Studying a Law School
posted by Alfred Yen
Here are some suggestions for studying a law school you may be thinking of attending. A lot of this information can be gleaned from the school’s website, and you can use the time you have on campus to get your questions answered.
First, study the school’s academic program. With respect to the first year, look for courses that distinguish the school’s curriculum from those of others. Pay particular attention to the first year writing course. An attorney’s success depends a lot on writing ability, so it’s worth it if the school you attend has a rigorous program staffed with experienced instructors. You will likely discover a broad range of approaches, from second or third year law students as instructors, to recent graduates as part-time instructors, to teaching fellows on three year terms, to full-time faculty. In my opinion, writing programs taught by full-time, permanent faculty are likely to be most effective because those teachers gain experience that can be lavished on you. Teachers who are themselves students, or whose time at the school is limited, cannot do likewise.
Beyond the first year, look for the richness of program in areas that interest you. Don’t necessarily assume a school’s offerings in an area are superior because they have a specialized “program.” Look under the hood. Does the school have full-time faculty teaching the courses that matter to you, particularly the core courses in your area? Are they experts in the field? There’s nothing wrong with seeing some adjunct (i.e. part-time) faculty in a program. Very often they’re experienced lawyers with a lot to offer. But, if there are too many, there won’t be anyone around for you to talk to when you need it most because the adjuncts will be at their regular jobs. Take some time to study the skills program as well. Clinics or externships offer great exposure to the profession and practical experience that can serve you well.
Second, take a look at the strength of the student services program. Every school has a Dean for Students, career counseling, financial aid, and placement offices. However, not every school puts enough resources behind them. How many people are available to speak with you if you want advice? How many job listings does the placement office have, and in how broad a range of jobs? Is there specialized counseling for public interest or government employment? Are there vibrant student organizations you’d like to join?
Third, get a sense of the library because you’re going to do a lot of research and studying for 3 years. You may be tempted to think all libraries are the same, but they’re not. Collection size matters. If you’re doing research and can’t get a book, you’re stymied while you wait for it to come in on interlibrary loan. Reference staff also matters. They’ll help you find things, and they’ll also be helping you learn to conduct research. Finally, when you visit, go into the library and see if you’d enjoy studying there. Is it quiet, comfortable, and well-lit? Believe me, some libraries will make you want to stay and read, and others will drive you to Starbucks.
Fourth, study the physical facility. Go to a classroom and check out the sight lines, particularly from the back of the room with people sitting in front of you. You might be surprised how many large classrooms make it very hard to see the professor when the room is full. If you can attend a class, make sure you can hear the professor and the students. Are there places for students to gather and talk? Space for student organizations? Take a look too at information technology. Is the library/campus wireless, and are there adequate terminals and printers for your use? Is there power for laptops in the classrooms? Is there audio-visual capacity in classrooms so instructors can use the latest technology? If you’ll be driving to and from school, is there enough parking?
Fifth, try to meet some students and faculty. You’ll spend three years talking to them, so get a sense of whether you’ll enjoy them and learn from them.
And last, but not least, get a feel for the place. Every school has a unique atmosphere. It’s a bit like hunting for an apartment. Ask yourself if it feels right.