Students and Faculty
What should I look for in the faculty?
Diversity and accessibility are the factors I consider most important.
Diversity of faculty is difficult to attain. Most faculty members are lawyers who have worked long enough to gain a reputation in their field. This almost guarantees that they are white males, since that's what virtually all lawyers were until a few years ago, and the vast majority still are. The shortage of women and minorities on the faculty is multiplied by the problems they face in gaining a reputation in their field. The average law school has about 20% female faculty and about 10% minorities. Some law schools have twice those numbers; others have half or less; not too surprisingly, these are often the "top" law schools.
Accessibility is more difficult to measure. Famous professors, authors of landmark treatises and litigators of great cases may not be as accessible as their less-pursued colleagues. "Adjunct" faculty, those who work as judges or litigators most of the time and are brought in to teach specialized classes, may be similarly unavailable; as a general rule, they don't even have an office on the premises. A few law schools, such as Michigan, don't allow their faculty to moonlight, encouraging them to be available to students; others, such as Harvard, place no such restrictions.
What about student/faculty ratio?
Student/faculty ratio, like the number of adjunct faculty, is not an automatic indicator of anything. But it can affect the quality of some services. Since most law professors are required or permitted to supervise only two or three independent study projects a semester, the student/faculty ratio has the most direct bearing on the number of independent study opportunities available. I have heard of students waiting a semester or two to study with the professor of their choice. Otherwise, student/faculty ratio is more likely to affect the number of people in a class than the number of classes offered, unless the school is seriously understaffed or has a very small student body. In those cases, the faculty are so busy teaching the basics that they aren't available for advanced seminars.
This is a "Gamed" Number
Student-faculty ratio is surprisingly easy to "game."
Because this number is so susceptible to manipulation, I prefer looking at the number of elective courses and available seats, published in the ABA data.
Is the faculty liberal or conservative?
Faculty attitudes are no more quantifiable than accessibility. One of the indicators I use is "stated nondiscrimination policies." Every law school (or other institution of higher education) is required by federal law not to discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, and physical limitation. A number of law schools have extended their nondiscrimination policies to include sexual preference or orientation, marital or parental status, political affiliation, or other factors. These policies tell you that the faculty was liberal enough or concerned enough to voice their commitment to this cause publicly.
Conversely, a nondiscrimination policy which is no broader than absolutely necessary might bespeak a faculty's conservative stance: So if the law school's political stance matters to you, the stated nondiscrimination policy is an indicator you might want to check.
Will I find compatible classmates?
As compared to colleges and universities, law schools don't seem to vary greatly in size; the largest incoming class for any law school is about 600, for Harvard, Georgetown, and a few others. But about a dozen law schools have an entering class of fewer than 100. The larger law schools won't necessarily feel impersonal, especially if the class is divided into many smaller sections. But you may never get to know all the members of your class. Small ones, on the other hand, may offer too little diversity, or camaraderie for the minority student. Consider, for instance, two different schools which each publish that 6% of their student body is Asian. Six per cent of 600 is thirty six students; 6% of 100 is six. Will five other Asian students in your class afford you a reasonable opportunity for socializing?
The number of minorities is usually more than 50% at the historically black law schools. For historically white institutions, the number varies from 45% down to 1%! Even if you're not a member of a minority group, you may want more diversity in your class; you may know the enrichment it can add to your education, as well as to your life. And if you are a minority, you may wonder what kind of social life you'll have. We tried to answer that question in December, 2005; click here for our answer to the Dating Parity Problem.
The average age of the student body varies enormously. At Vanderbilt it is twenty-three, while at Northeastern it about thirty. When the average age is twenty-three, that basically means there is one thirty year old for eight twenty-two year olds, or one forty year old for eighteen twenty-two year olds. If you're that forty year old person, you might feel decidedly outnumbered. If the average age is twenty six, on the other hand, the number of twenty-two year olds and thirty year olds is equal, or there are three twenty-two year olds for each forty year old; that's not so overwhelming.
There are many ethnic, religious, or lifestyle groups which may exist at law schools. These can include Italian, Greek, Irish, Black and Hispanic, Jewish, Catholic, lesbian & gay, returning women or mothers' groups, and many more. These groups can provide valuable support to a person who feels the dislocation caused by entering law school. When you spend most of your day feeling like "The Homosexual," a lesbian and gay Friday night potluck can help relieve the week's tensions. A once-a-semester traditional dinner, replete with Babaganoush and stuffed grape leaves, can make the Middle Eastern student feel more at home in the midwest; and a mother's group can provide an emergency baby-sitter during your ten o'clock class.
Women in Law School
Did you know that at some law schools, more than half the 1L class is female? And it was only 30 years ago that the percentage hit double digits (that's 10%, to those of you who are not math-minded).
Who's got the most women? The least? Take a look. Most law school student bodies contain 45% to 50% women, a comfortable number; a very few contain 55% or more women, and a few contain under 35%. A woman might very well feel uncomfortable being outnumbered by men two to one.
Competitiveness at Top Law Schools
Competitiveness is an inherent part of law school. (I saw a cute note someplace pointing out that men who are trial lawyers have more testosterone than other male lawyers, and that male lawyers have more testosterone than other men.) Given its endemic nature and the number of anecdotes (should I say horror stories?) about it, it may seem silly to track degrees of competitiveness. Nonetheless, I've tried.
I've seen two factors that correlate with competitiveness. The fairly obvious one is the relationship between number of job interviews and number of students. The same top 500 or so interviewers will visit every top law school. At a school like Duke or Northwestern, with fewer than 250 students per class, 500 interviewers is plenty. At Harvard or Georgetown, it's not enough. At Columbia and NYU, or Berkeley and Stanford, it's enough for us, but not for BOTH of us. And thus is competition born out of the perception of a scarcity of that most prized resource, a good job.
The second factor is much less obvious -- seats in the library! I'm nuts, I know, but the data was reported in the ABA book, so I looked at it. There seems to be a recommendation of 2 seats for every 3 students. But Columbia has only 1 seat for every 3. As soon as I saw that, I understood the turnstiles and pass cards needed to get in, and the students pushing past each other to get in first. NYU has only .5 seats per student. And more laid back schools have a ratio of one seat per student, or even more. Minnesota, Northwestern, and Michigan students can afford to remain friendly; they're not fighting each other just to sit down!
A list? Nah; the data's right in the ABA book, and it's against my personal rules (and maybe against the law of copyright) to post data that I lifted without adding my own research to make it original. So go look in the ABA book; see how many seats there are, and how many students. I found it interesting.
Where can I learn about students and faculty?
My two best sources of information about faculty and students are not available on the web. The NALP Directory of Law Schools gives data about the number of minority students by ethnicity for each class. The 2011 ABA-LSAC Official Guide, published by Law Services, can be viewed for free at LSAC.org , but you have to download pdf pages for each school — and I don't know about your computer, but on mine, pdf downloads are slooow. You can but the book at most college bookstores, or order it from Law Services. My information about student groups and nondiscrimination policies comes directly from the law schools' catalogs. You can look for this information or order the catalogs from the law schools' web sites.
An excellent way to learn about attitudes at different law schools is to ask the more-or-less-friendly law students on the web. You can subscribe to a number of law student and wanna-be web sites these days. I don't visit them, so I can't tell you much about them except that, according to my clients, they exist. I entered "law school discussion" into Google and got over 9 million hits, so you may have to do some searching.
If you want to see what's already been said about a school, try searching the various chat boards. Enter the name of the school (e.g., "Columbia"). The posts mentioning that school will then be listed for your review.