When the "Best" Isn't the Best Choice:

My former colleague Andrew Morriss and William Henderson have an interesting article in the National Law Journal identifying some practical reasons some prospective law students should pay less attention to U.S. News rankings. Morriss and Henderson are not U.S. News bashers. They recognize that the rankings provide a useful sorting function, particularly given the lack of easily accessible alternative sources of comparative information about schools. Yet given the costs of law school, and the increasing stratification of private law firm salaries, they suggest that some prospective students would be better off attending lower ranked schools that are less expensive or more financially generous.

Despite its many flaws, the annual U.S. News & World Report law school ranking is cheap and easy to use, making it an important source of information for prospective students weighing their options. Unfortunately, the utility of these rankings is often distorted by an Internet-based echo chamber, where anonymous posters brag about their admissions to elite schools and job prospects at big firms.

To further complicate students' decisions, many law schools are engaged in vigorous competition to lure students who will boost the schools' status in key U.S. News metrics, such as median LSAT score or selectivity. All too often, the results are expensive, bad decisions about law school. . . .

For the vast majority of students who are not admitted to top tier national law schools, . . . Slavishly following the U.S. News rankings will not significantly increase one's large-firm job prospects. And the excess debt that students incur is likely to undermine their career options.

The article is accompanied by a wealth of data and interesting insights that prospective law students in particular should be sure to check out.

I have made Zero usage of US News and World Reports rankings in my decision of where to apply. I plan to look at Bar Passage Rates, their ABA reported LSAT and GPA numbers to estimate my chances, tuition costs, and location. Once I've made my list of schools then I'll go visit them or talk to counselors at the law school forum or find students at the school I'm visiting and ask for a candid evaluation.
4.14.2008 8:18pm
Sean M:
I had the opportunity between William &Mary and George Washington. No offense to Orin, but when GW is $40,000 per year and the cost of living in D.C. and W&M is $18,000 plus the cost of living in Williamsburg, U.S. News &World Report be damned. I was going for the better deal. I'll be able to graduate without debt and probably have similar prospects to GW graduates, assuming I can keep my GPA up.
4.14.2008 8:20pm
So much of it is geography. Taking NC as an example, if you want to practice in here or even Atlanta, you'd be crazy to go to Duke rather than UNC (at 1/3 the cost of Duke). If you want to practice in New York or Chicago, Duke might be a better option unless you will be top 20% at UNC (and who can safely predict that?).
4.14.2008 8:36pm
loki13 (mail):
I always thought it was very simple-

if you could get in the top 14 or so schools (I would arbitrarily say all school from Yale - Cornell) you should consider going irregardless of cost, as they provide intangibles (in terms of clerkship opportunities, networking, and, *ahem* jobs) that can make up for their tuition.

Other than than, go to the lowest tuition (incl. scholarship offer, if any) in the region that you plan to practice. If you succeed and are at the very top of your class, you can still make your opportunity. If not, you're not seriously in the hole.
4.14.2008 9:25pm
(1) If you get into certain truly national firms (Yale, Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, and U Chicago), you may as well go there. You substantially increase your odds of landing a big-firm job which will pay down your debts (this includes mid to even low down the pack students), and if you want to do certain exclusive government jobs/clerkships/eventually being a law professor, they are really the only way to go.

(2) From there, there are other "good schools" but the decision begins to get murkier. I would argue that the rank/money trade-off doesn't begin quite this early, however. You still ought to go to the best school you can get into, with geography in the forefront. If you get into UCLA, Texas, and Georgetown, scholarships aside you should really chose based on where you want to end up. There are not many Los Angeles spots for Georgetown or Texas grads, although they are good schools and if you do well enough you could still likely land there.

(3) As you move down the U.S. News rankings, even to schools ranked 25 to 50, your odds of succeeding at all this begin to quickly decline. The top students can (a) transfer to just about any school, including at times Harvard but often Chicago or Columbia, or (b) still land excellent firm jobs paying the top market rates. And yet significant portions of law students at these schools will not only graduate without a "mid-firm job" - because the Career Development Offices at these schools spend an inordinate amount of time on top 5% students who are going to land at a top firm regardless and too little on bottom third students who need a hand - they will have no job at all.

