Selecting a Law School? Don’t Overlook What’s Outside the Classroom

ClassroomMuch of your law school education will take place outside of the classroom. Although rankings are important, if you can find a school that supports your interests, your time in law school will be a lot more rewarding.

Before you commit to a school, it’s important to look at what activities are offered, and how widely available they are, so you can ensure you’ll have something interesting to do (other than go to class).

Activities to Investigate:
  • Clinics: Many law schools now offer clinical education programs. These allow you to work with real clients, on real cases or projects, under the close supervision of a clinical professor. Clinics run the gamut, from working directly with an individual client on an immigration or family law matter, to working with a small business to incorporate, to drafting a brief in a groundbreaking impact litigation case. For many people, their clinic is a highlight of the law school experience, so a school that has clinics in your area of interest deserves a close look. Of course, offering a clinic and offering it to you are two different matters. If there’s a particular clinic you definitely want to take, talk to some current students about the process for registering. If only a few spots are available each year, it might be a chimera.
  • Judicial externships: A judicial externship allows you to receive course credit for working for a judge. This can be a great experience, and is one area where many urban law schools get bonus points. It’s a lot easier to find an appropriate judge when you have many nearby to choose from. If the school you’re considering is in a less populated area, your options for judicial externships during the school term may be limited (although you could still do one in the summer, in a different location).
  • Law Journals: Most schools have at least one law journal, generally called the School Name Law Review, and many have various specialty journals as well. Legal academia is somewhat unique in that it has very few “peer reviewed” journals. Instead, most scholarly articles and papers are published in law journals, which are run and edited largely by law students. As a law student, you’ll have the opportunity to apply to join a journal as a staff member (generally in your second year) and to participate in running the journal as a board member in your final year. Being a member of the main law journal at a school is a prestigious credential, one many employers like to see. Unfortunately, women are underrepresented on most schools’ primary law journals. If you’re deciding between a few schools, take a look at the masthead for their Law Review for the last few years. If you consistently see very few women, pay attention. That’s not a good sign! Beyond looking at the proportion of female representation on a school’s main law journal, check out what areas of law are covered by the specialty journals. If there’s one in your area of interest, that’s a definite plus, as it suggests a critical mass of like-minded people.
  • Internships: Many schools offer internships of various types. You might be able to work for a government agency, in a company of interest, or for an attorney doing work in your field. Internship opportunities vary widely, but having more options is rarely a bad thing!
  • Study Abroad: Perhaps you thought your chance to study abroad ended with college graduation. Not true! Many law schools offer study abroad programs, during the summer or during the school year. Many of these programs have strict language requirements, but not all. If there’s a country you’d like to live in for a few months, this could be your chance.
  • Public Interest Support: If you have any interest in public interest law, it’s critical to investigate how supportive a potential school is of public interest work. Is there an office, or a person, dedicated to the cause? Does the school have a loan repayment program? Are there student organizations devoted to public interest law? It can be difficult to pursue public interest work when everyone around you is chasing the money. You’ll have a better shot at staying the course if you find a school with a strong public interest community.
  • Summer Funding: Summer funding for public interest jobs is absolutely critical if you want to pursue public interest law, but it’s worth considering even if you don’t think that’s your path. It can be very difficult to find a paid position after your first year of law school. Having the option to work as a volunteer and get a stipend from the school allows you to gain valuable legal experience (which you can parlay into a paid job the next summer) while still paying your rent. This is one area where it’s important to dig into the details. Many schools advertise summer funding, but it turns out to be highly competitive and not available to everyone who wants it. Having guaranteed funding allows you to breathe easier and focus on finding the right job, rather than worrying about how you’re going to pay for groceries.
  • Women-Specific Organizations: It’s quite common for law schools to have an organization specifically devoted to women, such as a chapter of the National Women’s Law School Organization. These groups sponsor networking and social activities, and may offer mentor matching (where second and third year students are matched with first year students), outline banks, or other academic support services. Particularly in the first year, law school can be very isolating and first-year students tend to talk mostly to each other. It’s valuable to have a women-friendly group around to broaden your horizons and introduce you to upper class students, who are generally happy to share their accumulated wisdom.
  • Pro Bono Opportunities: Doing pro bono work in law school serves several functions. It allows you to get valuable hands-on experience as a lawyer, while helping someone who really needs your help. You’ll gain confidence and learn what it feels like to have someone relying on your judgment and experience. It also provides valuable perspective, as your concerns about grades and exams start to pale in comparison to your client’s concern that her abusive ex-husband is going to try to kidnap her daughter. Most schools have a variety of pro bono opportunities (and many actually require a certain number of hours of pro bono work to graduate). If there’s a particular area you’d like to explore, see if the school has it covered. If not, investigate how difficult it is to start a new pro bono project in your area of interest.

Not every school will have every one of these options, of course, but it’s a good sign if there are lots of offerings that seem appealing to you. If not, maybe this school’s not for you (or maybe you don’t actually want to go to law school!).

Read on:

Looking for more prelaw content? Check out Should I Go? or Applying to Law School 101. Or take a look at these:

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