a category for that.

WHAT KIND OF LAWYER DO YOU WANT TO BE

The joke in law school is that everybody enters wanting to either help the poor or become stinking rich, and only about five percent succeed. The rest just do whatever comes along. IT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY!! If you want to go to law school because you can’t think of anything else to do, then there are thousands of schools out there that will work great for you. If you are drawn to law school with a purpose, though, stay true to it. Law schools are not as homogenous as people think. They are unique places with distinct missions. And you can discover their strengths, weaknesses, beliefs, goals, etc., simply by asking simple, straightforward questions.
If you are a public interest, save-the-world type, make sure your school has strong ties to that community. There is nothing worse for a true believer than to find yourself in a Firm Feeder three weeks into the first year. Most schools claim that they have some orientation towards the public interest, but many have very little in the way of curriculum that will really be useful to you. Even fewer have a Career Services office that will actively work to place you where you want to be. This leads to many cause- or belief-oriented students to be discouraged, or misguided, indirectly by the atmosphere of the school, and ethic of their classmates. It is certainly still possible to do the work you want to do, but you will discover right away, that your real training takes place in what you create for yourself, not in the classroom.
If you are looking for that cushy firm job, then the same is true. In most large cities, the firms generally draw from a select few schools primarily, and one school is generally preferred by the legal community. It is not difficult to discover these schools, by either asking, or just doing the research. DO NOT go to a school that orients towards public service thinking you are “keeping your options open”. You wil just put yourself behind the pack and make your job search much more difficult than it already will be.
If you are very goal-oriented and have specific interests, research is an absolute must. Many, many law schools all over the country have a Mental Health Law class or professor, but very, very few have an evolved, meaningful program. Many of the newer fields follow this pattern. So, while the “normal sources” can give you a range to look at, only real legwork will give you the information you need.

WHERE DO YOU WANT TO LIVE

This is crucial. All law schools desire to market their students nationally, but a very select few are “National” law schools. If you have a specific area that you desire to practice, then pick the best school for that area. If you want to keep your options open, then make sure that the school you choose can successfully market you nationwide.
I believe their are four geographical categories of law schools. They are: Local, State, Regional, and National. For these purposes, Virginia provides some good examples.

Local-A local school is a school that is recruited by firms and other entities within a hundred mile radius. These schools primarily exist in large cities, or within states with several law schools. In Virginia, the University of Richmond is a prime example. UofR feeds local firms in the city of Richmond, which happens to boast a great many firms, some with a national presence, so the locality of the school is a bit skewed. However, the main focus of the school, whether by accident, tradition, or purpose, is the Greater Richmond and Norfolk areas. If you have designs on practicing in New York, don’t go to Richmond. Other schools that fit this description are American, Miami, Temple, and Tulane, among many others.

State-This is easy. If a state has two or three law schools, usually one will cover the whole state. If there is not one that truly fits this bill, as in Virginia, there are usually a number of good schools within the state that provide this service. State schools are just that: Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, South Carolina, Penn State, Arizona all fit the bill along with countless others.

Regional-A regional school is generally in transition, and again, usually located in a state with several schools. Regional schools have great reputations, will generally be top 40 or 50 at least, but still often lack name recogntion outside of its specific region. (For our purposes, we can define region as five state to one of the four main regions of the country: North, South, Midwest, West) Washington and Lee is a perfect example. Long a top 30 stalwart, it never seems to be able to break the top 20. W&L is known as a tremendous school throughout the south and part of the Midwest, but you will find very few grads north of Pennsylvania. A regional school offers the option of staying in state or exploring the boundaries of its recruitment area. They also offer the added attraction of a general national reputation and name recognition, while lacking the local stigma that sometimes attaches itself to National schools. Vanderbilt, Texas, Brown, BC, Loyola, Brooklyn and Minnesota are good examples of Regional schools.

National-Everybody claims to be one, but they are really limited to top 15 schools and some hangers on trading on their names or resources. For instance, clearly Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Michigan, Chicago and Stanford are Nationally known; but schools like Washington
University, Penn, Duke, Cornell, and UCLA have the ability to transcend the rankings and market nationally, sometimes exclusively. In Virginia, the University of Virginia is the “National school”. Always in the top ten, UVA enjoys a solid reputation throughout the country.

Oddballs-While all schools have some ability to market nationally, and you are by no means stuck in one geographic location based on school choice, most have a general marketability that fits into the four categories. Some simply do not fit anywhere. They are oddballs that have a national rep because of undergrad, or specialty, or otherwise. There is no way to categorize them, although they certainly try. In Virginia, William and Mary and George Mason play this role. Others include Saint Louis, Northeastern, SMU, Lewis & Clark, and Emory.

Basically, it is not a matter of picking a school that fits into your preferred category, but rather making educated choices to put yourself in the best possible position for YOU upon graduation. Leaving your options open might be your only goal, but do not expect miracles. The top ten percent of each class is by definition, a small number, and counting on that exclusively to determine your prospects is always a mistake.

So how do you make these choices? You ask questions. Do not simply rely upon ratings or reputation. Ask students, professors, local people you know, etc. Contact your local Bar. They will always give you basic help, even if it is just the person who answers the phone. Check the dispersal stats of each school’s graduating class. Go to the website and look at the curriculum. And when you use the rankings, really delve into them. You may be looking at a top twenty school, but when you breakdown the schools’s rating in areas you are interested in, it may not appear once. This is telling. You would not choose Johns Hopkins or Texas A&M if you were an English major–this applies to law school just as well.

Most importantly, know yourself, and make sure the school matches. If you are interested in getting a great legal education, there are many schools that are in the second, and even third, tier that may offer excellent professors who concentrate on teaching. The rankings are a GENERAL survey. They do not hold the answers to all your questions. If you are simply looking at the marketability of your degree, you really need go no further than US news. If you are interested in more, though, then they are a poor substitute for actually sitting down and grilling someone who is there, and someone who has gone through what you are going through.

Finally, DO NOT get bogged down in where you fit in the hierarchy based on your grades and LSAT score. If you have good numbers, but are attracted to some particular component of a low first tier or second tier school, explore it. Even if you could get into Stanford or NYU, Kentucky might be the perfect fit for you. Additionally, because of many factors that now creep into this process, you may find yourself having tremendous difficulty getting accepted into schools you originally thought were your backups. It happens constantly. This does not mean that you will not get into others. If you examine the US News rankings, you will see many schools on the south side of 20 with higher GPA and LSAT scores than the top schools. It boils down to what school is right for the person you are, and if you choose strictly on the numbers, you will do yourself, and the legal community a great disservice.

Just let go–LET GO–you are going to law school, and you are going to be a LAWYER! Do yourself a favor and make the road there as gentle and fulfilling as possible. Good Luck!