Law school in the United States

Law school in the United States

In the United States, a law school is an institution where students obtain a professional education in law. A law student must hold an undergraduate degree in any field. In most cases the degree awarded by U.S. law schools is the "Juris Doctor", or J.D., degree, which is considered a terminal degree. Other degrees that are awarded include the Master of Laws degree (LL.M.) and the Doctor of Juridical Science degree (J.S.D. or S.J.D.), which are more international in scope. Though most law schools are hosted by a larger post-secondary institution, the school itself is largely autonomous from the hosting institution. This arrangement is very different from that in many other parts of the world: see legal education.


In the United States, most law schools require a bachelor's degree, a satisfactory undergraduate grade point average, and a satisfactory score on the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) in order to be considered for admission. [Wayne L. Anderson and Marilyn J. Headrick, "The Legal Profession: Is it for you?" (Cincinnati: Thomson Executive Press, 1996), 52-53.] Some states that have non-ABA-approved schools or state-accredited schools have equivalency requirements that usually equal 90 credits toward a bachelor's degree. Additional personal factors are evaluated through essays, short-answer questions, letters of recommendation, and other application materials. The standards for grades and LSAT scores vary from school to school. For actual admissions statistics, visit

Individual factors are also very important, although applicants are generally not asked to interview as part of the application process. Many law schools actively seek applicants from outside the traditional pool to boost racial, economic, and experiential diversity on campus. Most law schools now factor in extracurricular activities, work experience, and unique courses of study in their evaluation of applicants. [Anderson, 53-58.] A growing number of law school applicants have several years of work experience, and correspondingly fewer law students enter immediately after completing their undergraduate education. [Anderson, 56-57.]

Students considering law school should note that although law school tuition is high, it is not uncommon for law students to receive grants and scholarships, or, more rarely, complete tuition waivers, from their schools. While each school's financial aid system operates differently, there is a rule of thumb relating to GPA and LSAT scores: a student whose grades and LSAT are higher than those of most students admitted to a given school--in other words, a student who could go to a "better" school--has a good chance of being offered some kind of scholarship by the lower-ranked school. Likewise, some law students choose lower ranked schools due to their inability to get into higher ranked schools because of low LSAT scores and GPA, and then transfer to the better schools after their first year of study, provided that they received good grades in the first year of law school. Many highly ranked schools do not accept many transfer applicants due to lack of space in the class, and transferring may make it more difficult for a student to participate in on-campus recruiting from potential employers.


In order to sit for the bar exam, the vast majority of state bar associations requires that an applicant's law school be accredited by the American Bar Association. The ABA has promulgated detailed requirements covering every aspect of a law school, down to the precise contents of the law library and the minimum number of minutes of instruction required to receive a law degree. As of July 2008, there are 199 ABA-accredited law schools that award the J.D., divided between 188 with full accreditation and 11 with provisional accreditation. The Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School in Charlottesville, Virginia, a school operated by the United States Army that conducts a post-J.D. program for military attorneys, is also ABA-accredited. The ABA maintains a [ list of ABA approved law schools] . For an explanation of ABA accreditation, see [ ABA Accreditation Process] .

In addition, individual state legislatures or bar examiners may maintain a separate accreditation system which is open to non-ABA accredited schools. If that is the case, graduates of these schools may generally sit for the bar exam only in the state in which their school is accredited. California is the most famous example of state-specific accreditation. The State Bar of California's Committee of Bar Examiners approves many schools which may not qualify for or request ABA accreditation. Graduates of such schools can sit for the bar exam in California, and once they have passed that exam, a large number of states allow those students to sit for their bars (after practicing for a certain number of years in California).

California is also the first state to allow graduates of online law schools to take its bar exam. However, online and correspondence law schools are generally not accredited by the ABA or state bar examiners, and the eligibility of their graduates to sit for the bar exam may vary from state to state. Even in California, for instance, the State Bar deems certain online schools as "registered," meaning their graduates may take the bar exam, but also specifically says the "Committee of Bar Examiners does not approve nor accredit correspondence schools."cite web|url= |title=Law Schools: Correspondence Law Schools Registered with the Committee of Bar Examiners |publisher=The State Bar of California |accessdate=2007-09-13] Kentucky goes further by specifically disqualifying correspondence school graduates from admission to the bar. This applies even if the graduate has gained admission in another jurisdiction.cite web|url= |title=SCR 2.014 Legal Education |author=Supreme Court of Kentucky |publisher=Kentucky Office of Bar Admissions |accessdate=2007-09-13]


