Do Law School Rankings Matter?

 

The US News and World Report rankings of graduate schools are out today. One part of me feels like Steve Martin in The Jerk, running out of his house proudly yelling that the phone books are out and his name is finally in it. (I also laughed hard at the advice that Martin’s father gave him upon leaving home, but that is another story).

Another part of me realizes that the rankings are to be taken seriously — because everyone else takes them seriously: law students choosing where to attend, law firm partners making hiring decisions, law school administrators, faculty, and especially alumni.

The problem with US News is that it factors in lots of odd things in calculating its rankings. For example, in the past they’ve weighed things like how big the library is, even though most law students only use the library as a study hall because most materials are online now.  It has also used money as a proxy for greatness, though, as we have seen from K-12, money spent per pupil and educational performance do not correlate. The rankings also look at bar passage rates, employment outcomes (on which schools have “cheated” by hiring their own students for a year), average LSAT and GPAs, etc.

For all those law students who will spend the next few weeks considering where to go, one of the biggest factors will probably be academic reputation. After all, those obscure considerations above don’t matter — and aren’t even generally known — to most people on the bench or in a practice. If you were to choose a law school based on anything other than academic reputation (which is a function of the quality of the faculty and the success of the alumni) you are making a big mistake. Here is the reputational ranking of the top schools, which varies some with the US News final rankings (on a 1-5 scale):

1.  Harvard University (4.8)

1.  Yale University (4.8)

3.  Stanford University (4.7)

4.  Columbia University (4.6)

4.  University of Chicago (4.6)

6.  New York University (4.4)

6.  University of California, Berkeley (4.4)

6.  University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (4.4)

9.  University of Pennsylvania (4.3)

9.  University of Virginia (4.3) 

11. Duke University (4.2)

12. Cornell University (4.1)

12. Georgetown University (4.1)

12. Northwestern University (4.1)

15. University of Texas, Austin (4.0)

16. University of California, Los Angeles (3.9)

17. Vanderbilt University (3.8)

18. Washington University, St. Louis (3.6)

19. University of Minnesota, Twin Cities (3.5)

19. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (3.5)

19. University of Southern California (3.5)

These seem generally right to me, though you might quibble about the exact placement by one or two spots. It might be of interest to look at this (slightly different) list, which ranks schools by reputation among practicing lawyers rather than academics:

1.  Harvard University (4.8)

1.  Stanford University (4.8)

3.  Columbia University (4.7)

3.  University of Chicago (4.7)

3.  Yale University (4.7)

6.  University of Michigan, Ann Arbor (4.6)

7.  Duke University (4.5)

7.  New York University (4.5)

7.  University of California, Berkeley (4.5)

7.  University of Virginia (4.5) 

11. Cornell University (4.4)

11. Georgetown University (4.4)

11. Northwestern University (4.4)

11. University of Pennsylvania (4.4)

15. University of California, Los Angeles (4.1)

15. University of Texas, Austin (4.1)

15. Vanderbilt University (4.1)

18. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (3.9)

19. Emory University (3.8)

19. University of California, Hastings (3.8)

19. University of Notre Dame (3.8)

19. University of Southern Califiornia (3.8)

19. Washington University, St. Louis (3.8)

Regardless of which list you give greater weight, this and this alone should guide the prospective student in deciding where to go and steer the judge or partner on where to hire.  Of course, this could all be bias because my law school does so well, even though I think it should be tied with Columbia and Chicago. Go Bears.

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  1. Profile Photo Inactive
    @flownover

    “Don’t trust white shoes.”

    Right ?

    • #1
  2. Profile Photo Moderator
    @MikeRapkoch

    There are other considerations, though. For example, I live in Montana, and attended the University of Montana Law School. UM has a clear advantage in Montana. First, Montana firms know what UM produces, i.e., lawyers who understand state law. Second, lawyers from UM have a huge advantage over lawyers from top tier law schools: most Montana firms cannot afford to pay $200, 000 to a first year lawyer. Third, a Harvard grad with a couple hundred grand of debt, while he might be a great catch, would quickly starve on $50,000 a year.

    I think it is really a matter of where a lawyer wants to practice. Sure, a UM grad–even though he may be every bit as capable as a Harvard grad–will likely never clerk for SCOTUS. But sometimes 9th Circuit judges hire them. One sitting 9th Circuit Judge, Sid Thomas, is a UM grad.

    Anyway, to be completely pragmatic, it depends on what a student hopes to do.

    • #2
  3. Profile Photo Contributor
    @TommyDeSeno

    Law school ranking mythology ends once a lawyer gets a job.

    I’ve never seen a diploma cross examine a witness.

    Juries have no idea where a lawyer went to school.

    The only usefulness of rankings for me is the thrill I get when  I go to court and take money from an Ivy League educated lawyer.

