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Stanford Law School
Published October 2006, last updated October 2009
Thanks to the many TLS students attending Stanford Law School (“SLS”) who were interviewed and granted us an insider’s perspective on SLS.
"Who could resist a world-class law school in paradise?"
This appropriate quip from Kathleen Sullivan, former Dean of Stanford Law School, accurately sums up Stanford's winning combination of architectural beauty, a small student body that fosters a close sense of community, and spectacular job prospects upon graduation. Stanford's world class academics set amongst thousands of acres of sunny California rolling hills has helped propel it to become one of the world's finest research universities.
Joining Yale and Harvard at the top of American legal education, Stanford Law School wins the affections of many students admitted to all three. Although no law school is perfect, SLS comes close, and the administration is continually striving to make it even better. The diverse and uniformly excellent offerings of Stanford coupled with its low student-faculty ratio of 8.6 to 1 make attending this top law school in paradise a dream come true for many students.
Admission to Stanford is not easy. Although many law schools claim to have a holistic approach to admissions, SLS is one of the few famous as a black box. The admissions committee looks far beyond an applicant’s numbers in order to craft an accomplished but balanced incoming class. SLS seeks a diverse student body and encourages underrepresented minorities or those with unique life experiences to apply. With the law school receiving nearly 4000 applications to fill its class of 170 students. The school’s acceptance rate is just above nine percent, the median LSAT for matriculating students is a 170, and the median GPA a lofty 3.87.
GPA vs. LSAT
The GPAs of incoming students are similar to those of rivals Harvard and Yale, but Stanford’s LSAT statistics have historically been lower. Like its Bay Area neighbor Berkeley, Stanford has placed more emphasis on an applicant’s GPA than other top law schools in previous years. A shift may be underway, however. For the 2009 to 2010 application cycle, Stanford changed the formula it uses to compare applicants, its “index formula.” More weight will now be given to the LSAT than in the older formula. While it is too early to precisely judge what effect this will have, applicants with a high LSAT score will likely stand a better chance than before.
As in other aspects of its admission process, Stanford reserves the right to take a holistic view of multiple LSAT scores. In other words, the admissions staff will evaluate the scores however they see fit depending on the circumstances.
Stanford makes a targeted recommendation form available to applicants who wish to use it. In contrast to the standard LSAC recommendation form, it offers recommenders the chance to rank the applicant’s maturity, intellect, writing skills, and oral communication on a comparative scale. The instructions for applicants say to “[p]lease be aware of the high value Stanford places on school-specific letters of recommendation.” As such, having recommenders use this form for a targeted letter may boost an applicant’s chance of admission.
Now an unusual practice among top law schools, Stanford requires what is known as a Dean’s Statement from an applicant’s undergraduate school before his or her application can be evaluated. It asks the Dean of Students to verify whether or not the applicant is in good standing and whether the applicant has been subject to any disciplinary actions from the school.
Stanford requires a standard two-page personal statement. Applicants may choose any topic they want, but some SLS students have recommended that a statement expressing commitment to public interest work may earn a little extra attention if it is sincere and well-written. Stanford also values applicants’ experiences outside of the college classroom.
The application fee is $75. Stanford does not grant merit-based fee waivers. LSAC need-based fee waivers will not be honored either, unlike at most other ABA-approved law schools. Applicants who can demonstrate “extreme personal hardship” and “feel unable to pay” may submit a request to have the fee waived.
Stanford usually accepts around twelve transfer students each year. For the school year starting in 2009, however, the school reportedly took twenty transfers. Stellar grades at a first tier law school are necessary to pull off this feat according to TLS user Arrow’s analysis of the available data. Keep in mind that SLS has an early deadline for transfer applications, June 15.
Median LSAT: 170
Class of 2010
Full LSAT range: 160-180
Percentage of students who come to law school
For the 2009 edition of Princeton Review’s Best 174 Best Law Schools, Stanford’s professors rated as among the top in the nation based on the quality of their teaching. They were ranked third most interesting and fifth most accessible from the results of student surveys. Among SLS’s peers, only the professors at the University of Chicago ranked as more interesting. No peer school can boast of higher accessibility. This, along with the school’s resources and the quality of its students added up to a ranking of first place in the “Academic Experience” category along with UChicago. Here is one student’s example: “I'm taking criminal law with the guy responsible for the death penalty moratorium in Illinois, and I'm in his class with only 27 other people.”
