I Want to Be a Public Interest Lawyer. How Do I Decide Where to Go to Law School? (Part 1)

I get this question a lot, and to some extent the answer is the same as the one I would give to anyone deciding where to go to law school. The legal profession is very focused on status, prestige, and credentialing. The law school you attend matters. This is true no matter whether you want to work for the U.S. government, a big law firm, or legal aid. In general, the higher ranked your law school is, the more opportunities you will have after law school. No, I do not think this is how it should work, but it will not help anyone to pretend this is not the case. The rankings that almost everyone uses are those published each year by U.S. News and World Report. Everyone recognizes that these rankings are flawed, but that does not stop employers from making hiring decisions based on them.

What that means is all else being equal a higher-ranked school will be a better bet than a lower-ranked school. But of course, things are never equal. Here are some of the additional factors you might want to consider that could cause you to deviate from the general advice to go to the highest-ranked school you get into.

Specialized Curriculum

Some schools may be particularly strong in certain sub-field that you are interested in and you may wonder whether this should be a deciding factor for which law school you choose. For example, Lewis and Clark Law School has a top-ranked environmental program, and you may be interested in going there if you want to practice environmental law after law school.

So should you go to a lower-ranked law school if it has strong program in a sub-field you are interested in?

Maybe. If two schools are in the same tier, then it might make sense to choose the school with the more highly-regarded program in the sub-specialty that you are interested in. But the more difference there is between the rankings of the two schools, the less likely it is to make sense to go with the lower-ranked school, regardless of what programs it has.

This is not like graduate school, where it is very important to have someone on the faculty that specializes in your particular sub-field of academic study. It may be impossible to graduate without that institutional support because you will not have an advisor who is interested in your research and committed to helping you succeed.

Law school is different. You could not take a single environmental law course in law school and you could still go on to a successful career in environmental justice with the right summer internships and extracurricular activities. You could start a student group that pairs students with volunteer opportunities in environmental law. You could organize a symposium through law review on an environmental law topic. You could write a major research paper on some environmental law topic. And you could do all of this without a single person on the faculty that knows anything about environmental law.

(As an aside, I now teach immigration law and I did not take an immigration law class in law school because I disagreed vehemently with the nativist politics of the person at my law school who taught immigration at the time. It worked out.)

Is it better to go to a school that has a strong program in whatever area of law you are interested in? Yes! But it may not be worth giving up the benefit of going to a higher-ranked school.

Public Interest Program

Some schools have more of a focus on public interest than your average school. For example, the City University of New York (CUNY) Law School is well known in public interest circles for having a strong focus on public interest law and I have talked to many students who have gone there over better-ranked New York schools for that reason.

So if you have a choice, should you choose a school that has a better public interest program?

This is a tougher question to answer than whether specialized curriculum matters. Even at schools with a strong focus on public interest, there will be immense pressure to abandon that path and go work at a law firm. If you do not have institutional support to forge a public interest career, it can be difficult to resist the siren song of six-figure salaries. You could still get all of the experience you need to get a public interest job after graduation. Few schools have no public interest opportunities. But if the school does not prioritize public interest work, you may find it hard to stay focused on your goals.

I would ask yourself how self-motivated you are. If you think you will stay focused on your goals regardless of what message you get from your school or your classmates, by all means go to the higher-ranked school. But if you feel like you will need that institutional support, a strong public interest program may be more important to your decision. And, as with specialized curricula, a strong public interest program should be less of a factor the greater the difference is between the ranking of the two schools.

In the next blog post, I will discuss two additional factors you may want to consider: geography and financial aid.

One thought on “I Want to Be a Public Interest Lawyer. How Do I Decide Where to Go to Law School? (Part 1)”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s