    • #3
  4. Profile Photo Moderator
    @AmySchley

    Ah, my school … ranked 104, with an employment rate of N/A.  After all, it’s not lying if they don’t tell you anything.

    • #4
  5. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Lavaux

    If you’re in WA, don’t go to law school: The first year is useful but the last two years are a pure scam that will put you in a financial hole to the tune of $60,000. Instead, get yourself a paralegal ticket at your local community college, work for three years with a law firm (while ticking a few other boxes), and qualify to take the bar exam that way. Then about 3 months before the bar exam, take a prep course (e.g. Barbri) and study like heck. Cost of entire process = $8,000. Cost of law school route = $80,000. Enough said?

    • #5
  6. Profile Photo Inactive
    @NickStuart
    Mike Rapkoch: There are other considerations, though. For example, I live in Montana, and attended the University of Montana Law School. UM has a clear advantage in Montana. First, Montana firms know what UM produces, i.e., lawyers who understand state law. Second, lawyers from UM have a huge advantage over lawyers from top tier law schools: most Montana firms cannot afford to pay $200, 000 to a first year lawyer. Third, a Harvard grad with a couple hundred grand of debt, while he might be a great catch, would quickly starve on $50,000 a year.

    Anyway, to be completely pragmatic, it depends on what a student hopes to do.

    Thank you Mike.  

    Out here in flyover country not every student can afford the debt they will incur going to these schools, nor can everyone who needs a will drawn up, or help with a guardianship, or a medical POA afford or need a $500/hr attorney from a “top” law school.

    • #6
  7. Profile Photo Inactive
    @user_264030

    If you care about clerking for a federal judge or working at a Vault 100 law firm, then rankings matter more. If you want a local legal practice or to work in a field where law is a secondary consideration (consulting, patent law, administrator), then you shouldn’t care about ranking as much. 

    I went to a school in the top 10 on both lists, and could have gotten away with a slightly lower ranked school for less than half the debt. But the conventional wisdom spouted to me by everyone I knew was to go to the best school you got into, so that’s what I did. My career is in a field indirectly related to law now, and I can’t say my law school’s reputation will help much going forward. Though for what it’s worth, I’ve been told by headhunters that I have doors available to me that other lawyers will never have.

    So I guess if you know what you want, then choose your school’s tier accordingly. If you don’t know, then either go to the best school you can or, better yet, don’t go to law school.

    • #7
  8. Profile Photo Inactive
    @user_264030
    anonymous

    The thought that somebody’s career trajectory might be determined by whether they graduated from a school subjectively rated as 4.8 versus 4.3, rather than by individual achievement is profoundly anti-meritocratic and depressing.

    It’s even worse than that. There are private charts assembled by career services in top law schools that show you what percentile you have to be in to stand a chance at certain firms. Law students voluntarily group themselves into classes of studentry when interviewing based on these charts. Conformist lemmings.

    You’ll notice that in both rankings, the same 14 schools take the top places. Among those 14 schools there are informally 4 different tiers. Tier 1: YHS. Tier 2: CCN. Tier 3: PVMB. Tier 4: DNCG. Rule of thumb among admissions is that each tier increase is worth $20,000/yr in tuition. So full ride at Georgetown < no scholarship at Stanford.

    It’s bogus, but this is what law students are told, and it’s actually pretty close to how it works in the Big Law and Federal clerkship world, where school name never leaves the top of the resume.

    • #8
  9. Profile Photo Moderator
    @MikeRapkoch
    Nick Stuart

    Mike Rapkoch: There are other considerations, though. For example, I live in Montana, and attended the University of Montana Law School. UM has a clear advantage in Montana. First, Montana firms know what UM produces, i.e., lawyers who understand state law. Second, lawyers from UM have a huge advantage over lawyers from top tier law schools: most Montana firms cannot afford to pay $200, 000 to a first year lawyer. Third, a Harvard grad with a couple hundred grand of debt, while he might be a great catch, would quickly starve on $50,000 a year.

    Anyway, to be completely pragmatic, it depends on what a student hopes to do.

    Thank you Mike.  

    Out here in flyover country not every student can afford the debt they will incur going to these schools, nor can everyone who needs a will drawn up, or help with a guardianship, or a medical POA afford or need a $500/hr attorney from a “top” law school. · 33 minutes ago

    I got nervous when my rate went to $200.00, and that was 20 years in.

    • #9
  10. Profile Photo Member
    @Larry3435

    Mike R. got it exactly right.  It depends where you want to practice.  My law school, USC, just squeaked in – last place on both lists.  But if you want to practice in Los Angeles (and I did, at the time), you are better off at USC than at Harvard or Yale.  Any Los Angeles law firm will hire from USC, and more firms interview locally than at the Ivy League schools or other national schools.  I’ll even admit that the competition may be a little easier.  So, U.S. News, take your rankings and [CoC]!

