How to Spot the Red Flags in Lower-Ranked Law Schools

There are currently 203 law schools accredited by the American Bar Association, meaning if all that matters to you is getting a J.D. and sitting for the bar exam, there are plenty of options for you to choose from.

With that said, some educational investments are better than others. Going to a top-20 ranked school with the goal of landing a Big Law position is a no-brainer, but what if your grades and test scores could realistically only get you into a lower-ranked school?

You would obviously need to conduct thorough research, but there are some red flags to look out for when considering your law school options.

Beware of unaccredited law schools. Most states only allow alumni of ABA-accredited law schools to sit for the bar exam. Some states — California first and foremost — will allow graduates from unaccredited law schools to take the exam, but the pass rate is discouraging.

California is already notorious for its low bar exam pass rate — only 19.5 percent of alumni of unaccredited schools passed the July 2017 exam, and 48.9 percent of all takers.

Obviously, there are other factors in play; for example, landing in an unaccredited school suggests that the student doesn’t excel in standardized testing, which affects that student’s chances of passing the bar exam. Nevertheless, it’s safe to assume that the level of teaching in such schools has some bearing on the bar pass rate.

[Read: Benefits, Drawbacks of Law School 1L Prep Courses.]

Even assuming one passes the bar, securing employment can prove to be an uphill battle. The legal field is extremely competitive, doubly so in states allowing unaccredited schools, simply because more schools means more lawyers.

Law firms of all sizes certainly care about your performance in school, but ranking at the top of your class in a lesser-known school still won’t be as impressive as being in the top 10 percent of an accredited, more selective school.

Watch for declining admissions standards. If you’re applying to law school now, that means you likely won’t have your degree in hand before 2022. Therefore, you should care not only where the school is now, but also where it’s headed.

While most schools at the top maintain a relatively stable standard of scores that they take for their incoming class, things get dicier with lower-ranked schools. When a school starts admitting students with lower and lower scores and admitting a higher percentage of applicants, employers take notice and may devalue that school’s alumni.

As you do your research, don’t stop at the school’s most recent numbers — be sure to dig deeper.

[Read: What Is a Good LSAT Score?]

Do a cost-benefit analysis. Intuitively, one might think that higher ranked schools equal higher salaries while costs remain relatively similar across the board. Neither assumption is correct.

Costs are affected by many factors including the location of the school, whether it’s public or private, and room and board costs. In fact, you’ll find some of the more expensive schools on the lower part of the list.

Maurice A. Deane School of Law at Hofstra University charges $57,510 in tuition despite being ranked at a tie for No. 110 in the country, while the J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University, ranked in a tie at No. 41, only charges $25,360.

Meanwhile, the law school at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, ranked at a tie for No. 74 in the country, boasts a median private sector starting salary of $85,000, well above many of the schools ranked ahead of it.

Where a school might leave you with a debt of more than $150,000 but a starting salary about a third of that, you might be looking at a long loan repayment period. Avoid the schools that offer less in future compensation and scholarships but more in debt.

[Read: Key Data Points to Consider When Choosing a Law School.]

Not all lower-ranked schools are created equal, and you definitely need to do your research before you apply. Employment statistics, LSAT and GPA scores for incoming classes, bar passage rates and dropout rates are all statistics that are readily available for every school and can serve as great indicators regarding the school’s trajectory — and by extension, that of your career.

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How to Spot the Red Flags in Lower-Ranked Law Schools originally appeared on usnews.com