Though six Stanford faculty members were included on the National Law Journal’s of the nation’s 100 most influential lawyers, students can and do enjoy dinner in their professors’ homes. Students say their professors “truly want to teach,” and they also serve as powerful advocates when a student applies for a clerkship or an academic position. Their words of praise will certainly have extra weight since they have the opportunity to know students on a more personal basis.
Student to Faculty ratio: 8.6 to 1
In recent years, the university and law school have been working hard to prepare for a new century of academic excellence. The university has constructed a wonderful new graduate residence available to law students, and it has earned rave reviews. The law school has moved to the quarter system, so it will now match up with the rest of the university, allowing students to more easily take courses in other departments. Grades in the law school have also changed to an honors, pass, restricted credit, no credit system to take some of the pressure off students. These changes are covered in more detail throughout the profile.
Students report that the current law building is a bit dated. Clearly, the right people agree, because a brand new building is under construction, scheduled to be completed for the 2011-2012 school year. Though it will not replace the current law building, it provides much additional seminar and clinic space, as well as new faculty and staff offices. This will help SLS keep its faculty happy, and perhaps attract some star professors from other schools. Of course, Stanford strives to maintain the student-faculty interaction that it is famous for. Well-designed meeting spaces are on each the new building’s three floors.
Stanford students work hard. In fact, as of 2007, they spent more time on homework per day than students at Yale or Harvard. Princeton Review called them “closet studiers,” in that many students will not openly admit to spending their time hitting the books. They spend between four and five hours a day studying, on average, which is about average compared to students at most other schools.
Competition at the law school is muted for a number of reasons. “People are competitive with themselves but they're not doing so in order to cut anyone else down,” said one student. Stanford’s small size is one reason. Since everyone knows everyone else, “staying friends with everyone is far more important that personal short term gain.” Students are apt to help each other out, as they feel that everyone with a Stanford diploma will be able to get the job of their dreams. Those pursuing extremely selective positions like Supreme Court clerkships might still feel pressure to compete, but the vast majority of students do not.
The most important reason for the collaborative atmosphere may be the new grading system. Instructors assign one of four grades – honors, pass, restricted credit, or no credit. In reality, the lowest two grades are almost never given out. As a result, 30% of the students in a class will receive “honors,” and the rest will receive “pass.” The very best students in each class can receive “book awards,” but this is not technically a grade. The administration moved to this system to improve the educational experience, and it seems to be working. Students comment that they are now less focused on the final exam, and more focused on actually learning the material.
The Robert Crown Law Library is “amazing” according to its users. From the “super comfy” Aeron chairs to the ubiquitous power outlets, the library is everything SLS students could ask for. The furnishings are “clean and new” and avoid the 19th century look of other law libraries. The library has more than enough room for students to study, sleep, or do just about anything else. It boasts a study seating capacity of 508 for SLS’s 538 students. Compare this with Columbia’s 369 seats for 1236 students, or Harvard’s 802 seats for 1734 students.
Whether students need a place to collaborate, study in absolute silence, or do some free printing, the library provides an inviting, well-lit place to do it. One student who visited the libraries of Harvard, Stanford, and Yale noted that Stanford’s was noticeably smaller than the other two. Indeed, the number of volumes and titles in either of Yale or Harvard’s libraries is much higher. Students at SLS do not seem to mind, because none of them complained of having trouble finding books.
As expected for Silicon Valley, students said that wireless access and laptop hookups are “everywhere.” However, some professors “have either banned or advised against laptops [in class]” in order to help students concentrate. Contrary to expectation, one student said that the school’s “web architecture is shockingly user unfriendly” and that practical administrative details like registering for classes can be very “complicated and frustrating.”
Quality of Life
Located at the northern end of Silicon Valley, the school is technically in Stanford, California. Generally speaking, this means Palo Alto. Palo Alto and Stanford have a combined population of about 75,000 and are wealthy and suburban, with multi-million dollar homes a common sight. Crime is low, and the surroundings mostly range from pleasant to gorgeous. Nevertheless, not everyone completely enjoys spending time there. One student likened the city to “a suburban Disneyland for adults,” and is put off by the “endless strip malls, though they are all upscale in nature.”
