Lawyers are as ubiquitous in America as yellow school buses and large coffees to go. From small offices near rural courthouses to skyscrapers in major cities, lawyers practice everywhere. Law schools, however, are less evenly distributed. Most states have three or fewer.
While law graduates are not bound to stay in state, it can be hard to get clerkships and job openings out of state unless you graduate from a top-ranked law school.
Studying law near where you plan to build a career makes sense. Your law school’s clinics, internships and local alumni networks may give you a foot in the door. And law school classes may be geared to the rules and subjects tested on the state bar exam.
When choosing a law school based on location, consider four things:
— Large legal markets.
— Nearby industry clusters.
— Underserved legal markets.
— Culture and fit.
Large Legal Markets
Global hubs like New York, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., can be a double-edged sword for aspiring lawyers.
On the one hand, they have some of the world’s largest markets for legal services. In addition to local demand for everyday legal issues like traffic violations and property transactions, these cities feature global law firms, legal departments at major corporations and boutique practices. Some of these positions offer enviable starting salaries, plus the chance to work on cutting-edge issues and billion-dollar deals.
On the other hand, these are highly competitive legal markets with unique cultural amenities and career opportunities. Attending law school in these major cities can give you an entry point, but unless the school is top-ranked you will have to outcompete your peers while managing costly tuition and living expenses.
There are many other desirable cities with large legal markets, even if they are not the setting for glamorous legal dramas on TV. Consider fast-growing cities like Phoenix; Denver; Orlando, Florida; and El Paso, Texas. Lawyers are also in demand in state capitals like Sacramento, California, and Columbia, South Carolina.
Nearby Industry Clusters
Many legal markets are dominated by specific industries. For example, Houston and Dallas are obvious draws for energy law while San Francisco and Seattle are technology hubs.
However, these boomtowns tend to have few local law schools. Even if you feel you have a shot at them, it is wise to apply to a wide range of law schools.
To get a foothold in one of these industries, consider an overlooked secondary city. For example, Charlotte, North Carolina, is a hub of finance, Pittsburgh has a vibrant technology sector, and Oklahoma City is an energy powerhouse. A solid start in one of these cities can provide more industry experience than an unrelated law job in a more competitive market.
Underserved Legal Markets
Some cities are particularly hard markets to break into for law graduates without local connections. For example, herds of law graduates nationwide stampede to hubs like the San Francisco Bay Area and the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area. States like Ohio, Illinois and Massachusetts are oversaturated with law schools.
Other states have few law schools relative to their population. Nevada, with a fast-growing population of about 3 million people, has only one law school. New Jersey, with nearly 9 million people, has only two, one of which has two campuses. Overshadowed by their larger neighbors, these states have attractive legal markets of their own.
Culture and Fit
Law school is a hard three years. Beginning law jobs can feel even tougher. Whether you are in your 20s or an older applicant, there is no point in spending years in a place you resent.
Some of the happiest lawyers have built careers in livable, affordable markets that fit their interests. Whether you love the beach or the slopes, bagel shops or taquerias, city life or open space, you can find a wide range of law schools in any environment.
Don’t be afraid to choose a law school in a setting that makes you happy over one with a better rank or more prestigious name. In the long run, the morale boost will be better for your career.
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