(4) From there it's arguable whether law school economically makes sense. The very top students at each school will do fine; but even in small markets local schools will fail to place many of their students. (See solid law schools like Indiana University, University of Kentucky, etc.) And since most of the students at each school enter with roughly equal credentials, I would imagine few students could legitimately bank on finishing their first year in the top 5-10% before they set foot on campus.

So yes, I agree that US News might be overvalued, but I'm not sure that more financial aid is always better. If George Washington gives me a full ride and UChicago, Columbia, or Harvard merely lets me in, and my dream is to be a law professor, mustn't I go to one of the latter three?

Or if I get into Duke but Ohio St gives me a full ride? If I do well at Duke I can work at Cravath (if I so chose), and if I finish in the middle or lower at Ohio St I might have few options at all.
4.14.2008 9:29pm

4.15.2008 12:04am
Mascodagama--Let's not overexaggerate and make the atmosphere inflammable on this board.

Question for all: My undergrads are often interested in working for the Federal Government, and they want to go to the most prestigious law school that admits them. This university is a USNWR 'top 20' national university, so our strong students can often get in at top law schools.

I suspect that going to Duke in order to land a position at the Defense Department is financially unwise. And perhaps my students from, say, Chicago, could go to U of I for law school and land that job with far less debt. Comparable situation for the kids from Milwaukee, St. Paul, or Charlotte.

But what can I tell the kiddos from Massachusetts or WVa? Or Ohio? Kansas?

Any insights? A lot of DC-based law jobs seem to be high-prestige, and thus competitive. And yet the pay does not justify the loads-o'-loans from a place like U. of Chicago. No?
4.15.2008 12:31am
Tony Tutins (mail):
Law school tuition does not correlate with ranking, but lower ranked schools will offer scholarships to their top students -- basically to keep them from going elsewhere. Assuming they score in the top 10 percent of their class after 1L, these students can get the same jobs that they could have had they gone to the top schools. However it doesn't always work out that way.

I noticed that the authors studied law at Chicago and Texas, respectively, so there may be something to the idea of being able to have the same opportunities even if you went to a lower ranked law school. Although maybe the Texas grad's PhD from MIT took some of the curse off.
4.15.2008 12:57am
TechieLaw (mail) (www):
When I applied to law school, I went in with extremely bad "numbers," but a "really good story" to explain those numbers and (what I believed) showed that I would be an academic success story in law school. I contacted over a dozen schools and was assured that they looked beyond the numbers at the "whole person." After a string of rejection letters, I was finally accepted by a school. I paid my own tuition out of my own pocket.

I finished my first year near the top of my class and was offered a large scholarship if I would stay.

During my second year, I approached the dean of admissions, reminded him of my "bad numbers" with a "really good story," thanked him for taking my application seriously, and asked him a blunt question about the promises that I had received from law schools to look at the "whole person."

His answer?

"It's all bullshit. We admit people based on how they would affect our U.S. News rankings. Besides, if you had been admitted to a higher ranked school, you would have gone to the highest ranked school that admitted you, right?"

Conclusion: We can talk all we want about how much of a disservice US News does to law schools and law students. It doesn't matter one bit unless the hiring managers and law schools team up to kill the rankings. And I doubt that will ever happen.

I'm currently very happy with my "big firm" job after having beaten enormous odds to get where I am now. If I had known how risky the gamble actually was, I might not have made the same decision.
4.15.2008 1:18am
Brian G (mail) (www):
I graduated in December 2006 at state school. My tuition was $8500 a year, and since I graduated in 2 1/2 years, I got out for around $22K in tuition. At that price, I can do whatever the hell I want.

At the time I was there and from right before, my school's ranking went from mid-60's to 99 to the 70's back to the 60's. Tjose rankings are a joke, and a Duke degree can get you in the door but it can't keep you in if you don't perform.
4.15.2008 1:41am
Mountains were a key factor in my choice of law school. And this has been a fantastic last semester on the slopes.
4.15.2008 1:48am
Dave N (mail):
I was a resident of Utah; my GPA and LSATs were high enough; I applied to exactly one place--my state's law school (the University of Utah). Being non-LDS, my other in-state option (BYU) was not an option and I did not want to be burdened with crushing debt.