Stanford students generally live, study and party on campus, for its 8,000 acres provide enough activities for them. As a result, one student remarked, “SLS exists in a bubble, but it's such a nice bubble it hasn't bothered me too much. “ Downtown Palo Alto and its Caltrain station are roughly two miles away from the law building, and students can drive to the ocean or San Francisco in less than an hour. World class wine tasting in Napa Valley and great skiing in Squaw Valley are only a few hours away. Closer to home, Stanford students can bike over the sprawling campus and hike in the nearby foothills. The Mediterranean climate with its 300 days of sunshine encourages students to stay active and sane. “It's true that the good weather makes me want to go out more, but it also helps me feel good about myself when I'm studying in the library and I look out and see palm trees and mountains. It puts things into perspective,” reported one student.
The dearth of public transportation is one sore spot for students. The campus shuttle is convenient for getting around Palo Alto, but to go anywhere else, a car is practically a necessity. Of course, many students do not own cars, so those that do are sure to be popular any time their classmates want to take advantage of the Bay Area’s amenities.
The slightly tongue-in-cheek Party Law School Rankings placed Stanford in a nine way tie for first place in the category of “Happiest Student Body” based on survey responses. Within the traditional top 14 law schools, only Berkeley and Virginia join Stanford in that honor. The admissions office does a stellar job of finding 170 students who can all get along well with one another. Students say that getting to know their classmates is “very easy” since they see each other so often. Perhaps as a result, another said that “this place generates the sort of trust and collegiality that makes people feel OK about leaving their laptops in the library unattended for hours.”
Since classmates form close bonds with each other, students feel that they will have a very powerful network once they graduate, despite the relatively small number of Stanford alumni out practicing. Students collaborate and share notes, and volunteer to help sick classmates catch up on the class material. In fact, one student who fell ill said, “they picked up groceries for me, drove me to doctor’s appointments, and just came by to visit and cheer me up when I was having a really hard time.” The one downside of this closeness is that gossip spreads quickly and “everyone knows everyone else’s business.”
Because it is difficult to get into and around San Francisco without a car, students spend much of their free time on campus and in town, especially during their 1L year. To relax and socialize students often host apartment parties or head to Bar Review in downtown Palo Alto. Students are encouraged by their peers to find an appropriate balance of work and play. “Studying all the time is not an acceptable way to be here, but neither is out all night, never come to class,” said one. Most students are satisfied with the nearby options for cutting loose, but 2Ls and 3Ls do head to San Francisco in increasing numbers, suggesting that they exhaust Palo Alto’s fun after a while.
1Ls are guaranteed housing on campus so long as they are willing to accept what the school assigns to them. Many students will likely be assigned to the brand-new Munger Graduate Residence a short walk from the law school. Named for donors Charles and Nancy Munger, the new residence has won universal praise from SLS students, with many calling it “the most beautiful student housing I’ve ever seen,” or declaring that it is “like living in a hotel.” The buildings feature studio, 1-, 2-, and 4-bedroom apartments. Prospective tenants will be glad to know that each spacious bedroom in the building has its own private bathroom. The 4-bedroom apartments have two refrigerators and four and a half bathrooms in their 1800 square feet, so everyone should have enough room to spread out.
One bedroom apartments are available in Munger for those with a spouse or domestic partner, but the number of spaces is extremely limited. Students with children will have to explore other options such as the older on campus housing at Escondido Village, located about a mile away. Escondido Village is a collection of low-rises and larger apartment buildings. As for the quality of the other on campus options, one student said that, “aside from Munger, the student housing isn't particularly nice, even if it is convenient.” Yet, another student said, “Housing is phenomenal, especially for couples and people with children.” Admitted students are encouraged to visit and decide for themselves.
The Stanford JD has national reach, and fewer than half of graduates stay in California for their first job. New York City and Washington DC take a fifth of the class each, and the rest spread out around the country and internationally. Graduates have success at finding whichever type of job they want, whether at a firm, clerking, or eventually in academia.
Impact of the Economic Recession
The recession affects the entire legal profession, including the very top. The number of jobs in large law firms has decreased, and those who pursue that route will have fewer options than they did just a couple years ago. Nevertheless, Stanford students still feel secure in their employment prospects. Despite the state of the economy, Stanford students take comfort in the fact that they attend the best law school on the West Coast and one of the best in the nation. As one student put it, “anyone who really wants to make $160,000 coming out of school will probably be able to do it. “
Furthermore, forty percent of SLS’s graduating class does not pursue large law firm jobs, opting instead for judicial clerkships, government, or public interest work. In response to conditions in the legal market, Dean Larry Kramer has further encouraged students to consider these options, and to take a step back from chasing potentially illusory dollar signs. Both Stanford’s generous need-based financial aid and Loan Repayment Assistance Program allow him to credibly make this recommendation.
