Deciding which law school to attend is probably the biggest decision you'll make regarding your legal career. And it does indeed matter a lot, but there's a qualifier here.
It's generally accepted that the school on your resume carries a lot more weight when you've just passed the bar and you're looking for your first position. It will matter less years down the road. Eventually, you'll add experience and an impressive track record to your credentials, and that can be more important.
Initially, however, your choice of a school can set you apart from all the other grads looking for a job. The higher your school is ranked, the more likely it is that you'll easily find a position.
Law Is a Snobby Profession
Lawyers can be a snobby bunch. They care about precedent, and they care about hierarchy. Attending a “prestigious” law school can open some doors that would otherwise remain closed to you.
That being said, many successful attorneys don't attend fancy law schools. In fact, some have suggested that graduates of less prestigious schools are more successful in the long run.
It’s possible to be a happy, successful attorney if you go to a less prestigious school, but you’ll be hard-pressed to get certain jobs, such as a law professorship or Supreme Court clerkship.
Location should be the single most important consideration when you're deciding which law school to attend, assuming you don’t have the option of one of the few truly “national” schools at the top of the prestige heap.
Aim to go to law school in an area where you already know where you want to practice, if possible. This will give you an opportunity to participate in the legal community there for three years while you're still in school.
You’ll have opportunities for networking and internships that wouldn't be possible if you weren't geographically located where you want to practice.
Studying where you want to work shows that you’re committed to the area. No one wants to hire someone who’s just going to move along in a couple of years, so send the signal that you’re here to stay.
You can also interview at a moment’s notice when a desirable job opportunity comes up. Your options are far more open than if you'd have to fly across the country for an interview.
Finally, it might help you pass the bar exam. Attending a local school can expose you to more of the law you’ll be tested on, making it easier to pass on the first try, particularly for states like California with notoriously difficult exams.
Your School Is Your Network
The people you meet in law school will be your professional network after you graduate, whether they're professors, classmates, or alumni. It’s possible to overcome the lack of a network and meet lawyers in a new area, but it’s far easier to keep in touch with law school friends and cultivate those connections over time.
Ask about the strength of the alumni network when you're deciding between different schools. Even better, test it out by asking to speak with some recent graduates to see if they’ll talk with potential students.
A strong alumni network will pay dividends far into the future, so it’s something to look for upfront.
Consider the Opportunities Each School Offers
Look at the opportunities each school offers with relation to your particular career interests. Find out if there are clinics and externships available to develop your practice skills, and determine how competitive these opportunities are.
Some schools offer a loan repayment plan for public interest work. Investigate this option thoroughly if you have any interest in this option.
Do some research into the school’s job numbers as well, but be sure you can trust them. Try talking to recent graduates to get the real scoop on jobs and other opportunities rather than just relying on glossy brochures from the institutions.