Visiting the Law Schools
Never pass up the opportunity to look at a law school. Visiting an uncle in Chicago? There are six law schools there. Even if you're not interested in attending that school, it can give you a valuable standard of comparison. John Marshall in Chicago feels a lot like Suffolk in Boston; the U.of Chicago is a lot like Penn. So if you're looking for a getaway weekend, look for one in a city with a law school or three.
By far the best way to answer your questions about facilities is to visit the law schools that interest you. Of course, it's also by far the most expensive way. But if you can afford it, you should try to visit twice.
The first time, pay serious attention to the facilities and the community. Can you live in this city? Is it too big/small/cold/hot/slow/fast? Where would you live? How's traffic, parking and public transportation? Next, head for the law school. Look at the library, the computers, the lunchroom and the bathrooms. If there are going to be problems, that's where you're most likely to see them. Don't be shy; talk to some current students. Ask them what they like and dislike about the place. Look at the student organizations, too. Is there something to seduce you away from Civil Procedure, at least occasionally? Read the bulletin boards to see problems and activities. What kind of environment is tolerated in public areas of the school? If an obvious bias is tolerated in public, what can the underlying thought pattern be?
Check out the faculty offices. Are doors open, so you can just drop in? Are notes to professors a week old? Are students taking time to relax, or are they hurrying to the library?
The second time, attend an open house or admitted students' event. Look at your prospective classmates. Are they friendly and accessible? Can you fit in here?
Having said all that, here are some good lists of law schools. No one list is complete, but combined they cover every ABA-approved law school.
Facilities in the community
Aside from the services provided by the law school itself, you may want to investigate the services provided by the university or the local government. Bus systems can come in very handy when your car breaks down, or when you're sharing a car with another person. "Married student housing" can be much cheaper than an off-campus apartment. And some schools open this housing to gay and lesbian couples, to unmarried heterosexual couples, or to single parents.
Your religion is rarely an issue at a secular law school and almost never discussed. But the ability to worship with your community is essential to many people. Does your campus have a Hillel or Newman Center? Is the synagogue within walking distance, or in the next town (as I was told by the recruiter for Washington & Lee)? If your religious affiliation is less common, how difficult will it be for you to find a congregation?
A good place to find information about various cities is the Places Rated Almanac, by David Savageau & Richard Boyer, MacMillan Travel. Unfortunately, they don't have a web site, although the book is a fairly standard reference item at libraries, and Amazon has dozens of books. I've shared some of my observations about facilities I've visited, but many schools have renovated or rebuilt since I last saw them; a few (like Touro) have moved to a different city! Although I can't give you an exhaustive look at law schools and campuses, here are some topics for your consideration.
Law School Buildings
What kind of physical space do you need? How would you feel in a building with no windows, like some at Loyola LA? Would three years in a gray concrete building depress you? Temple is poured concrete from top to bottom; by my second year, I used to joke about sneaking in overnight and painting the walls orange.
Is your artistic sensibility what you should consider in choosing a law school? Not by itself, but certainly as part of what makes a school feel comfortable.
The worst problem with physical facilities is reflected in our favorite web sign: "under construction." At a law school, construction means mountains of orange clay, mud to slide in on rainy days, and the noise of jack hammers outside your classrooms. While newly renovated buildings are often quite elegant, works in progress should be some cause for alarm.
Speaking of the Web, computer facilities are one of the most widely varying aspects of law schools. Many schools require each student to own a laptop computer and bring it to class -- but is the building wired enough for all those laptops? Does it have printers you can use when you need to make a last-minute change to that assignment that's due in an hour?
With Internet connections and the right software, you can do much of your legal research from home. Does the law school provide Lexis and Westlaw software for home use, or do you have to trek to the library for that last-minute citation you need?
The Campus -- Does It Exist?
The word "campus" is used very broadly in law school literature. Nearly two thirds of all law schools are located in an area that we would identify as a campus. There are other university-related buildings adjacent to the law school, there are grassy areas where students hang out, read books, or throw the occasional Frisbee. When traversing the campus from one building to another, one rarely needs to look out for motor vehicles. Within this broad definition, however, there is a fair amount of variation. A big State University, with as many as 40,000 students, will feel very different from a campus with fewer than 10,000 students. Similarly, a campus attached to a college town with fewer residents than there are students will feel very different from a campus like Berkeley's, located in the heart of the city. Nonetheless, whether the campus serves 5,000 people or 50,000, you will be able to feel that you are "on campus" at least some of the time.
The "Formerly Suburban" campus looked like Chapel Hill's, above. Then the city grew and engulfed it. The result is a major campus, with quads, greenery, and space, while at the same time having a transit system, shopping and entertainment venues, and an urban nightlife within a convenient distance -- often just a few blocks away. I love the feel of the campus juxtaposed with the convenience of a major city.
I don't know why it didn't click until my Great Plains tour of 2009 that formerly suburban campuses are among my favorites. I suspect because, in this large tour, I saw two such schools in St. Louis, while all the other schools were at one extreme or the other -- clearly urban or clearly suburban. Once I realized what I was thinking, I rushed right over here to share it with you.
So without further ado, let me introduce you to some great "formerly suburban" campuses -- ones with a clear campus within a metropolitan environment.
Georgetown University Law Center
An additional 15% of all law schools are affiliated with a university, but are not located on the campus. They may be a few miles away, or a few cities away, making a quick trip to student health either difficult or impossible. These law schools are usually located downtown, near the courthouses and law firms; this allows easy access to places where you will work at the expense of access to places where you'd like to play.
[William Mitchell College of Law, named for Justice William Mitchell of the Minnesota Supreme Court (18811899) "whose opinions were regarded as models of brevity and sound judicial reasoning."
An ever-dwindling group of law schools (now fewer than 10%) are entirely independent of any university. These schools may have a reciprocal agreement with nearby colleges to make up for their own lack of amenities. Access to the gym, the library, and even student health may lighten the burden placed on the student to discover her or his own resources. In addition to leaving you on your own at dinner time, law schools without a university affiliation may offer fewer (or no) joint degree opportunities. (But this may not be very important; see the section on Curriculum.)