Stanford students have their pick of firm jobs. Around 60% of the graduating class chooses this route each year, and those that do currently earn a median salary of $160,000. For the class of 2008, 94% of those hired by firms went to work at one in the NLJ 250 – the 250 largest firms as ranked by the National Law Journal. The Leiter Rankings put Stanford in fifth place for the likelihood its students would be recruited into “elite” law firms – which are largely concentrated in New York City and Washington DC. The fifth place showing does not indicate that Stanford is underperforming when it comes to firm placement. Because of SLS’s relatively strong focus on serving the greater good, a large number of students self-select other types of jobs such as judicial clerkships and public interest work. Thanks also to Stanford’s preeminence in intellectual property, graduates often choose smaller firms with a bent towards IP.
The new grading system can be a concern during firm interviews. Firms are not always sure how to interpret the honors and pass grades yet. Since those who earn honors grades tend to earn them in most of their classes, that leaves everyone else with nothing but “pass” on their transcript. “You actually can be doing pretty well and have straight P's apparently. But there's no way for an outsider to tell if that's the case just from the transcript and firms are resisting actually evaluating people as individuals,” commented one student. Because of Stanford’s place in legal education, firms will simply need to adapt to it, so this should become less of a worry as time goes on.
Stanford students do extraordinarily well at securing clerkships. Each year, over a fifth of the graduating class chooses this route, with nearly all of those who do landing a spot in a federal judge’s employ. As for the holy grail of clerking, twenty three students secured US Supreme Court clerkships between the 2000 to 2008 terms. Adjusted for class size, Stanford is fourth most likely to send its students to the Supreme Court, not far behind number three Harvard or number two Chicago.
Those who dream of making students sweat with the Socratic Method stand a good chance of doing so with an SLS diploma. As a percentage of its class size, Stanford is currently third in the Leiter Rankings in the production of new law faculty, just behind Harvard and slightly ahead of Chicago. Twenty-nine Stanford JDs gained employment teaching law from 2003 to 2007. As for placement at the “best” law schools, Stanford put in another excellent showing. When the Leiter Rankings sampled these schools in 2006, twenty-one Stanford JDs held tenure track positions. Adjusted for class size, this put Stanford in fourth place, clustered just behind Chicago and Harvard.
Stanford is a superb choice for academia with one qualification. School specialties do matter for would-be academics. For instance, University of Chicago Professor Brian Leiter stated that, out of schools in the top four, “only Harvard and Stanford would make sense for a student interested in critical race theory.” He also pointed out the Stanford might not be the best place for future “Law & Philosophy” professors.
California bar passage rate: 94.4% (CA average 71%)
Tuition and Expenses
Paradise comes at a price. With annual tuition now at $42,420 and the Bay Area's high cost of living, attending Stanford Law School sets student back over $67,000 per year. Tuition is scheduled to rise again for the 2010-2011 academic year. On campus housing is subsidized, and SLS estimates that living on campus will cost around $22,000 per year for a single student, compared with $25,000 per year off campus. The cost on campus can vary greatly depending on the building and room type, however. Regardless, living expenses in Palo Alto are high.
Like at rivals Harvard and Yale, financial aid at Stanford is based entirely on need and not on merit. Roughly 80% of students receive some combination of loan and grant assistance. Nearly half of all students receive grant aid, with the median grant amount at $20,725 per year, and 25th percentile at $11,514. Almost no full-tuition grants are given.
Students interviewed described Stanford’s financial aid as “tremendously generous” compared with offers from other schools. “Stanford's need based financial aid blew everyone else's financial aid of any flavor away,” reported one. The numbers from US News bear this out: 78% of Stanford students graduate with debt, and those that do carry an average of $97,500. This figure is lower than that for most other top schools, despite Stanford’s private school tuition and Palo Alto’s cost of living. Thus, those who have genuine financial need may be pleasantly surprised by Stanford’s grant offer.