Law students are referred to as "1L"s, "2L"s, and "3L"s based on their year of study. However, some law schools, such as the Penn State Dickinson School of Law, still follow the tradition of referring to students as Juniors, Middlers and Seniors. In the United States, the American Bar Association does not mandate a particular curriculum for "1L"s. ABA Standard 302(a)(1) requires only the study of "substantive law" that will lead to "effective and responsible participation in the legal profession." However, most law schools have their own mandatory curriculum which typically includes:

*Civil procedure
*Constitutional law
*Criminal law

*Legal research
*Legal writing

These basic courses are intended to provide an overview of the broad study of law. Not all ABA-approved law schools offer all of these courses in the 1L year: many schools do not require constitutional law and/or criminal law "in the first year" (both courses "are" required at some point in the 3 years of attendance, however). Some schools roll legal research and legal writing into a single year-long "lawyering skills" course, which may also include a small oral argument component.

After the first year, law students are generally free to pursue different fields of legal study, such as administrative law, corporate law, international law, admiralty law, intellectual property law, and tax law.

The ABA also requires that all students at ABA-approved schools take an ethics course in professional responsibility. Typically, this is an upper-level course; most students take it in the 2L year. This requirement was added after the Watergate scandal, which seriously damaged the public image of the profession because President Richard Nixon and most of his alleged cohorts were lawyers. The ABA desired to demonstrate that the legal profession could regulate itself and hoped to prevent direct federal regulation of the profession.

As of 2004, to ensure that students' research and writing skills do not deteriorate, the ABA has added an upper division writing requirement. Law students must take at least one course, or complete an independent study project, as a 2L or 3L that requires the writing of a paper for credit. Most law courses are less about doctrine and more about learning how to analyze legal problems, read cases, distill facts and apply law to facts. Legal education focuses on skill-learning, not law-learning.

Many of the top schools in the United States are much more interested in teaching students legal theory and analysis than they are in the specific doctrines or "black letter law." Top schools emphasize theory over practice for several reasons. First, these schools often train legal academics, who will be teaching future lawyers. Second, professors at these schools are often interested in questions of legal theory and legal reform, as they themselves are, and were, often not practitioners. Third, these schools often have the most prestigious journals, and students are encouraged to engage in scholarship in order to publish in these journals.

However, clinical education is very important, and many schools, such as Wisconsin Law School, differentiate themselves with excellent clinical programs. Moreover, students often seek out clinical programs because doctrinal courses offer little in the way of practical training. On the other hand, clinical programs may be emphasized to the detriment of opportunities for more lucrative tracts such as corporate law.

In 1968, the Ford Foundation began disbursing $12 million to persuade law schools to make "law school clinics" part of their curriculum. Clinics were intended to give practical experience in law practice while providing "pro bono" representation to the poor. However, conservative critics charge that the clinics have been used instead as an avenue for the professors to engage in left-wing political activism. Critics cite the financial involvement of the Ford Foundation as the turning point when such clinics began to change from giving practical experience to engaging in advocacy. [Heather Mac Donald. "Clinical, Cynical." "The Wall Street Journal." January 11, 2006; Page A14.]

As well, many law students participate in internship programs during their course of study.

Finally, it should be noted that the emphasis in law schools is almost never on the law of the particular state in which the law school sits, but on the state of the law generally throughout the country (contract law at the University of North Carolina, then, will focus not on contracts in North Carolina, but on the law of contracts generally). Although this makes studying for the bar more difficult since one must learn state-specific law, the emphasis on legal skills over legal knowledge seems to serve lawyers well in the long run, particularly those not intending to practice in the same state they attend law school.


Grades in law school are very competitive. Most schools grade on a curve. For example, at most law schools in a typical class about 25% of students receive an A or A-, about 50% of students receive a B+, B, or B-, and about 25% receive a C+, C, C-, D, or F.

