Thinking About Law School? Rankings Matter

Thinking About Law School? Rankings Matter

Over the next couple of months I think I am going to write a few blog posts on college education in America. This comes certainly from my perspective, but I have been a college educator for over 2 decades now and I have worked closely as a transfer and first-year academic advising fellow (in addition to my teaching duties) for the past 5 years. Therefore, I have given hundreds of presentations to students about what to expect in their undergraduate careers. Maybe some of this information can help demystify college admissions, majors, and the like for students and parents.

However, the idea for this blog post has been germinating in my mind for a while. Long ago I thought about becoming a lawyer (kind of makes sense when you love to talk). I took the LSAT (the admission test for law school) and did pretty well. When I was talking to different people about law school I didn’t get the best advice. So when I became a college professor (even during my grad school) days I wanted to make sure I gave good advice to students who were thinking about grad school. In fact, I think graduate education, in general, is a good thing. You should try to do it without taking out debt.

The think about graduate education and undergraduate education is that rankings don’t necessarily matter at a number of places. It is what you do at those schools that matter more (a blog post for another time). One place in graduate education where it does matter is law school.

The sad truth is that reputation does matter. For example, if you look at jobs at the tops firms, most come from the top 14 law schools. That doesn’t mean that you can’t get a job at those firms with a lower tiered law degree, but typically you have to be top in your class at another law school or know someone in the company.

So if you want a top firm or to even get a clerkship with a Federal Court judge or something law school reputation does matter. I mean think about the current occupants of the Supreme Court. Most of them got their law degrees from top law schools like Yale, Harvard, etc.

This is totally anecdotal but my ex-wife went to a top-10 law school and instantly got a job out of school right away at a top law firm in the South.

Now I am making it sound much easier than it is. Students who go these law schools have to get good grades, hopefully apply for fellowships, do summer clerkships and the like. However, if you want to be mobile and have a larger law career reputation can make a major difference.

My advice to those people considering law schools out there is that I would go to the best law school that you can IF you have a desire to work at one of the largest firms or become a federal judge or something.

Some Caveats To This Advice

Now before my lawyer friends start jumping down my throat let me say that there are some caveats to this idea of law school rankings.

Law school rankings matter often it comes to big firms, clerkships and other items. However, here are some things where it might not matter.

First, location. If you are thinking about wanting to stay in your community or hang out your own shingle then law school reputation might not be as important. What is more important is the connection you make in the local law field around you.

Second, the type of job/lawyer you want to be. Again, this is an individual choice. There are a lot of people who don’t want to work at a big law firm. They don’t want to have 100 hour work weeks. They don’t want to be a slave to their boss. They don’t want to feel like they are being run through a treadmill to make that larger salary. Different types of lawyer jobs may or may not have reputation as an important part of your resume.

Finally, some law schools have specific types of specializations that make them better than others. There are some law schools in the country where the overall law school ranking might not be that high. However, the specific specialization might be worth going to that school. For example, when I was thinking about law school the William Mitchell Law School (now the Mitchell Hamline Law School) was not ranked highly nationally. However, they had a specialization in criminal law where there rankings are higher. In those cases, if that is something you want to do with your degree, then here, again, reputation matters, but you might go to a lower-tiered law school.

The Bottom Line: I know that some of my lawyer friends and students may read this and think I am out to lunch. However, the evidence demonstrates that if you want to work at a top firm that they come from the best law schools. Lawyers can be a snobby, hierarchical bunch. Tradition matters and where you went to law school, unfortunately or fortunately matters.

This post, by the way, should not be taken as an advocacy for you to go to law school. The other truth is that there are too many law school graduates, with huge amounts of student loan debt, and not enough jobs. Being a lawyer can be a worthwhile profession. But the law field has changed and is changing. Being a lawyer isn’t an automatic ticket to a six figure salary. If you are going to law school be prepared to deal with those realities. Think long and hard about it. And think about where you go to school as well.

6 thoughts on “Thinking About Law School? Rankings Matter

  1. I think rankings for law school is incredibly important. Especially as the landscape is so competitive. Since rankings often take into consideration level of engagement from their alumni, starting salaries after school, etc. it’s important to know that information.

  2. I totally agree. And that is why I recommend, if they can afford it, for my students to think about why they want to go to law school and from there choosing the best law school to get into. If you aren’t in the top 50 law schools, unfortunately, the job prospects can be lessened coming out of school. Not true of all things, but certainly for the big money paying firms.

  3. Amen and amen. Isn’t it though that Law School itself is beginning to not as matter as much as before . . . ? It’s an interesting evolution that is happening with that profession. Yes, the top 50 will always be the top 50 . . . but I expect Tiers 2 through 4 (ugh, why are there are even 4 tiers) will go through some drastic changes.

    1. I think you are right, particularly because of the abysmal job market. What will most likely happen is that lower tiered law schools will merge together or just disappear. They won’t be able to survive, particularly in markets that have multiple law schools.

  4. Very good advice. Generally speaking, you need to 1) go to a Top Law School (the Top 14); 2) be a top student and on Law Review; and/or 3) go to a law school with a very good reputation in your specialty (taxation, criminal, First Amendment, etc.). Lawyers can and do succeed without falling into those categories, but it is much easier if you do. Plus, Wall Street and DC firms generally won’t even look at those outside of the Top 14 because they can — it is so competitive out there given the number of lawyers there are. I did the same thing as you — after teaching a few years, I took the LSATs (did well) and applied and was accepted to law school. But, even with a good package, including being a legal writing assistant, I would have had to incur debt again, plus give up a salary. When I thought about how hard a couple of lawyer friends of mine from graduate school were working to get to where they wanted to be — and who were far better lawyers than I could ever hope to be — I decided to pass. Never regretted the decision.

    One other piece of advice for students looking at law school — you need to do very well your first year. That helps determine law review and the best summer associateships.

    1. Thank you. I must commend my ex-wife for providing a lot of this stuff. The law market is hard and I don’t necessarily recommend students go into it unless they have a specific notion in mind.

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