Every prospective student notices the physical facilities of a school when he or she visits. Wood paneling, marble floors, and grand foyers create impressions about whether a law school is well-funded and a “nice” place to study. I’d like to suggest a few other ways in which prospective students should evaluate a school’s facilities.
The most important space for students is the classroom. When you visit a school, look at some large and small classrooms and evaluate the sight lines and acoustics, preferably by sitting in on a live class. Do students sit in a pattern where they can see and hear each other? Can they hear the professor? You might be surprised at the number of classrooms where heating or air conditioning interferes with voices. This might not seem bad in the traditional lecture class you had in college, because professors can always wear a mike. But in law school, the Socratic method makes it important to hear what your classmates say. It’s impossible to follow along if you can’t. In addition to sight lines and acoustics, you might also look at the front of the room. Is there full audio-visual capability with a computer for the professor? Is there enough white or blackboard? Is the screen large enough for easy viewing by students?
Next, I would suggest looking at the individual and group work space available for students. Individual work space exists primarily in the library. There needs to be ample seating to support students during high demand periods like exams or major writing projects. Is there seating of the kind you prefer to work in? Long tables? Individual carrels? Big, padded chairs to sit in while reading? Is there ample Internet access, wired or wireless? You are going to spend a lot of time studying in law school. Unless you are sure that your apartment or house provides you with the space you need, you will likely spend a lot of time in these facilities.
Group work space exists in libraries and sometimes elsewhere throughout the school. How many small conference rooms are there that students can reserve? I personally wouldn’t be too happy with only a few. At certain times of the year such as moot court competitions, there is a lot of student collaboration going on, and demand for these spaces can get pretty heavy.
One other type of important student work space involves the facilities of any clinical programs. If the school has clinics where students actually represent clients, are there proper rooms where client meetings and interviews can be held, separate areas where students can do work and maintain case files? Clinics are expensive to run, and it is not uncommon for schools to trim those costs by providing clinic facilities that don’t fully support the clinics’ work. If you think a clinic will be a big part of your legal education, this could matter.
Finally, I suggest looking at the spaces where students can gather informally. Is there a good student lounge or other gathering place like a cafeteria? Are there seats in hallways where you can sit for conversations? Granted, these amenities may not seem terribly important, but their absence impairs the creation of a community where students get to know and support each other.
All of the things mentioned here seem pretty obvious, perhaps so obvious that one would think every law school would take care of them. It may well be the case that the schools you’re comparing will all have good physical facilities. But you might also be surprised at how often schools, even some of the top schools, have facilities that don’t fully support their educational ambitions.