Top Law Schools in the US: The Best of the Best

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To become an attorney requires a lot of hard work, late nights, and extensive schooling. However, the career is rewarding, has growth opportunities, and most lawyers earn a substantial living. Whether you’re considering corporate law for businesses or opening your own practice, it’s important to know everything it takes to become a licensed attorney in your state and the top law schools to earn your degree.

Attorney Career Overview


Attending one of the country's top law schools prepares a lawyer or attorney to best represent clients in civil and criminal disputes. A lawyer may be a broad practitioner or concentrate on a particular law. According to the American Bar Association, there were 1,335,963 certified attorneys practicing law in 2017. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts steady growth for lawyers at about 8% through 2022.

A Day in the Life of an Attorney

Most days include completing large amounts of research. A good attorney must study every detail of his or her upcoming case, take thorough notes, and reference applicable laws and statutes that can be applied. An attorney may need to reach out to various witnesses, law officers, and the client to gather details on the case. If a lawyer has a paralegal, he or she assists with the research, but the attorney must read the paralegal’s notes to ensure complete accuracy.

Attorneys may need to set up physical meetings with clients, especially for small law practices.

Some days will be spent at the courthouse, although less than 1% of civil cases go to court. Most court days involve spending large chunks of time waiting to be seen by a judge. Once a trial begins, its length depends on the case and type of law. Trials can last over eight hours a day and go on for several days if a verdict is not reached.

With so many job responsibilities, attorneys need to be able to communicate well with others, have thorough research and note-taking skills, and know how to litigate disputes in a court of law.

Different Attorneys

There are many types of law, which means there are many types of lawyers. Below are the main categories of attorneys:

  • Bankruptcy Attorney: Direct clients through the bankruptcy process
  • Business/Corporate Lawyer: Adhere to corporate regulations and filings; clients are businesses
  • Civil Rights Attorney: Work cases involving equality, human rights, social freedom, and discrimination
  • Criminal Defense Lawyer: Defend those charged with criminal activity
  • DUI-DWI Attorney:  Reduce and avoid legal and financial penalties for clients charged with driving under the influence
  • Employment Lawyer: Resolve workplace disputes for employees and employers
  • Environmental Lawyer: Administer cases regarding the environment and pollution
  • Estate Lawyer: Concentrate on family estates, wills, and trusts
  • Family Divorce Lawyer: Specialize in family law including divorce, child custody and support, visitation, and spousal support
  • Government Lawyer: Act on behalf of the government
  • Immigration Attorney: Assist with visa and green card applications, labor certifications, and deportation
  • Military Lawyer: Represent military personnel
  • Personal Injury Lawyer: Provide legal services to those suffering from physical or psychology damage from another person, company, or entity
  • Public Interest Lawyer: Serve charities, educational institutions, and public organizations
  • Trial Lawyer: Practices in a trial court of law

Educational Requirements


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Education is comprehensive and extensive for those seeking to become a certified attorney. After receiving a bachelor’s degree, an attorney must proceed to earn a juris doctor degree from a school of law that is accredited by the American Bar Association. After becoming a licensed attorney, most lawyers are expected to continue their education with courses and certifications every few years.

Schooling

While studying at a law school, attorneys-to-be receive both classroom and hands-on knowledge. Many law programs expose students to real-life law situations by having them volunteer in local legal facilities, participate in practice trials, work part-time at law firms, participate in summer externships, and write research articles for the school’s law journal. Many schools require students to gain outside experience in law in order to graduate.

Passing the Bar

The American Bar Association’s written exam needs to be passed for an aspiring attorney to gain his or her license to practice law. He or she must take the Bar exam of the state in which he or she plans to practice law.

The format of the bar can include:

  • MBE (Multistate Bar Examination): a six-hour multiple-choice examination
  • MPT (Multistate Performance Test): two 90-minute skill questions
  • MEE (Multistate Essay Examination): a three-hour essay exam
  • State-Specific MC and Essays: varies per state
  • UBE (Uniform Bar Examination): two-day exam composed of all the above categories; most states follow this format

Besides the written exam, each applicant must also show evidence of representing honest demeanor, strong moral character, and be in proper health to perform the duties of an attorney.

Top Law Schools in the US


yale law school

image source: ​law.yale

Yale School of Law is the reigning champion of top law schools as it prides itself in teaching the best and brightest lawyers of the future. Its law program follows its own grading system of "honors," "pass," "low pass," "credit," or "failure" as opposed to traditional letter grades. As for preparing its students for the Bar, Yale's passing rate averages 91.9%.

