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The Vault's List of the Top 25 Most Underrated Law Schools:

The Vault has recently conducted a survey of legal recruiters designed to generate a list of the Top 25 most underrated law schools (hat tip: Paul Caron).

The top ten most underrated schools were:

1. Emory

2. Fordham

3. Howard

4. Chicago-Kent

5. Oregon

6. George Mason

7. Illinois

8. William & Mary

9. Vanderbilt

10. Georgia

As you can see, George Mason scored very high on this survey, suggesting that we (or at least our graduates) are significantly better than our reputation suggests.

The Vault asked 512 legal recruiters to "name law schools that, based on their experience as hiring managers, are underrated. There was no limit to the number of law schools a hiring manager could name as underrated." To calculate each school's total score, the Vault used the following formula:

* 50% of the score is based on the number of votes a law school received from recruiters in its own region, when compared to the votes received by other law schools in the region.

* 50% of the score is based on the number of votes a law school received from recruiters outside its region, when compared to the votes received by law schools nationally.

As with the more general US News rankings of law schools, the Vault approach has its shortcomings. I am skeptical that most recruiters really know much about more than a fraction of the 190 AALS-accredited law schools in the country (which is also true of the law professors and practitioners surveyed by US News). This weakness is partially offset by the focus on recruiters from the school's own region (who are likely to know more about the schools in their area), but only partially. A second and perhaps more serious problem is that a school that is widely viewed as underrated may no longer actually be underrated precisely because so many people now agree that it is. The truly underrated schools are ones whose true qualities are not appreciated by recruiters and others in the field. Finally, it's important to note that this is a study of perceived underratedness, not a measure of absolute quality. The fact that GMU is No. 6 on the list and Illinois No. 7 doesn't necessarily mean that our graduates are better than theirs, but only that recruiters believe they are slightly more underrated.

That said, the Vault survey does still provide some useful information for legal professionals and aspiring law students. Particularly interesting is the fact that several schools that already enjoy strong reputations (e.g. - Vanderbilt and Emory) are still viewed by the recruiters as underrated (i.e. - they may be even better than their already strong reputations). And of course the Vault survey provides additional proof that George Mason deserves to rise further in the US News rankings:).

wooga:
This still doesn't address my primary concern with law school rankings, which is that they are unfair to smaller schools. If you pump out 1,000 grads a year, you have a huge advantage on any reputation based ranking over a school with only 100 grads per year.

In other words, "familiarity" is still the dominant factor, in the US News rankings or in these rankings.

Personally, I like the ranking method of only comparing tuition against average starting salaries (adjusted for regional cost of living differences). Nothing beats the market for the true valuation of your degree!
3.23.2007 6:10pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
Alternatively, some conservative recruiters might think of GMU and prefer it because of its conservative tendencies. It is not hard to think that an organization that parrots your own ideology is "underrated." That GMU law seen as a conservative school might have something to do with the conservatives law professors on this blog. Rather than the quality of the student body.

Here is the objective LSAT data.

GMU 158-165
Georgia 158-164
UC Davis 158-164
BYU 161-166

Georgia, UC Davis, and BYU are tied for the spot just before GMU. Now, maybe Ilya Somin is going to whine that the 1 point on the LSAT for the 75 percentile (75% scored less than 165) means that GMU should be better ranked than Davis or Georgia. Even if this were true, this is not enough of a difference such that we should think that GMU is seriously underranked. You can not seriously argue that GMU should leap over BYU.

By the way, if anyone is interested in how pathetic GMU economics undergrads are, you should check out EconLog. According to Byran Caplan and Arnold Kling, GMU undergrads are about as smart as rocks.

This is nothing more than useless whining. Maybe Mr. Somin should get a job at a real law school.
3.23.2007 6:40pm
Hattio (mail):
Go Kent.
Wooga, the only problem with your proposed methodology is that adjusting for Cost of living isn't really going to capture regional differences. If you want to live in a rural area, you aren't going to make as much money. Schools with smaller cities where their grads go to practice are going to wind up looking worse because the region doesn't pay lawyers as much.
3.23.2007 6:42pm
Houston Lawyer:
This is not nearly as interesting as a list of over-rated law schools would be.

Which school produces the most pompous asses?

Which school's graduates are smart but not well grounded?
3.23.2007 6:53pm
Kenvee:
Wow, I certainly wasn't expecting CK on there, much less as #4!
3.23.2007 6:56pm
Ilya Somin:
Alternatively, some conservative recruiters might think of GMU and prefer it because of its conservative tendencies.

