Best law schools: 2019 ranking

How to choose where to study law and legal theory

Lawyer, judges, and other members of the legal field have long enjoyed a prestigious and well-rewarded place in society. Studying at one of the best law schools in the US can be instrumental in setting you up for future professional and personal success. Attaining expertise in law and legal theory can not only prepare you for a career in the legal field, but can also give you valuable experience that can be applied towards a life in the corporate world, academia, or even politics, with many congressmen, judges, and even presidents having a legal background. Pursuing admission into a top law school can open up many opportunities for you, but weighing academic, financial, and other considerations can make figuring out the right school for you tricky. However, there’s no need to worry, as we’ve made this guide in order to give you greater insight next time you’re weighing the pros and cons of Stanford Law School vs Yale Law School, and allow you to make the best decision for your future!

Faculty & Academics

While there are a variety of benefits to attending one of the best law schools in the country, a strong record of academic excellence is definitely one of the most important. In addition to the various degree programs and courses offered, a prospective school's history, the qualifications of its staff and faculty, and the makeup of the student body will also affect the value and types of opportunities a law school will offer to students such as yourself. Understanding the various individual features comprising a school’s overall academic standard is perhaps the most crucial part of seeing which top law school will be the best fit for you.

University Establishment

The date that a law school was established can be a key gauge of its overall academic quality. Schools with a lengthier history often have strongly established programs and long traditions of excellence. A law school with a long tradition is also more likely to attract more prestigious faculty members. Professors who have worked at highly renowned law firms or are well-respected legal scholars are invaluable resources for any student. Alumni associations filled with influential and renowned former graduates are also more prevalent at older schools. This can be another great resource, providing you with the potential for networking opportunities and connections that will bolster your career. Most of the best law schools in the United States were founded at some point in the nineteenth century, with Harvard Law School, the oldest, having been founded two hundred years ago, in 1817.

Student enrollment

The total number of enrolled students at any given law school greatly impacts campus life. Most of the best law schools have fairly small class sizes due to their selectivity, but the number of undergraduate and graduate students in other programs will affect the campus’s atmosphere and available resources. Larger student bodies correspond with larger alumni pools, meaning there may be greater funding available for academic, professional development, and extracurricular programs. A high number of graduate students can also indicate that the university emphasizes research, and its professors are more likely to be published in peer-reviewed scholarly journals. Another important enrollment statistic is the percentage of international students at a university, which can be a mark of a desirable program whose good reputation extends across national borders.

Number of programs

The amount of major and minor degree programs a law school offers is crucial in regards to giving you opportunities to add depth and variety to your education. As the law is one of the most complex fields of study, having a wider breadth of concentration and courses to choose from can help you not only specialize in certain fields, but also gain a better-rounded, more in-depth appreciation of legal theory in general. In addition to the standard J.D. degree, schools like NYU Law offer specializations including Environmental and Energy Law, Taxation, and International Legal Studies, giving you access to advanced coursework and greater expertise in those specialized fields. Ultimately, the importance of the number and type of programs offered will vary given your individual academic and professional goals, but having a variety of strong options is always a plus in case you decide to make changes to your degree plan, or just to explore a unique and interesting class.

Double degree programs

The law and legal theory programs will naturally be the most important to you as a prospective law school student, but evaluating available opportunities to expand the scope of your education through double degree programs integrating other disciplines can also pay great dividends for you in the future. A school that offers strong opportunities for cross-discipline study and entrepreneurial growth can give you a leg up over your peers by arming you with a well-rounded set of skills. We mentioned in the introduction that an education from one of the top law schools in the country can be the first step towards success not only in a legal career, but in other fields as well. If you are interested in additional fields of study or occupational pursuits, you should look for a law school offering a variety of cross-discipline double degree programs. Prestigious universities, such as Columbia Law School or the NYU Law School, offer joint degree programs in fields ranging from Journalism, Public Health, and Business, among others. This versatility will give you the opportunity to combine your legal education with the skills learned in your second-degree program and be on the path to excel in a variety of professions.

Academic staff & student to staff ratio

A law school’s academic staff makes an enormous difference in its overall quality as an academic institution. You should look for schools with not only a higher percentage of faculty being comprised of professors and other academic staff, but those whose academic staff went to top law schools and has professional experience working for well-known law firms or companies. Professors who are recognized experts in their field will add to your education in ways that are not replicable at other schools. You should also look for colleges with low student-to-staff ratios, as this will give you access to more personalized attention and focused instruction from your professors. Stanford Law has a 6.7:1 student-to-staff ratio, the lowest among the best law schools in the US. However, there are also excellent schools with slightly higher ratios, such as Harvard Law School with its 12.4 students per faculty member.

Tuition and finances

Tuition and the additional financial impact of attending law school will be a key practical component of your decision set. From Yale to Stanford, the tuition at most of the top law schools in the United States will be around $60,000, but the cost of living near different campuses, available public and private scholarships and financial aid, as well as the tuition premium for international students, can greatly vary from school to school. You should also rank the schools according to the value they provide for your money, which you can calculate using the gross cost of a given school’s program, the income lost due to being a full-time student, and the average earnings for a school’s graduates.

Ranking and prestige

The prestige a school enjoys in the academic and professional world at large can make a huge difference both while you are a student, and once you graduate. Being a student or alumnus of an institution with a strong reputation can open doors for you and help you make connections that can contribute greatly to your future success. Here are some key factors that reflect the prestige of a given law school.

1) Number of applicants & admission rate

If a law school has a large number of applicants but a low admission rate, it can mean that entrance into its programs is sought after and competitive, and their selective acceptance means that the students that make the cut are more accomplished than their peers. Yale Law is the most selective of the US’s best law schools, only taking in 10% of applicants. NYU Law, while relatively less competitive compared to its peers among the law school elite, still only accepts about one-third of aspiring applicants.

2) Employment after graduation

Since post-graduate degrees involve significant personal and financial investment, it is important to look for a school with a high job placement percentage for their graduates. Most of the top law schools in the nation have a post-graduate employment rate of over 95%. Even Yale Law, the only exception, has a job placement rate of 92%, with an additional 4% opting instead for further graduate studies.

3) ARWU universities ranking

The Academic Ranking of World Universities uses six quantitative, objective measures in order to rank the top colleges in the world, and landing on this list means a school stands out not just nationally, but globally. Harvard and Stanford University held down the top two spots in the ARWU 2017 ranking, reflecting the prestige enjoyed by their programs, including their respective legal departments.

4) Forbes US colleges ranking

Being named in the Forbes Annual Ranking of America’s 650 Top Colleges is another indication of a school’s merits relative to its competitors. In 2017, Harvard, Stanford, and Yale all had spots in Forbes top ten schools, with Stanford earning the number one ranking.

5) Academic reputation QS

The academic reputation index is the most heavily weighted portion of the QS World University rankings, and receiving a high score on this index is an achievement that reflects very positively on a school’s academic standard.

Student life

The body of enrolled students and former graduates has a great impact on a school’s culture, as well an on the extracurricular and professional development opportunities that will be available to you. The association of former graduates from a university, or alumni network, can be a great tool for you not just while you are attending your chosen law school, but in your future career as well. Connections with alumni can help you form valuable social bonds, and also open up valuable networking and employment opportunities to you. Being part of the same fraternity, sorority, or student organization as an alumnus can also help you forge even stronger connections with them. Involvement in various student organizations, such as student government, academic societies, or social groups, can also be a fantastic way to enrich your college experience while also growing both personally and professionally.

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