Curriculum and Specialties
The law school has just recently moved to the quarter system, with Autumn, Winter, and Spring terms each academic year. The rest of Stanford University was already on it, so now the two are in sync. This should make it easier for students to take classes outside of the law school and joint degrees easier to schedule. Most students are excited about the move in part because they will be at the law school for more days each year on the new system. Additionally, students will have the opportunity to take a far greater number of classes over their nine academic quarters. If they participate in a clinic, they will not need to take any other classes during that quarter, allowing them to focus their complete attention on it.
On the other hand, at least for this year, some are concerned that professors will not yet know the best way to cover the material in their classes. This could lead to some cramming a semester’s worth of material into a single quarter. Professors will likely adapt quickly, so this may only be a concern for current students.
Public Interest Program
Although not as well known for it as NYU, public interest law takes center-stage at Stanford, and many students were quick to mention the emphasis the administration gives it. Beginning in a student’s first year, pro bono opportunities abound, and over 80% of students take part in pro bono and public interest opportunities in one way or another through the Levin Center for Public Service and Public Interest Law. Students may put their new legal skills to work assisting survivors of domestic violence, at-risk youth, or senior citizens, among others. Students point out, though, that public interest is not pushed on the class. Students who choose not to participate or who are dead-set on private practice are not stigmatized. Rather, the administration merely gives students “ample opportunity to try both and see what they are like.”
Those who wish to make a career out of public interest law can rely on Stanford’s Loan Repayment Assistance Program, which the school claims is 30% more generous than those of its peers. LRAP encourages about a tenth of the class to go into government or public interest positions after graduation.
Business and Corporate Law
While the cooling economy has lessened the demand for corporate lawyers, Stanford Law School still excels in producing lawyers expert at representing technology companies and venture capitalists. For those with strong work experience prior to law school, the combined JD/MBA degree may open some doors and has been the launching pad for many entrepreneurs. SLS’s faculty ranks among the top three for corporate law, and Stanford is also considered among the top ten law schools for tax law.
Many students at SLS gravitate toward corporate law, but it does not dominate the school’s atmosphere. As one student explained, “Most people expect to go to a firm, but the ‘I have to make partner’ mindset is absent. A lot of people see firms as a stop on the way to the in-house job of their dreams, or are just going public interest after graduation. “
Stanford has multiple programs dedicated to corporate law, including the Rock Center for Corporate Governance. Students especially interested in corporate law may wish to join the Stanford Journal of Law, Business & Finance.
Intellectual Property Law
Stanford Law School's proximity to Silicon Valley helps explain its expertise in intellectual property law, with Stanford considered the number one law school in this field. In 2000, Stanford Law School founded the Center for Internet and Society, which examines the interrelationships between the Internet and our society and the many constitutional and public policy legal issues that are being raised by the Internet. In the same vein, students may participate in the Cyberlaw Clinic, “conducting computer- and Internet-related litigation, policy research, and advocacy.”
Environmental conservation is a top priority in beautiful Northern California. As a result, Stanford has built a solid reputation and course offerings in environmental law. SLS’s faculty ranks among the top ten here. Students interested in environmental law may participate in the Environmental Law Clinic, providing “legal counsel to national, regional, and grassroots nonprofit organizations on a variety of environment issues, with a focus on biodiversity and conserving natural resources.” Students may also wish to join the Stanford Environmental Law Journal.
Due to the great amount of exports and imports that flow out of Silicon Valley/San Francisco Bay Area, Stanford Law School is well-positioned to be among the top law schools for International Law. The greatest focus at Stanford Law School is upon Pacific Rim countries, with East Coast schools like NYU Law School more focused upon the European Community. Students interested in human rights or immigrant issues may participate in the International Human Rights Clinic, or the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic. They may also wish to join the Stanford Journal of International Law.
Stanford is almost indisputably the most balanced top law school. Every important aspect of it is top notch. The professors are highly accomplished but also accessible and interesting. The students are intelligent but also genuinely warm and fun-loving. Very few will find fault with the Bay Area’s sun or fair weather, and the mountains and ocean are both close at hand. Palo Alto, though perhaps an “adult Disneyland,” is a great place to spend three years. Need-based financial aid and generous loan assistance should allow anyone to attend without breaking the bank. Wrapping it all up are the best job prospects on the West Coast and easily some of the best in the nation. Alumni often claim that their time at SLS was the best of their lives, and it is not difficult to see why.
2010 U.S. News Ranking: 3rd
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