By the same token, liberal recruiters might rate it down for exactly the same reason. Unless there are significantly more conservative recruiters than liberal ones, the net result will be a wash. In reality, my guess is that ideology doesn't have much impact on law firm recruitment either way. What they care about is the bottom line.

Here is the objective LSAT data.

GMU 158-165
Georgia 158-164
UC Davis 158-164
BYU 161-166

Georgia, UC Davis, and BYU are tied for the spot just before GMU.


On the other hand, there are schools above all of these with lower LSAT scores. Moroever, student LSAT scores are not the only factor that should go into rankings. Faculty productivity (which is higher at GMU than at the schools named above according to the rankings run by the very liberal Brian Leiter) also counts, as do a number of other factors. Where should GMU actually rank? It's hard to say. But I suspect that the true ranking is much closer to Leiter's ranking (in which we are no. 31 in student quality, and no. 23 on faculty quality is closer to the truth than the US News ranking of no. 37.
3.23.2007 6:59pm
wwSTMd (mail):
Case Western #17 WooHoo; but what does this exactly mean? I think I might sound a little funny if I said "According to Vault.com Case is the #17th most underrated Law school in the country." I want to take this as a positive (given that my school is listed) but what does it even mean?
3.23.2007 7:03pm
SP:
What in the world does LSAT data have to do with anything, Viscus (other than you probably got a good, though not great, LSAT score?). The point of the discussion is that, despite the reputation, derived in part from LSAT scores and the prejudices of people like you, George Mason and several other schools produce could lawyers. I bet you are also stunned that so many "Southern" schools, that "black" school Howard, and that "techical college" Kent made the list.
3.23.2007 7:40pm
volokh watcher (mail):
Ilya Somin said:


By the same token, liberal recruiters might rate it [GMU] down for exactly the same reason. Unless there are significantly more conservative recruiters than liberal ones, the net result will be a wash. In reality, my guess is that ideology doesn't have much impact on law firm recruitment either way. What they care about is the bottom line.


Ilya --

I spent close to 14 years at two of the 10 largest US-based law firms (with 8.5 years as an AUSA). One of those firms is based on the west coast. The other is based in the southeast.

Now two mega-firms does not a statistically reliable sample make. But I'd feel pretty safe in saying the "liberal recruiters" -- as a percentage of partners making hiring/promotion decisions -- were substantially outnumbered by the "conservative recruiters".

That said, I never met a single partner at either firm who let politics influence their hiring decisions. Competition among law firms -- as evidenced by rising 1st-year salaries -- makes politics a nonstarter.

These law firms have bottom lines to meet. And they need bodies to do it.
3.23.2007 9:10pm
KRS:
Interesting post. Isn't there some kind of recursive aspect to polls on which schools are underrated, though?

If a school is widely considered underrated, doesn't that mean that the school is actually widely respected, at least among the survey respondents? In other words, if a school scores too high, aren't the people who call the school underrated mistaken in some sense?

I think Minnesota's underrated, fwiw
3.23.2007 9:49pm
Mark Field (mail):

That said, I never met a single partner at either firm who let politics influence their hiring decisions. Competition among law firms -- as evidenced by rising 1st-year salaries -- makes politics a nonstarter.


The economic circumstances were much different then (1976), but I lost a summer associate position because the relevant partner thought I was a liberal. In the long run, I think it worked out well for me, but at the time I was pissed.
3.23.2007 10:14pm
Mark Field (mail):
Just to clarify, the partner was right: I was and am a liberal. What pissed me off was that he would make an employment decision on that basis.
3.23.2007 10:15pm
davidbernstein (mail):
I don't remember where I saw this, but I'm pretty sure that surveys show that partners at big city law firms are overwhelmingly Democrats. Also, I heard of people being given a hard time for having Federalist Society on their resume, but not liberal organizations.
3.23.2007 10:38pm
Steve Lubet (mail):
Is there no end to conservative whining? Now you're claiming that large law firms discriminate against conservative students. Why? In order to piss off their Republican clients? And at the same time, they're paying $200,000 bonuses to Supreme Court clerks who include numerous members of the Federalist Society.
3.23.2007 10:59pm
KRS:
Mr. Lubet, I don't think there's an end to any type of whining.
3.23.2007 11:38pm
Ilya Somin:
If a school is widely considered underrated, doesn't that mean that the school is actually widely respected, at least among the survey respondents? In other words, if a school scores too high, aren't the people who call the school underrated mistaken in some sense?

