Five Things to Do While You're Waiting for U.S. News Law School Rankings to Hit

March 9, 2015

WaitingIf you're like most prospective students, there's a good chance the U.S. News & World Report Law School Rankings will play some kind of role in your decision about where to go to law school. We can all debate the merits of the rankings as a method for choosing a law school, but we can't stop the world from clamoring for them. So until they're announced, here are some things to keep you occupied.

Number 1: Figure out why you want to go to law school.

If you cannot verbalize why you want to go to law school, figure it out before you commit to any school. Knowing why you want to go to law school will help you make a better decision about where to go—no matter the rank. Let's say you want to help people get better access to justice—you might look at schools that emphasize that type of service and structure a financial package that will allow you to actually do it once you graduate and your loan payments start hitting. Think you want to be a law professor? There are schools that feed academia. Can you still achieve your goals even if you pick a school that doesn't optimize your path to them? Sure, sometimes—but why make it harder than it has to be?

Number 2: Think about where you want to practice.

Do you know where you want to build a life and a law practice? If not, figure it out before you invest in any three-year law program. Where you go to school will very likely determine where you will live. Employers in some states, like mine, are known for being protective supportive of graduates from schools in the state. Cracking markets like these can be challenging, particularly when you cannot articulate ties to the area—and even when you are coming from a top school. But going to school near where you live can be a good strategy in any state because you can use those three years to develop the network you need to launch a successful career.

Number 3: Talk to people who went to law school.

You don't know what you don't know. Talk to lawyers in your community (or the community you want to practice in) about where they went to school and why. Ask them what they would do differently today. Ask them what they love about their work—and what they hate. Ask them what they think you should consider in deciding where to go to law school. Ask them if they would be more or less likely to hire you based on the school you are thinking of attending. Ask them anything. Here's the deal—some hiring is based on reputation of the school you attend and that reputation may be driven in some part by U.S. News rankings (see here and here for more on this). But reputation is relative. It is often local (See Number 2 above) and, sometimes, it is attached to the reputation of the undergraduate institution. Or it is completely random, as is the case when someone attaches a loftier prestige to your school because someone they care about or respect also went there. Talking to lawyers will help you understand better the factors you should be considering based on your own goals.

Number 4: Crunch the numbers.

We all assume that prospective students understand what $100,000 in debt looks like. Or what $150,000 in debt looks like. Or $200,000. Some do. We call them future accountants. But for most prospective students, even those who have had to pay at least some of their own expenses through college, figuring out what the debt means—and how it feels—in monthly payments over the course of 25 years is a tough thing to predict. (And it can be easy compared with figuring out your financial aid and scholarship package.) Heather Jarvis, student loan expert and member of the ABA's Task Force on the Financing of Legal Education, has an extensive collection of resources for borrowers.

Let me be very clear: law school is expensive, but that does not have to be a reason not to go. It should, however, be a reason to make sure you understand what the cost will mean and how it might impact your life and your career decisions.  And, how different schools may require different levels of investment—and debt.

Number 5: Look at other resources.

If you search around, you'll find a fair amount of negative commentary on the U.S. News rankings.  The truth is, the rankings are only as damaging as we let them be. Rankings should never be used as your only source when determining where to go to law school. They should be a source, alongside many others, including our employment calculator, Law School Transparency, Above the Law, Go-To Law Schools. U.S News doesn't track everything you care about in a law school—in fact, they barely scratch the surface. There's not a resource out there that tracks everything that matters to you, so you need to do the legwork and tap into as many resources as possible to understand the diversity of options you have and to find your best fit.

Like it or not, the decision about where and whether to go to law school will be one of the most important decisions you will make in your life. Put in the work necessary to research your options and arrive at the right outcome for you. And when it gets hard and frustrating, just remember why you are doing this in the first place (see Number 1 above).