Many schools use a “median” grading system, typically a “B median” or a “B-minus median”. Under that system, a professor is obliged to determine which exam or paper was the exact median in terms of quality (e.g, the 35th best out of 70), give that paper a B (or B-minus, depending on the system used), and then grade the other exams based on how much better or worse they are than the median. A few schools, such as Yale Law School and Berkeley Law (University of California, Berkeley), have alternate grading systems that put less emphasis on rank. Other schools, such as New York’s Fordham Law School, use a much more demanding grading system, in which precise percentages of students are to receive certain grades. For instance, (and with numbers picked at random), such a system may oblige professors to award 3.5% A’s, 7% A-minuses, 20 percent B+‘s, 30 percent B’s, 25 percent B-minuses, 10 percent D’s, and 4.5% F’s. Many professors chafe against the lack of discretion provided by such systems, especially the required failing of a certain number of students whose performance may have been sub-par but not, in the professor’s estimation, worthy of a failing grade. The “median” system seeks to provide some parity among teachers’ grading scales while giving the teacher discretion to award a grade below the median only when deserved.

All of these systems are milder forms of the colloquial perception of earlier law schools’ unforgiving practices. A commonly-described situation is that of an imposing professor greeting first-day students by saying: “Look to the left of you and look to the right of you. At the end of the year, only one of you will remain.” This phrase has been so widely claimed that it is most likely apocryphal, but is considered to be roughly accurate of previous law school attrition practices. Even with curved grading, some law schools such as Syracuse University College of Law still have a policy of “Dismissal for Academic Deficiency,” in which students failing to meet a minimum GPA are dismissed from the school. []

One school which has deviated from the system of competitive grading common to most American law schools is Northeastern University School of Law. Northeastern does not have any system of grade point averages or class rank, Instead, the school uses a system of narrative evaluations to measure student performance.

Pedagogical methods

Most law school education in the United States is based on standards developed by Christopher Columbus Langdell and James Barr Ames at Harvard Law School during the 1870s. Professors generally lead in-class debates over the issues in selected court cases, compiled into "casebooks" for each course. Traditionally, law professors chose not to lecture extensively, and instead used the Socratic method to force students to teach each other based on their individual understanding of legal theory and the facts of the case at hand.

Many law schools continue to use the Socratic method--consisting of calling on a student at random, asking him or her about an argument made in an assigned case, asking the student whether he or she agrees with the argument, and then using a series of questions designed to expose logical flaws in the student's argument. Examinations usually entail interpreting the facts of a hypothetical case, determining how legal theories apply to the case, and then writing an essay. This process is intended to train students in the reasoning methods necessary to interpret theories, statutes, and precedents correctly, and argue their validity, both orally and in writing. In contrast, most civil law countries base their legal education on professorial lectures and oral examinations, which are more suited for the mastery of complicated civil codes.

This style of teaching is often discomfiting to first-year law students who are more accustomed to taking notes from professors' lectures. Most casebooks do not clearly outline the law; instead, they force the student to interpret the cases and draw the basic legal concepts from the cases themselves. As a result, many publishers market law school outlines that concisely summarize the basic concepts of each area of law, and good outlines are highly sought after by many students, although some professors discourage their use.

Legal pedagogy has also been criticized by scholars like Alan Watson in his book, "The Shame of Legal Education".

For purposes of passing state bar examinations, some law school graduates find law school instruction inadequate, and resort to specialized bar review courses from private course providers. These bar reviews typically consist of lectures, often videorecorded.

Credentials obtainable while in law school

Within each U.S. law school, key credentials include:

* Law review/Law journal membership or editorial position (based either on grades or write-on competition or both). This is important for at least three reasons. First, because it is determined by either grades or writing ability, membership is an indicator of strong academic performance. [Anderson, 43-44.] This leads to the second reason, which is that potential employers sometimes use law review membership in their hiring criteria. [Anderson, 43-44.] Third, work on law review exposes a student to legal scholarship and editing, and often allows the student to publish a significant piece of legal scholarship on his or her own. [Anderson, 43-44.] Most law schools have a "flagship" journal usually called "School name" Law Review" (for example, the Harvard Law Review—although some schools call their flagship journal "School name" Law Journal"; see Yale Law Journal) that publishes articles on all areas of law, and one or more other specialty law journals that publish articles concerning only a particular area of the law (for example, the Harvard Journal of Law and Technology).
* Moot court membership or award (based on oral and written argument). Success in moot court can distinguish one as an outstanding oral advocate and provides a degree of practical legal training that is often absent from law review membership. [Anderson, 44.] Moot court and related activities, such as Trial Advocacy and Dispute Resolution, may appeal especially to employers hiring for litigation positions, such as a district attorney's office.
* Order of the Coif membership (based on grade point average). This is often coupled with Latin honors (summa and magna cum laude, though often not cum laude). However, a slight majority of law schools in the U.S. do not have Order of the Coif chapters.

tate and federal court clerkship

:see|Law clerkOn the basis of a student's credentials, as well as favorable faculty recommendations, some students obtain a one or two-year clerkship with a judge after graduation. [Anderson, 110.] Clerkships may be with state or federal judges.