I agree, and in fact made a similar point in the post.
3.24.2007 12:45am
Grumpy Old Man (mail) (www):
My sister and I used to play the "overrated-underrated" game. As I remember, Beethoven was "underrated" because although he is considered a great composer, he's even better than people think he is.

On the other hand, caviar is "overrated" because although it's good, it's just not everything it's cracked up to be.

So, Yale is "overrated" because its graduates really don't all walk on water, and the "Ralph's School of Law," an unaccredited school in West LA that's in a building that also houses a supermarket, actually produces some competent licensed attorneys, is "underrated."

It's actually fun: try the Chad Republic, Kurt Vonnegut, postmodernism, Frank Lloyd Wright, Clarence Thomas, William O. Douglas, and Socialist Realism for starters.
3.24.2007 1:20am
Steven:

Faculty productivity (which is higher at GMU than at the schools named above according to the rankings run by the very liberal Brian Leiter) also counts, as do a number of other factors.


Prof Somyin~

I know this will disappoint you, but I can assure you that major law firms deciding where to direct their hiring resources care very little about the productivity of the faculty of any law school. They care first about how smart the students are and second about whether the students personality will fit into the culture of the firm and thereby allow that student to last long enough to recover the investment made in the early career years.
3.24.2007 1:36am
Cornellian (mail):
I know this will disappoint you, but I can assure you that major law firms deciding where to direct their hiring resources care very little about the productivity of the faculty of any law school.

I'd go further and say that major law firms don't care about anything having to do with the faculty of the law schools from which they hire. Of course they want capable graduates, so the fact they're getting them at least implies that the law school is doing a good job teaching them, but beyond that I've never seen any hiring partner ask about faculty productivity, tenure policies, ratio of regular profs to adjuncts, and other things regarded as critically important in the halls of academia.
3.24.2007 2:07am
KRS:
I missed this. A second and perhaps more serious problem is that a school that is widely viewed as underrated may no longer actually be underrated precisely because so many people now agree that it is. That's what I get for skimming.... badly.
3.24.2007 2:28am
KRS:
Even so, isn't that weird? A survey to gauge public opinion about what's wrong with public opinion? A survey about perceived misperception? A survey about "underratedness" is only valid if you assume some expertise on the part of the people being surveyed that doesn't exist in the general "rating" population. But presumably these hiring managers only know how a school is "rated" by other hiring managers.

Maybe I'm missing something or making too much of this.
3.24.2007 2:33am
KRS:
I wonder what Bashman thinks.
3.24.2007 2:33am
neurodoc:
There are 5 ABA accredited law schools in the District of Columbia. I don't know what the numbers have been in more recent years, but in the past one of those schools notably lagged the others in % of grads passing the par on the first try. And the DC bar is not as hard as some, e.g., NY. Doesn't that metric (% of grads passing on first try) mean more than LSAT stats, and can a school with a low pass rate be "underrated," unless a school that is not as bad as it is generally perceived to be is "underrated"? (If grads of first-tier schools that teach "national law" should happen to have slightly lower pass rate than grads of a less well-regarded school that prepares its grads to take its state bar, I wouldn't suggest that implies those first-tier schools are the inferior.)
3.24.2007 3:00am
davidbernstein (mail):
Steve, show me the "whining". I was merely stating facts. A prior poster suggested that big firm partners tend to be conservatives who discriminate against liberals. That is contrary to both data and anecdote. If someone suggested that the Yale Law faculty was "conservative" and discriminates against "liberal" candidates, would it be whining to point out that that's not true?
3.24.2007 7:10am
davidbernstein (mail):
P.S. I never said that firms discriminated against conservatives, at least as a matter of policy. I said I've heard numerous stories about people given a hard time because they put Federalist Society on their resume. The hard time consisted of the interviewers starting political arguments with them and otherwise baiting them. This does not generally make for the best interview circumstances. The debate is "do I keep Fed. Society off my resume and avoid confrontation" or "do I keep it on because I don't want to be at a firm where people will dislike me because of my views, and I'd rather find out now," or perhaps, "do I keep it off because I don't want to run into one jerk at the firm who will harm my prospects even though the firm itself isn't 'like that.'"
3.24.2007 7:15am
Steve Lubet (mail):
david: you're right, i should have called it complaining. nonetheless, you didn't exactly state facts, much less data. you refered to surveys that you are "pretty sure" you saw, with results that are highly questionable. Big city law firm partners are "overwhelmingly" democrats? How could that happen, given that rainmaking is the main route to partnership and corporate clients are usually Republicans?

