"I want to go to law school. It has to be a top law school so I can get a good job. I want to stay in the city where I am now, because life on the coast is so exciting. And my grades and LSAT are only 2.x and 15x. What can you do for me?"
I can be kind and try to convince you that you have to aim lower, and preferably in the midwest, to have any chance at all. This will save you a lot of time and money, and the emotional cost of rejection. But I can't get you in. And the saddest part is that a lot of great lawyers, at great law firms, come from lower tier law schools.
I know, I know; it's silly for me to try to convince you. But I can't think of a single other thing to do!
So improve your LSAT score. Look at schools in the midwest. And figure out that if you really, really want to be a lawyer, you'll have to let go of something else on the wish list. You can have 4th tier schools in large urban areas, or higher ranked schools in less popular places. But the realities of law school demographics are not apparent to many people. So, as I usually do when I feel people are lacking reality testing, I began to crunch numbers.
I found that the East Coast, West Coast, and South have a lower percentage of seats than of applicants. The New York area, for instance, has 16.5% of all the law school seats, but almost 20% of all the applicants. The midwest has about the same number of seats -- 16% of all the seats in the country's law schools -- but only 13% of the applicants. If the percentage of applicants is high relative to seats in a region, that region is harder to get into. Click here for a more detailed analysis of the ratio of seats to applicants.
Can you make a regional attitude adjustment?
Whether the switch is from the coast to the middle of the country, from one coast to another, or from rural to urban, don't go where you can't live. I had a student who was accepted at both Berkeley and Columbia. He was leaning strongly toward attending Berkeley, until he spent a week there. "I couldn't do it, Loretta," he said when he returned. "They're all so laid back it didn't feel like they were taking law school seriously. I knew I would find it too frustrating." He went to Columbia, where he reports being very happy. Others find the east coast too intense, the north too cold and the deep south too hot, and would choose Berkeley over Northwestern or Tulane in a minute.
There are stereotypes about every region of the country, and most of them are true at least occasionally. New Yorkers can be rude. Chicago is windy. South Florida has a lot of retired people. The South moves at a slower pace, the West Coast is more laid back, and the Midwest is friendlier. You will see gun racks and rebel flags in Texas, rainbow flags for lesbian and gay rights in DC's DuPont Circle, and homeless people in Philadelphia. Large cities do have drive-by shootings; and Indiana does have cornfields. However, none of these factors should be in itself a deciding factor. A city should be measured by far more than one negative or positive factor; often, something that you believed would make life impossible is less important than you thought it would be.
One of the most important factors to me is the weather! I can stand cold (I say, seeing snow here in Seattle on April 1, 2009). After all, you can always put on another sweater or some thermal underwear. But I can't stand the heat -- not because of the temperature, but because the hotter the weather, the more bugs there are! Seattle is a bug-free city, making it perfect for this insectophobe.
Every region of the country has weather: hurricanes, blizzards, thunderstorms, mudslides, tornados. What can't you live with? For a look at climate in different law school locales, click here.
One admissions officer I know complained bitterly about being the blue city in a red state. A bit of research showed me that cities containing law schools were almost unanimously more liberal than other parts of the state. The difference was usually only five or so percentage points, but those few points might be very reassuring to a liberal contemplating law school in a more conservative area. Sometimes, the differences are more extreme than you can imagine. If you live in Washington DC, you may never have met a Republican outside the halls of government; the residents voted 80% Democrat in the last presidential election! In other parts of the country (Oklahoma and Virginia, e.g.) all your friends might be Republican -- or if you can't abide with that thought, you may go friendless for three years
Los Angeles ... or Buies Creek?
Philadelphia, New York, Washington DC, Chicago, and Dallas, Houston and Los Angeles are enormous cities. Life there proceeds at a pace that's difficult to imagine if you haven't been there. There is more traffic in Philadelphia at midnight than there is in smaller cities like Durham NC, Ann Arbor MI, or Madison WI, at rush hour. However, these "college towns" have much of the diversity and social opportunities at least of mid-sized cities.
Totally rural law schools, such as Washington & Lee (in Lexington, VA), Vermont (just a few miles up the White River from Sharon), and Campbell (in Buies Creek, NC) are great if you're looking for serenity and a return to nature, a quiet place to study and meditate. If you're looking for a hot night life, I wouldn't recommend them.
The ultimate compromise is a law school in a suburban area, like Villanova (about ten strip-mall covered miles from Philadelphia) Boston College (which is not actually in Boston) or Pepperdine (a half-hour's ride up the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles). Some people view these as the best of all possible worlds, offering relative safety and quiet but within easy reach of the city. Others view the suburbs as the worst of all possible worlds: nothing's nearby, you have to drive to get that midnight pint of ice cream, and there's still smog and crime. Here's a list of law schools and the cities they're in, ranked by size.
Being close to home is cozier -- and cheaper!
Many people say, "I want to be able to drive home for holidays." Yes, but that 300 miles can be in any direction; don't limit yourself by looking up and down the coast but forgetting to look inland. "California is just too far." I know your parents think so, but once you've moved further than a day's drive, you'll probably take the plane home. Then California isn't really further than Ohio.
Is it really cheaper to stay where you are? Staying at home and attending Pepperdine in Malibu or Cardozo in Manhattan may actually cost more than moving to attend Arizona State or U of Houston.
And a final word, to those of you who stay for romance. Apply to at least a few law schools you like in other areas. You'll be starting a year from now, or perhaps more. The love of your life may have changed by then; in fact, you may be thrilled to have the option of moving a few hundred miles away instead of having to stay three blocks from good old what's-his-name who broke off the engagement last spring. And you can always ask the love of your life to move with you.
Shouldn't I go to law school in the state where I want to practice?
Generally speaking, this is not as important as you think. Every ABA-approved law school is required to teach national law, without regard to the locale of the school itself. People generally equate the "Top 14" law schools with "national" schools. These institutions tend to draw job recruiters from all over the country. Regional and state schools draw recruiters primarily from their own state, but also from other areas. Local law schools draw primarily local recruiters, so if you want a job outside a school's recruitment area, you may have to do your own leg work.
It's true that reputation separates out the top 16 to 18 schools, but job placement seems to tell a different story. Some schools that you may think of as local have a very wide placement pattern; others that should be "National" are much more limited. For the inside scoop on job placement by region, click here.
Some states have special laws which you are required to know for the Bar Examination (the state's exam for licensing attorneys). But you can learn these special areas by taking a Bar Examination prep course designed for that state; you needn't attend school there.
How Do I Choose, Then?
Figuring out which school, city, state, is best for you is often a matter of visiting. But you can do an incredible amount of research on the web. And Amazon has dozens of books, even one listing the hazards associated with each area!