Clerkships are meant to provide the recent law school graduate (note: it is getting more common for some clerks to begin their clerkship after a few years of work in private practice) with experience working for a judge. Often, clerks engage in significant legal research and writing for the judge, writing memos to assist a judge in coming to a legal conclusion in some cases, and writing drafts of opinions based on the judge's decisions. Appellate court clerkships, although generally more prestigious, do not necessarily give one a great deal of practical experience in the day-to-day life of a lawyer in private practice. The average litigator might get much more out of a clerkship at the trial court level, where he or she will be learning about motions practices, dealing with lawyers, and generally learning how a trial court works on the inside. What a lawyer might lose in prestige he or she might gain in experience.

By and large, though, clerkships provide other valuable assets to a young lawyer. Judges often become mentors to young clerks, providing the young attorney with an experienced individual to whom he or she can go for advice. Fellow clerks can also become lifelong friends and/or professional connections. Those contemplating academia do well to obtain an appellate court clerkship at the federal level, since those clerkships provide a great opportunity to think at a very high level about the law.

Clerkships are great experiences for the new lawyers, and law schools encourage graduates to engage in a clerkship to broaden their professional experiences. However, there simply are not enough clerkships to accommodate all the academically eligible graduates.

United States Supreme Court clerkship

Some law school graduates are able to clerk for one of the Justices on the Supreme Court (each Justice takes two to four clerks per year). Often, these clerks are graduates of elite law schools, with Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago, University of Michigan, Columbia, and Stanford being among the most highly represented schools. [Brian Leiter, [ Supreme Court Clerkship Placement, 1991 Through 2005 Terms] , "Leiter's Law School Rankings", "Accessed April 26, 2006"] Most Supreme Court clerks have clerked in a lower court, often for a year with a highly selective federal circuit court judge (such as Judges Alex Kozinski, Michael Luttig, Harvey Wilkinson, David Tatel, Richard Posner, to name a few). It is perhaps the most highly selective and prestigious position a recently-graduated lawyer can have, and Supreme Court clerks are often highly sought after by law firms, the government, and law schools. Law firms give Supreme Court clerks as much as a $250,000 bonus for signing with their firm. The vast majority of Supreme Court clerks either become academics at elite law schools, enter private practice as appellate attorneys, or take highly selective government positions.

Criticism of American law schools

Critics charge that the Socratic Method has fallen into disuse, and little debate occurs in law school classrooms, which are mostly lectures. The faculty at American law schools do not have to answer to the needs of students since their career advancement rests solely on publishing and peer review. Rare is the school where the ability to teach students, and the students' input into the professor's classroom experience, is given enough consideration as to determine the tenure status of a professor. :"In fact, law students learn their subjects on their own. With few exceptions, students avoid faculty as faculty avoid students. The wonderful opportunity to use the classroom as a laboratory to debate and review in an atmosphere that encourages critical thinking is lost." William I. Weston, Law Schools, Heal Thyself, 15 ABA Prof. Law. 24

Critics note the cost of legal education in the United States has made it out of reach for many poor or indebted people, and that applying for enough grants and loans to cover the cost is burdensome enough to discourage many qualified applicants from applying. For these people who enter school regardless, the financial struggle can often take a toll on a student's grades. It also limits the choice of employment for graduates, with many needing to work for large firms to pay their loan and credit card debt. The crushing burden of debt can also encourage unethical behavior.

Critics further charge that law schools are run as businesses with eyes on expansion and reputation, and not enough focus on the students and community they are meant to serve. Because of higher tuition, steady or declining grants and state aid, and a greater dependency on loans, the average student's debt has increased by more than 50 percent over the last decade, after accounting for inflation, according to the U.S. Department of Education. [,1,591805.story?coll=chi-news-hed "Chicago Tribune", In Debt, Forever, March 5, 2006]

A further criticism is that the third year of a juris doctor program is unnecessary, and would be better served in full legal employment.Fact|date=April 2008

A rather telling indictment of law schools is that at least one state, Washington, has recently enacted a requirement of further (albeit limited) study after law school before a graduate is permitted to practice law.cite web|url= |title=Admission to Practice Rules: Rule 5(b) |work=Washington State Court Rules |date=2007]

Law school rankings

Many different organizations rank law schools. The "U.S. News and World Report"'s "Top 100 Law Schools," "The Leiter Reports," and the like generate rankings from quantitative factors, "e.g." faculty publishing statistics, entering student LSAT scores, percentage of alumni contributing money. In general, these rankings are controversial, not universally accepted as authoritative, and frequently used for a variety of purposes, "e.g." alumni contribution appeals.