Then you mention anecdotes about federalist society membership as a disadvantage "but not liberal organizations." How in the world would you know that liberals haven't been given a hard time in interviews?

In any event, Federalist Society membership is surely an advantage these days in getting clerkships, and clerkships are surely an advantage in getting hired at law firms. So people who debate whether they should omit the federalist society from their resumes are living in an alternate world of presumed persecution -- unless they think political blandness is the key to employment, in which case i assure you that liberal (or gay or feminist) organizations would be an equal disadvantage.
3.24.2007 8:57am
davidbernstein (mail):
"How could that happen, given that rainmaking is the main route to partnership and corporate clients are usually Republicans?"

On what basis do you assert that? Isn't it the case that law firms are chosen by the General Counsel? Who are lawyers? Who are disproportionately Democrats, especially among the elite?

Beyond that, corporations want primarily competent lawyers, and the best lawyers, graduating from the best law schools, reflect the ideological pool of those law schools--mostly liberal Democrats.

The idea that big firms are "conservative" is much like the idea that the military is composed of poor, educated, members of minority groups: an urban legend that fits the worldview of how liberals think the world is, but is empirically invalid (though I'd grant you that many law firms are culturally conservative, and that even liberal lawyers tend to "conservative" on issues of importance to their clients, when client interest so dictates--but it doesn't seem to affect their overall worldview, in my experience).

As for keeping fed society off the resume, don't forget that a good percentage of the interviewers at any firm are going to be associates, who don't have that much of a stake in the firm's long-term success, who are likely more idealistic than their elders, who are fresh from their intellectual experiences at law school, and who do have a strong stake in the firm hiring people they are going to like and enjoy being around. Are you saying that joining the Federalist Society is generally a route to popularity at law schools? If not, why would it suddenly be different when interviewing with recent law school grads.

I'm not saying that this results in rampant disadvantage to more conservative law students in the job market, but that on the margins, it probably pays to keep one's conservative views to oneself.

As for the clerkship market, you're comparing apples to oranges. I agree it's an advantage in the clerkship market to be conservative. What does that have to do with whether big firm attorneys are more or less likely to hire you if they think you're conservative?

Finally, I'm still not complaining. If I were to complain it would be about ideological discrimination in law school hiring since that has a lot more personal resonance, and is much more prevalent (Northwestern being a welcome exception in recent years).
3.24.2007 11:24am
Sarah (mail) (www):
I'm not sure how useful the survey results are (in part because they asked recruiters for schools to name, rather than giving each recruiter five or six names and asking them to say whether they thought each was over, under, or exactly where it should be in terms of reputation.) This was a fundamentally bad move, in my opinion, at least if they were going to be using the "compare the number of votes X school got to the number of votes all schools got" analysis; their methods aren't selecting for underratedness, they're selecting for a reputation of underratedness.

Which is, you know, good for purposes of choosing the schools which will probably have more recruiters at them than you might expect, but except for Georgia and maybe one or two others, it's not telling you anything, say, about how a school's low tuition is a false indicator, and that actually, you get a very solid education and great faculty and lots of opportunities for development. At least, not from the rankings, or vote tallies. The results simply aren't really reliable across all schools. Though, you know, yay for GMU for being considered underrated. I think.

In my massive personal ranking system for law schools, I will therefore be giving this data far less weight than the difference between how selective a school is on undergrad GPA vs. LSAT (with a 2.9 and 170, this is one of my most significant factors -- you should have seen my face when a friend told me I might get into Berkeley with that LSAT ^_^) and bar-passage rates.