    • #10
  11. Profile Photo Inactive
    @druzen
    One part of me feels like Steve Martin inThe Jerk, running out of his house proudly yelling that the phone books are out and his name is finally in it. (I also laughed hard at the advice that Martin’s father gave him upon leaving home, but that is another story).

    The Lord loves a workin’ man; don’t trust whitey; see a doctor and get rid of it.

    • #11
  12. Profile Photo Inactive
    @EPG

    Well, a bunch of folks beat me to it. 

    Local reputation and network matter. 

    Quality of work, and quality of networking, once you graduate, matter even more. 

    I have made a lot of mistakes in my legal career, but my choice of law school (“ranked” below Amy’s overall, but #1 in a specialty) was not one of them.  It had a great faculty, was in a great environment, and had small class sizes.  Expensive enough now that I wouldn’t do it again (but that is true for law school generally) — at the time, though, it was a deal).

     

    • #12
  13. Profile Photo Inactive
    @BarbaraKidder
    Nick Stuart

    Mike Rapkoch: There are other considerations, though. For example, I live in Montana, and attended the University of Montana Law School. UM has a clear advantage in Montana. First, Montana firms know what UM produces, i.e., lawyers who understand state law. Second, lawyers from UM have a huge advantage over lawyers from top tier law schools: most Montana firms cannot afford to pay $200, 000 to a first year lawyer. Third, a Harvard grad with a couple hundred grand of debt, while he might be a great catch, would quickly starve on $50,000 a year.

    Thank you Mike.  

    Out here in flyover country not every student can afford the debt they will incur going to these schools, nor can everyone who needs a will drawn up, or help with a guardianship, or a medical POA afford or need a $500/hr attorney from a “top” law school. · 14 hours ago

    Let’s not forget a graduate of the University of Wyoming Law School whose talent and fame defied the ‘Eastern  Legal Establishment’s’ notion of what is vital to becoming a successful attorney, proving that it’s about so much more than one’s academic credentials.

    • #13
  14. Profile Photo Reagan
    @GLDIII

    Must. Resist. Temptation.

    (To expound on the tragedy of empty seats of a bus bound for the bottom of the river, while on it’s way to a lawyer’s convention….. )

    • #14
  15. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Moleeye

    Howzabout the one you can get into and afford?

    Vault 100 firms are not all they’re cracked up to be, as anyone who has actually worked in one will tell you.  They pay well, but no-one seems to have the time to enjoy it, and if there is ANY thing in your life that matters to you more than money and, possibly, power, there is no point in going to work for one.

    Meanwhile, plenty of people have made good lives and livelihoods after graduating from an “also-ran” school.

    The current market is lousy for newly-minted lawyers,  and perhaps going to a fancy school might help with getting hired, but some of the least-effective attornies I’ve met have come from those schools, too.

    • #15
  16. Profile Photo Moderator
    @MikeRapkoch
    GLDIII: Must. Resist. Temptation.

    (To expound on the tragedy of empty seats of a bus bound for the bottom of the river, while on it’s way to a lawyer’s convention….. ) · 3 hours ago

    Go ahead. I love those jokes. Here’s my favorite:

    How do you get a lawyer out of a tree?

    Cut the rope.

    • #16
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    @FrontRanger

    John, aside from you and the relatively small band of other good lawyers doing the important work of protecting the constitution, I would ask whether lawyers matter. I think they’ve come to matter too much. Byzantine regulations serve them. We need fewer law schools and fewer lawyers.

    • #17
  18. Profile Photo Contributor
    @TommyDeSeno
    Front Ranger: John, aside from you and the relatively small band of other good lawyers doing the important work of protecting the constitution, I would ask whether lawyers matter. I think they’ve come to matter too much. Byzantine regulations serve them. We need fewer law schools and fewer lawyers. · 37 minutes ago

    Actually, I think your choice is between lawyers or regulation.  Take your pick.

    • #18
  19. Profile Photo Inactive
    @Jackal

    The profession of the law is the only aristocratic element that can be amalgamated without violence with the natural elements of democracy and be advantageously and permanently combined with them. I am not ignorant of the defects inherent in the character of this body of men; but without this admixture of lawyer-like sobriety with the democratic principle, I question whether democratic institutions could long be maintained; and I cannot believe that a republic could hope to exist at the present time if the influence of lawyers in public business did not increase in proportion to the power of the people.

    So saith Alexis.

    • #19
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    @Moleeye
    “Protecting the Constitution” happens every day in criminal courtrooms everywhere.   Amid all the plea bargained bushwa and trials of guilty folks rolling the dice, there is a thread of genuine protection of our rights and freedom.  It’s a slim thread, but oh, so important.
    • #20

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