How Do I Choose My Law School?

Aviva Orenstein Professor of Law
Indiana University School of Law—Bloomington

"We have spent countless hours perfecting our already advanced system of introducing just the right people to each other."

These words, from an advertisement for a recognized dating service, could easily be reworded to describe a popular method many use to select a university and its programs -- rankings issued by the mainstream news magazines. The recent flap over the U.S. News and World Report law school rankings arguably should prompt someone to wonder: how influential should rankings be in my choosing a school of higher education?

Choosing a law school is best analogized to choosing someone to date. At the risk of appealing to the prurient or disillusioning the romantic, let's develop this analogy.

Imagine for a moment that U.S. News issued an annual dating issue. You'd be able to see various partner's ratings: including their height, weight, hair color, occupation, years in other relationships and the duration of those relationships. The folks at U.S. News would provide you with the reputation of various potential suitors among the regulars at the singles bars and church socials.

Those of us who have experienced blind dates know that even with all the relevant statistics, reality rarely correlates with the "facts" that friends recount to induce you to go out on the date in the first place. Certainly, you'd actually want to meet your date before making any major commitments. You'd want to talk to other people who've know this person (particularly ex-girlfriends or ex-boyfriends) and ask what they are like. Did you find your time with them meaningful? Did they prepare you for other relationships or sour you on love?

With just the bare statistics, would you know enough to choose wisely for your particular needs? I doubt it. The qualities one looks for in a long-term partner -- affability, dependability, empathy, attractiveness -- are hard to measure empirically, even if we all had the same definitions, which we don't. The fact is that what is really important in selecting a law school, like what is really important in choosing a mate, is largely unquantifiable.

To find an institution that meets your needs, start by identifying your goals. Think about both your personal style and the differences among the various schools. Every law school is challenging, intellectually and psychologically. (There are no "party" law schools). Yet, the differences in atmosphere and learning environment are profound.

The quality of the law school experience depends on the quality and accessibility of the faculty and on the smarts and life experiences of fellow students. Additional important factors that you might not think of include the quality of the writing program and the helpfulness of the career office. Examine the feeling of community. Is the atmosphere cut-throat or laid back? How likely are you fellow students to share notes if you've been sick? These things are vital, but hard to measure by crunching the numbers.

Choosing your partner in professional education and development isn't much different from finding that special someone. Neither should be done from a catalog. Both are important relationships that will influence your immediate happiness and the rest of your life.

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