However, as I start gearing up to finally apply to law schools, I find the free-response comments interesting, and will likely retain those for future reference -- and perhaps incorporate some of the themes into my application essays.
3.24.2007 12:52pm
neurodoc:
Better metric for ranking law schools: general aptitude scores (LSAT) going into law school or success measure (bar exam pass rates) coming out? I expect there must be a very high degree of correlation between them, with few dramatic inversions (high LSATs, low bar pass rate; or, low LSATs, high bar pass rate). Still I wonder how any school that was a laggard in bar pass rates could be considered "underrated," except perhaps in that perverse sense of being better than generally perceived though still not very good.
3.24.2007 1:05pm
Brian G (mail) (www):
Funny how the higer rated law schools are listed as underrated. It is like having the Oscars and the Golden Globes, 2 chances to tell them how great they are.
3.24.2007 6:39pm
Kate1999 (mail):
Steve Lubet writes:
Federalist Society membership is surely an advantage these days in getting clerkships, and clerkships are surely an advantage in getting hired at law firms. So people who debate whether they should omit the federalist society from their resumes are living in an alternate world of presumed persecution -- unless they think political blandness is the key to employment, in which case i assure you that liberal (or gay or feminist) organizations would be an equal disadvantage.
The problem with this argument is that very few students actually obtain clerkships, and the ones that do usually have no problem getting top jobs. Plus, students normally interview at law firms long before they apply for clerkships -- the former is fall 2L, the latter during the 3L year. So it's not like getting clerkships through conservative channels somehoe "cancels out" law firm discrimination.

More broadly, whether it's risky to put Fed Soc on a resume depends entirely where you're interviewing. If you want a job in San Francisco, putting Fed Soc on your resume is pretty risky. If you're interviewing in Dallas, it's not. It also matters firm by firm. For example, if you're interviewing in DC, it probably helps at Kirkland but hurts at Jenner. So it really just depends on the firm and the city.
3.24.2007 8:15pm
Anon_M (mail):
Two points of note...

First regarding the advantage of being a conservative law school, I believe trying to parse recruiters and associates into pools of liberal and conservative might miss the bigger issue. Assuming for a moment even relative parity (60-40% for instance in political leanings), the greater issue would be the pool of law schools. GMU is relatively unique in being a conservative law school (see the US Weekly article on faculty political leanings as measured by campaign contributions for instance), a fact that would significantly increase its exposure relative to a liberal law school.

Secondly, regarding bar passage rates and starting salaries, I believe one would have great difficulties in comparing GMU to other schools in different regions on those merits. I can attest from experience that a significant number of students at GMU are currently working on the Hill with a desire to become a legislative assistant or lobbyist thereafter. Neither profession generally requires passing the bar and both are paid considerable less than first year associates in the short run. On the other hand, DC area schools benefit in salary comparisons by including future Patent Attorneys from the USPTO. Many of those students will work for a firm while in school and start working as a second or third year associate in a higher demand legal field. The point of both these statements is to point out that regional realities greatly influence both the desire to take and pass the bar and also ones earning potential. I don't know of anyway to accurately account for these factors in comparison to other regions.

GPA is no longer a credible comparison (considering rampant grade inflation). Howard routinely leads the DC schools in Job Placement %, but certainly that could well point to other factors having nothing to do with a meritous analysis. In the end, LSAT might be the only remaining metric to which all schools are on equal footing.
-M
3.25.2007 4:51pm
Derrick (mail):
I think the notion has to do with national (east and west coast) reputations. Of course, in Atlanta us Emory Law grads are pretty highly thought of, but when I've interviewed for jobs in NY there have been more than a few questions about how challenging/reputable Emory was in comparison to other top 25 schools like Gtown and NYU. I would put us in that category, but I'm not sure most do.
3.25.2007 9:26pm
Viscus (mail) (www):
Somin writes:


By the same token, liberal recruiters might rate it down for exactly the same reason. Unless there are significantly more conservative recruiters than liberal ones, the net result will be a wash.


This is incorrect. It assumes, wrongly, that someone rating a school down is equivalent to them rating it up. But this is incorrect, since the question asks which schools are underrated, not which are overrated. It also is a function of which schools recruiters have in mind. So, the more a school is in mind, the more it has an opportunity to be included in the survey. And any inclusions in the survery, are positive, not negative. Thus, a small conservative cohort of recruiters who like GMU because it is conservative could skew the ratings in one direction, with the dislike of liberals going unregistered. Thus, the results aren't a wash. A liberal may not affirmatively list GMU as underrated, but that doesn't cancel out a conservative who would so list GMU.
3.26.2007 2:25am
A logical point:
Viscus:

While it's true that liberal dislike of GMU will not be represented in a survey like this, it's also true that programs which liberals take to be underrated will be just as well represented as programs that are underrated according to conservatives. The effect you identify thus should make any difference to ordinal rankings.
3.26.2007 12:27pm
gasman (mail):
This topic has the makings of a George Bush garbled phrase: "please don't mis-underrate me"
3.26.2007 4:08pm
Fred C. Dobbs (mail):
Howard?
3.27.2007 12:22pm