Given both my LSAT (I don't remember the number but do remember it was highly respectable) and undergrad GPA (3.82 in the course of earning two separate bachelor degees), I probably could have been admitted to a variety of much more prestigious (and more expensive) schools. Do I regret not taking that path? Nope. I like my career.

My advice, unless 2200 billable hours at Cravath Swaine is your idea of a life, try to find a law school that will meet your needs and apply there--USN&WR rankings be damned.
4.15.2008 2:38am
Gosh. It seems like people have varied ideas about what constitutes the best law school or career.

Are there any 'libertarian paternalists' reading this thread?
4.15.2008 2:44am
BGates, your exactly right about people having varied ideas of what constitutes the best law school or career.

I've come to see choosing law school like picking a stock. First and foremost you want a good return on your investment, so in order to get that you choose a bunch of stocks and research the companies, reading their filings and earnings reports and deciding which one is best to buy. What one person invests in might not be a good investment for another.
4.15.2008 4:42am
loki13 (mail):



I could mention that I follow the descriptive school of thought in linguistics, but instead simply point out that commenting on the word choice and grammar of a quickly typed comments field shows that you have
a) way too much time on your hands,
b) nothing to add to the discussion and
c) recurring nightmares of all the times you were picked last in kickball.

While you're at it, why not point out that I should have spelled out 14, as mandated by the Bluebook?

Anyway, I wanted to add to the above comments from my personal experience at a (barely) top 50 school.

Doing exceptionally well your first year (top 10%, law review) allowed you to do whatever you wanted, whether it be transfer to another school (Harvard, Georgetown, Columbia... although G'Town accepts everyone for transfer) or work for BigLaw/attractive public law positions.

Clerkships in our area our somewhat plentiful (alum base), out of area are non-existent.

Teaching is nearly impossible (average one grad/year).

The top 25-30% get help from the career services office, and do well in the state and regional market.

After that, you're on your on. There are more than a few students with no prospects, and are scrambling to get a PD job (which is not a sure thing, given state cutbacks).
4.15.2008 9:40am
Whadonna More:
I agree with the "go to a top 25 if you can" philosophy, based on my own and my similarly middling class rank classmates' experiences.

The only exception is for students who are entirely certain (and not in the way 21-year olds are often entirely certain for a short while) what they want to do with their degree, and that isn't practicing law in a firm or large public company. My classmate who is the scion of a family privately holding a $B company did a joint JD-MBA to prepare to take the company's helm someday. He's the only person I know who would've been better off saving a bunch of money and going to W&M or U Md. instead of Gtown.
4.15.2008 10:54am
Houston Lawyer:
For the vast majority of people, attending a top 15 law school is not in the cards. Most people will know before they go to law school where they want to live afterwards. You should aim for the most competitive school in your home market, and keep in mind that a cheaper education may be more than adequate. Remember, the only thing you know for sure about how your legal education will turn out is the cost to get it.
4.15.2008 11:35am
YetAnotherFormerClerk (mail):
Having attended a smallish school in the top 50 but not top 25, I agree strongly with MJG's description. I vividly remember how the Career Services people doted over me because I was at the top of the class (and thus didn't really need their help) while they gave the cold shoulder to my friends who actually could have benefited from their assistance. I think it's important to note, however, that as bad as it can be for students coming out of those schools, at least there's a valid chance (if they make top 10 or 20%) of having lots of options, and, at the very least, they can find a job--albeit maybe not the one of their dreams. But then there are some law schools that, frankly, do their students a disservice by even existing. Specifically, I'm thinking of places like South Texas College of Law, Western New England School of Law, and so forth. The placement out of those schools--and others like them--is appalling. But the debt is just as real as if the students attended a top 25 school. For many of those students, the best choice would almost certainly be to simply use their undergraduate degree and go to work in some other field.
4.15.2008 12:15pm
Marcus2151 (mail):
I've been offered a full scholarship to University of Maryland Law School. I don't know what I want to do, career-wise, but I'm sure that I do NOT want to work 80 hours a week at a large firm. Would it really make sense for me to turn down that full scholarship just so that I can go to Georgetown?

