In the United States, a law school is an institution where students get a professional education in law after first obtaining an undergraduate degree. Law schools in the U.S. subject the Juris Doctor degree (J.D.), which is a professional doctorate, and for most practitioners a terminal degree.
Other degrees that are awarded comprise the Master of Laws (LL.M.) and the Doctor of Juridical Science (J.S.D. or S.J.D.) degrees, which can be more international in scope. Most law schools are colleges, schools, or other units within a larger post-secondary institution, such as a university. Legal education is very different in the United States from that in many other parts of the world.
Until the late 19th century, law schools were rare in the United States. Most people entered the legal career through reading law, a form of independent study or apprenticeship, often under the direction of an experienced attorney. This practice usually consisted of reading classic legal texts, such as Edward Coke's Institutes of the Lawes of England and William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England.
In colonial America, as in Britain at the time, law schools did not exist. Within a few years following the American Revolution, some universities such as the College of William and Mary and the University of Pennsylvania established a "Chair in Law". Columbia College appointed its first Professor of Law, James Kent, in 1793. Those who held these positions were the sole purveyors of legal education (per se) for their institutions—though law was, of course, discussed in other academic areas as a matter of course—and gave lectures designed to supplement, rather than replace, an apprenticeship.
The first institution recognized for the sole purpose of teaching law was the Litchfield Law School, set up by Judge Tapping Reeve in 1784 to organize the large number of would-be apprentices or lecture attendees that he attracted. Despite the success of that institution, and of like programs set up thereafter at Harvard University, Yale University (1843) and Columbia University (1858), law school attendance would remain a rare exception in the profession. Apprenticeship would be the norm until the 1890s, when the American Bar Association (which had been formed in 1878) began pressing states to limit admission to the bar to those who had satisfactorily completed several years of post-graduate instruction. In 1906, the Association of American Law Schools adopted an obligation that law school consists of a three year course of study.
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) as prerequisites for admission. Some states that have non-ABA-approved schools or state-accredited schools have equivalency necessities 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 http://officialguide.lsac.org/.
Individual factors are also very significant, although applicants are usually not asked to interview as part of the application procedure. 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. A growing number of law school applicants have several years of work experience, and correspondingly fewer law students enter immediately after finishing their undergraduate education.
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 admit 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.
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 casing 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 that 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 example, 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." 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.
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 make rankings from quantitative factors, e.g. faculty publishing statistics, entering student LSAT scores, percentage of alumni contributing money. More recently,Vault, famous for developing a listing of the prestigious "Vault 100" law firms, has developed a ranking system based on "a unique emphasis on employability". In general, these rankings are controversial, not universally accepted as authoritative, and frequently used for a variety of purposes, e.g. alumni contribution appeals.
Oldest active law schools
Law schools are listed from the dates from when they were first established to the year 1850.
1. Marshall-Wythe School of Law (The College of William & Mary) established 1779 (closed in 1861 and reopened in 1920)
2. University of Maryland School of Law established 1816, held first classes in 1824 (closed during the American Civil War and reopened shortly after its end)
3. Harvard Law School established 1817
4. University of Virginia School of Law established 1826
5. University of Cincinnati College of Law established 1833
6. Pennsylvania State University (Dickinson School of Law) established 1834
7. New York University School of Law established 1835
8. Indiana University School of Law - Bloomington established 1842
9. Yale Law School established 1843
10. Saint Louis University School of Law established in 1843 (closed in 1847 and reopened in 1908)
11. University of North Carolina School of Law established 1845
12. Louis D. Brandeis School of Law (University of Louisville) established 1846
13. Cumberland School of Law established in 1847
14. Tulane University Law School established 1847
15. University of Mississippi established 1848
16. Washington and Lee School of Law established 1849
17. University of Pennsylvania Law School established 1850
18. Albany Law School established 1851. (claims to be oldest independent law school)
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