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Applying to Law School: Location, Location, Location?

Today’s post comes to us from our friends at The Law School Toolbox.

In law school admissions land, it’s a question as old as time: How important is location when deciding where to apply? Is it dispositive? (Only go to a school in the area where you want to practice.) Highly persuasive? (All things considered, it’s a lot better to go to school where you want to practice.) Or mere dicta? (Sure, it would be nice, but other factors are more important.)

The answer, naturally, is it depends. But, on the whole, I’d argue you’re typically a lot better off going to school where you want to practice. Here’s why.

Four Factors to Consider When Applying to Law School
When applying to law school, you’re essentially balancing four factors:

  • Cost
  • Location
  • Prestige
  • Ability to get in

In an ideal world, you’d get a full scholarship to a highly-ranked school in the exact location you’re sure you’ll live in for the rest of your life. But that’s not always possible. Maybe there aren’t any great law schools nearby. Maybe you’re not sure where you want to live. Maybe you’re not competitive at the best local school. Maybe you can’t afford it. And so on.

It’s always a balancing act.

What’s the Path of Least Resistance?
If you think of each law school as a drop of water in a watershed, it’s easy to see why location matters. Say I want my drop of water to end up in the Atlantic Ocean. I’ve got two options – start in a spring on the Eastern Seaboard that eventually flows into the Atlantic Ocean, or start in a cloud that drops snow in the Rockies, which eventually melts and gets bottled, taken across the country, and poured into the Atlantic Ocean. Is Scenario Two impossible? No, but it’s a lot less likely than Scenario One!

If you go to school somewhere you don’t want to practice, you’re setting yourself up for an uphill battle when it comes time to get a job. This is true, to some extent, even at very prestigious “national” schools. Although you can get a job in California from Columbia, or in NYC from Stanford, it’s more hassle. Firms are more suspicious of your motives (Are you just looking for a summer vacation in California? Can you really handle the chaos of NYC?), judges don’t know your recommenders, you have to fly 3,000 miles to interview, and so on.

Why Law School Location Matters
When you’re embedded in the local legal community, you can start making connections early – connections that may prove critical to getting an offer in today’s tough job market. Getting involved with local legal organizations, including the local bar association, gives you the chance to meet local attorneys (potential mentors and employers) and show your unique value via pro bono work, volunteer positions, and so on. You can participate in clinics that work in the community, your professors have connections and might be able to pull some strings, you can do informational interviews with local attorneys, etc.

Countervailing Considerations
Of course, there are times when other factors will outweigh location. Especially if you’re from an unusual home state, you might get a slight admissions bump applying elsewhere. (“National” schools love to claim they have students from all 50 states!) If your local market has only very expensive schools, perhaps your money will go further in a different location. Maybe you’re interested in a specific area of law, which your local law school doesn’t focus on.

If you decide to apply somewhere you don’t want to practice, just be fully aware of the trade-off you’re making. There may be very valid reasons to go elsewhere, but it will almost certainly be harder to get a job in your ideal location when you graduate!

Alison Monahan is the creator of The Girl’s Guide to Law School and a co-creator of Law School Toolbox, Bar Exam Toolbox, and Trebuchet Legal. You can find her on Twitter at @GirlsGuideToLS. Say Hello!