I understand that there might be a few other types of career opportunities that wouldn't be open to me as a Univ. of MD graduate, which would be open to me if I graduate at the top of the Georgetown class. But to spend a fortune on a legal education, when I have no idea if I'd graduate at the top of my class from Georgetown or not? It doesn't make much sense to me.
4.15.2008 7:35pm
Marcus: I don't know what I want to do, career-wise, but I'm sure that I do NOT want to work 80 hours a week at a large firm.

Good man!

You get one life, and only one. That life isn't worth the money you'd be paid.
4.16.2008 12:58am
Whadonna More:

I do NOT want to work 80 hours a week at a large firm. I understand that there might be a few other types of career opportunities that wouldn't be open to me as a Univ. of MD graduate, which would be open to me if I graduate at the top of the Georgetown class.

You've got it ALL wrong.

The point is that you'll have opportunities open to you as a MIDDLE (or even BOTTOM) of the Georgetown class graduate that a Terp won't have. It's especially relevant if the winds of fortune land you outside the Balto-Wash corridor.

And the lesser school can ONLY be mitigated by a top-of-class UMD position, followed by a few years at an AmLaw100-type firm, but you're specifically ruling that out.
4.16.2008 11:16am
Whadonna--But what about costs?

I'm presuming that Marcus will be paying room-and-board, but no tution. If G-town costs him, altogether, $40K per year more (I'm making that up), then he won't actually have a lot of career options upon graduation. He'll be taking the job that pays him enough to service his loan debt.
4.16.2008 12:50pm
Whadonna More:
Hoosier -

I'm assuming that anyone unsure about what they intend to do with their JD is most likely to pursue an upper-middle class income, rather than social good or another goal. Given that assumption the improved employment prospects more than make up the $120K of debt over the 15 year term of the loans (about $1K/mo).

I'll also suggest that a hundred 80-hour weeks can be a good investment toward a more family-friendly life down the road. Two years at a big firm is enough to land a bottom-rung lawyer job at a name-brand company, making less than most firm lawyers but enough to continue paying the loans while having enough time to coach little league.
4.16.2008 3:01pm
Whadonna--I'm in academic administration, and I got my PhD without debt. So I have no sense of what it's like to have that sort of income, or what it's like to pay back those sorts of loans.

But if you know this stuff, and you're correct, then that does make Georgetown more attractive. Would just two years at Sullivan Cromwell be enough? And what sort of hours would a "bottom-rung lawyer" at, say, Quaker Oats have to put in?

I deal with many undergrads looking at law school, and this sort of information is helpful.
4.16.2008 4:32pm
Whadonna More:
Two years at a firm like Sullivan doing the desired kind of work would be enough to land a job in the "Corporate" department doing corp secretary, securities work or M&A, in the Lit department doing employment matters or routine business claims, or line of business transactions - maybe not quite enough for more specialized roles like comp &benefits, environmental or something where there's essentially one person in the job.

The head of those departments (which you can reasonable aspire to become in 15 years) makes $200K+ salary and lots of stock/options, maybe substantial (100K+) bonus when the company does well. Not Sullivan partner money by a long shot, but solidly upper middle class for life. The GC makes partner money, but serves at the pleasure of current management.

In a big city, that would pay right around $90K, and require an average of about 50 hours a week (lots of 45ish weeks and a couple 60+ hour weeks a year) with two weeks of vacation that aren't just opportunities for using the blackberry in an exotic locale.
4.17.2008 10:31am
Marcus2151 (mail):
Let me be a bit more clear, about my career intentions. Not only am I sure that I don't want to work 80 hours a week at a Sullivan Cromwell-type firm - not even for two years - I am also fairly sure that the "upper middle class" jobs that you mentioned are not for me, either. I see myself working for the government, most likely, and not in a job that you need to graduate from one of the top 10-15 law schools in the country to get.

For those wondering, I have health problems that make working at a place like Sullivan Cromwell impossible.

I am also somewhat skeptical that graduating at the bottom of a Georgetown class is better for one's career prospects than graduating at the top of the Univ. of Maryland class.
4.17.2008 5:37pm