Thoughts on Law School Rankings

July 20, 2010 at 11:07 pm (Applying to Law School)

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As I begin compiling my own personal list of law school rankings (from most wanting to attend to  . . .. well, you know) I find myself ranking each school in order of my own personal preferences.  I have my own “Tier 1,” “Tier 2,” etc. Interestingly, I have schools ranked in my own personal “Tier 1” that are ranked by U.S. News and World Report as Tier 4.  When I talk to law school applicants either in real life or on message boards like, I feel ashamed and embarrassed for liking a *gasp* non-top-tier law school.  I can akin it to liking the boy on the “wrong side of the tracks,” you know, that boy from school that your mother told you is bad news and going nowhere.  You see qualities in him that no one else sees, and heck, maybe it’s the fact that your mother forbids your contact that makes it all the more desirable.  I can also analogize law school rankings with fashion staples, like skinny jeans – they are gorgeous on some people, but not everyone can rock the must have trend-of-the-season.  In fact, for tall skinny models, skinny jeans are dynamo, but for curvy girls, they are a complete fashion faux pas. The latest season’s trends are usually ridiculously overpriced despite being made with the same materials and of the same quality as lesser known brands (see my connection to law schools?)  For example, a Tier 4 that is definitely on my application list has one of the most rigorous curriculums geared toward advanced legal research and writing.  In fact, unlike most other law schools, students must fulfill a legal research requirement all 3 years of law school.  This makes profound sense to me, after all, 10-20 years after graduation, a lot of the laws learned in law school will be changed or maybe even completely debunked, leaving the attorney to research new, current laws.  Legal research seems like it’s one of the most important foundations of a legal education, however, the “trendier” or “better known” law schools require just one legal research and one legal writing course out of the entire three-year curriculum. 

To further highlight the oddity in quality of education not necessarily being represented solely in the top tier, I direct your attention to the U.S. News and World Report section of “specialties.”  Not only does the USN&WR rank the schools in tiers, they flesh out specialty areas such as clinical training, dispute resolution, environmental law, health law, intellectual property law, international law, legal writing, tax law, and trial advocacy.  Of the two areas I am particularly interested in, legal writing and trial advocacy Tier 3 schools top the list in those specialty areas.

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Two schools are currently tied for my own personal “Tier 1.”  One is a USN&WR Tier 1 state school for which I would receive in-state tuition, the other is a USN&WR Tier 4 private school.  Both have similar median private sector salary incomes, nearly identical bar passage rates and mirrored employment percentages.  Where they differ, however, is the admissions requirements for LSAT scores.  The Tier 4, having similar GPA admissions requirements to the Tier 1, claim they take a “holistic” approach to admissions, placing less weight on a single test, and more weight on the applicant as a whole.  To them, they claim, the GPA is a clear indicator that a given applicant can succeed in an academic setting, however it is the extracurriculars, involvement in public and community service, uniqueness, and life experience that make the applicant more or less desirable in shaping the incoming class. 

On the other hand, no one can deny the prestige and eliteness in claiming alum status to “[Harvard/Yale/Stanford] School of Law,” not to mention the heightened earning potential as reported by USN&WR.  For example, in Chicago you’ve got the coveted University of Chicago School of Law with a midrange private sector salary of $160,000.  Compare that to the neighboring John Marshall School of Law with a midrange private sector salary of $56,500-$120,000.  Both schools report an average student indebtedness at graduation of +/-$123,500 (with Tier 4 John Marshall slightly higher than Tier1 #5 U of C). 

I set out for advice from non law students and law applicants.  I really wanted to know what other legal professionals thought about the rankings and this is what I was told:

Partner in Medium Sized Private Practice: Rankings do not matter.  You have to take the same test as every other future lawyer to pass the bar.  Sure, name recognition helps in employment prospects, but so do alumni networks. Alumni generally recruit from their alma matter, so there are still job opportunities at lesser known or lesser ranked schools.  Regardless where you choose to go, don’t rely on any school’s career office – be proactive when looking for employment prospects.   

Prosecuting Attorney (3 Years out of Law School):  Go to the school you feel most comfortable in and are assured the best possible chances for success.  For you, this might be a small, community-feel with small class sizes and a low student-to-faculty ratio that you are more likely to find in a lower ranked school.

Associate in Large Practice (2 Years out of Law School): If you want “Big Law,” go big or go home.  If you want to work in the public sector, go to the school where you will incur the least debt, either through scholarships or through lowest cost of tuition.

Law Professor at (ironically) a Tier 4 School:  Go to the highest ranked school you can get into, don’t worry about the debt, it’s a necessary evil but well worth it in the end.

While I appreciate everyone weighing-in, I’m no more decisive about rankings than I was before.  However, I’m becoming more and more indifferent to rankings every day. (How’s that for clarity – see, I’ll make a GREAT lawyer one day!)  One thing that I do know for sure though, be it a Tier 1, Tier 4, Tier whatever . . . I am mostly focused on bar passage rate, employment after graduation, and average indebtedness.  So don’t disregard the rankings all together, rather, use them as a guide to help evaluate the best school for you (which may not be the best school for someone else).  


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