Yale’s Law School’s notable features:

  • Small classes that allow for a more intimate learning environment
  • Some of the best law instructors in the world are professors
  • Offers five different law degrees
  • Has over 20 legal clinics for students to experience real-life legal disputes

Notable Yale Law School alumni:

  • Former President Gerald Ford
  • Former President Bill Clinton
  • Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
  • Supreme Court Justices Brett Kavanaugh, Samuel Alito, and Clarence Thomas
  • Writer and lawyer Ben Stein
SLS Logo

image source: law.stanford

Stanford always finds itself listed as one of the top law schools in the country. It offers a charming atmosphere and small school vibe, similar to Yale. Stanford accepts only 10% of applicants and has a 90% bar passage rate. Its student-to-faculty ratio is about 4:1, meaning that students receive a lot of one-on-one time with professors.

Stanford Law School's notable features:

  • Joint degree programs
  • Created the first Supreme Court Litigation Clinic for students to work on live law cases before the U.S. Supreme Court
  • Expansive clinical training
  • A strong international law program

Notable Stanford Law School alumni:

  • U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor
  • Founder of PayPal Peter Thiel
  • Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union Anthony D. Romero
  • TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington
harvard law school new logo

image source: hls.harvard

Is a list of the top law schools in America legitimate without Harvard? Harvard Law School offers students three different law degrees from one of the most prestigious institutions in the world. Its bar passage rate is one of the highest at 95%. Harvard is larger than many of its competitors, reaching about 550 students per class. Harvard is like Yale in that it follows an “honors," “pass," “low pass," or “fail” grading system.

Harvard Law School’s notable features:

  • First-year students help local musicians with copyrights and represent inmates at disciplinary hearings
  • The largest selection of legal clinics in the world
  • Minimum of 40 hours of volunteer work before graduating
  • Great nightlife and restaurants to check out in Boston

Notable Harvard Law School alumni include:

  • Former President and First Lady Barack and Michelle Obama
  • CEO and Chairman of Goldman Sachs Lloyd Blankfein
  • Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer
  • Former President Rutherford B. Hayes
  • Feminist icon Elle Woods
The University of Chicago Law School

image source: law.uchicago

In the windy city, the University of Chicago is not only one of the top law schools in the country, but its law program was co-founded by John D. Rockefeller. Its bar passage rate clocks in at 92%, and 54% of its graduates are working at large and nationally acclaimed law firms. The school is on the smaller side, providing a student-to-faculty ratio of about 4.8:1.

The University of Chicago Law School’s notable features:

  • Mixes study of law with humanities, social sciences, and natural science
  • Discussion and group style learning
  • High speakers and discussion panels
  • Many attractions to check out in Chicago

Notable Chicago Law School alumni:

  • Attorneys General John Ashcroft, Ramsey Clark, and Edward H. Levi
  • Former Prime Minister of New Zealand Geoffrey Palmer
  • Former FBI Director James Comey
  • Founder of the Carlyle Group David Rubenstein
Columbia Law School logo

image source: law.columbia

Of course, the biggest city in America is home to one of the top law schools in the country. Columbia Law School offers students a comprehensive and impressive law program. Its bar passage rate comes in at 92% and, despite being in the Big Apple, its classes are on the smaller side with a student-to-faculty ratio of 5.4:1. As one of the top law schools in America, over 77% of Columbia graduates secure full-time jobs at major law firms within a year of graduating.

Columbia Law School's notable features:

  • Its corporate law program is one of the best in the country
  • One of the first schools to establish comparative and international law centers
  • Its Center for Japanese Legal Studies is the only center of its kind in the U.S.
  • Full semester externships with the federal government in Washington, D.C.
  • Located in New York City

Notable Columbia Law School alumni:

  • Former President and Vice President Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt
  • Former Chief Justices Charles Evans Hughes, John Jay, and Harlan Fiske Stone
  • Super Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg
  • Twice former Prime Minister of Italy Giuliano Amato

Other Top Law Schools 

Some other top law schools in America include:

  • New York University
  • University of Pennsylvania
  • University of Michigan - Ann Arbor
  • University of California - Berkeley
  • University of Virginia
  • Duke University

Conclusion


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While these top law schools may be the crème de la crème, there are certainly many other law programs available for gaining a license and becoming an attorney. The path of a successful lawyer is similar to other career paths in that you get what you put into it. Try your hardest, study hard, don’t give up, and possess a strong moral character, and you’ll do just fine. However, the intense and expansive education received from one of these nationally ranked top law schools certainly helps.

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