Top tier law schools

In contrast, a utilitarian approach to law school ranking looks at the relative employment prospects of graduates of the various tiers. Typically, the most prestigious opportunities in the country (e.g., U.S. Supreme Court clerkships) are filled by graduates of elite law schools. [ [ Brian Leiter Supreme Court Clerkship Placement, 1991 Thourgh 2005 Terms ] ] In addition, graduates of these schools typically find promising and geographically diverse employment opportunities upon graduation. Such schools may be considered "top tier".

Regional tiers and lower-tier national schools

Most law schools outside the top tier are more regional in scope and often have very strong regional connections to these post-graduation opportunities. For example, a student graduating from a lower-tier law school may find opportunities in that school’s “home market”: the legal market containing many of that school’s alumni, where most of the school’s networking and career development energies are focused. In contrast, an upper-tier law school may be limited in terms of employment opportunities to the broad geographic region that the law school feeds.

A handful of law schools outside the top tiers are national in scope, mainly those that cater to a unique student niche—such as law schools operated by historically black colleges and universities, or schools with a strong conservative Christian orientation, among them Ave Maria School of Law (Catholic) and the law school at Regent University (Protestant). For example, the class that entered Ave Maria Law in fall 2006 had students from 37 states [cite web|url= | title=Entering Class Profile | publisher=Ave Maria School of Law | accessmonthday=November 21 | accessyear=2006] and the class that entered Regent Law at the same time had students from 39 states.cite web|url= | title=Regent Law Admissions home page | publisher=Regent University School of Law | accessmonthday=November 21 | accessyear=2006] Also, only 21% of the students who entered Regent Law in 2006 were residents of the school's home state of Virginia.

tate-authorized schools

Many schools are authorized or accredited by a state and some have been in continuous operation for over 95 years. Most are located in the states of Alabama, Arizona, California, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Puerto Rico. Some state authorized law schools are maintained to offer a non-ABA option eliminating costly ABA requirements seen as unnecessary by many of these states.

Unaccredited schools

Many schools are not accredited by a state or the American Bar Association. Most are located in California. Many jurisdictions do not allow graduates of unaccredited law schools to sit for the bar examination.

Oldest active law schools

Law schools are listed from the dates from when they were first established to the year 1850.

# Marshall-Wythe School of Law (The College of William & Mary) established 1779 (closed in 1861 and reopened in 1920)
# Harvard Law School established 1817
# University of Virginia School of Law established 1826
# University of Cincinnati College of Law established 1833
# Pennsylvania State University (Dickinson School of Law) established 1834
# New York University School of Law established 1835
# Indiana University School of Law - Bloomington established 1842
# Yale Law School established 1843
# Saint Louis University School of Law established in 1843 (closed in 1847 and reopened in 1908)
# Louis D. Brandeis School of Law (University of Louisville) established 1846
# Cumberland School of Law established in 1847
# Tulane University Law School established 1847
# Washington and Lee School of Law established 1849
# University of Pennsylvania Law School established 1850

ee also

*List of law schools in the United States
*List of law school GPA curves
*List of Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States by education
*List of Law Schools by United States Supreme Court Justices trained
*Legal research
*Case citation
*Law School Admission Council
*Faculty of law


External links

* [ U.S. Law School Information] - Online edition of the book "Law School: Everything You Need to Know Before You Get There".
* [ Top 100 Law Schools] - According to US News
* [ Law School Admission Data at]
* [ The Best Law Schools in the United States] - According to
* [ Ronen Perry, Correlation versus Causality: Further Thoughts on the Law Review/Law School Liaison]
* [ Ronen Perry, The Relative Value of American Law Reviews: A Critical Appraisal of Ranking Methods]
* [ Ronen Perry, The Relative Value of American Law Reviews: Refinement and Implementation]
* [ Law School Discussion]
* [ Law Student Blogger Directory]
* [ - How You Can Succeed in Law School]
* [ U.S. Law Schools News Brief] - Latest news releases from U.S. law schools

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