The Value of Law School “Eliteness”

A paper recently circulated by Richard Sander and Jane Yakowitz finds that “performance in law school—as measured by law school grades—is the most important predictor of career success” and is “decisively more important than law school ‘eliteness.’” The conclusion drawn from Sander and Yakowitz’s paper, at least by the ABA Journal, is that prospective students would be badly served by the “standard advice” of attending the best school that will accept you.

Sander and Yakowitz’s paper seems to support this conclusion because it finds that better academic performance at a lower ranked school can offset the prestige advantage of a higher ranked school, at least when it comes to predicted salary later as a firm lawyer. Of course, this assumes that a particular individual would perform better at a lower ranked school than a higher ranked school, where the peer competition would be more intense. The paper is consistent with Sander’s earlier work on affirmative action and the mismatch hypothesis, which suggested that certain beneficiaries of affirmative action would be better off if they attended lower ranked schools rather than higher ranked schools where their incoming numerical credentials would be mismatched with the prestige of their law school. (For more about this earlier work, see Albert Yoon & Jesse Rothstein’s and Dan Ho’s responses.)

No doubt, Sander and Yakowitz’s paper helps bolster the recruiting pitches of lower ranked schools. To use Sander and Yakowitz’s example from the paper, a prospective student can be better off attending law school at Florida instead of George Washington University, or even Boalt Hall, provided that she gets much better grades at Florida than she would have at GW or Boalt.  This makes sense—elite law firms, at least ones in the big cities, collect the best students from law schools across the country and pay them all well (they just hire more from the top ranked schools).

However, I don’t think Sander and Yakowitz’s paper goes so far as to disprove the standard advice of attending a top school. First, Sander and Yakowitz’s paper still finds large advantages in salary for graduates of top ten law schools even controlling for law school GPA. That is, even if there is less of an advantage in attending GW instead of Florida, there remains a very significant advantage in attending a top ten school. This is what Paul Oyer and Scott Schaefer found earlier as well. Just as important, this prestige advantage is certain and known from the moment the student decides to attend a top ranked law school.

Second, the decision to attend a lower ranked school pays off only if the underlying assumption is correct—the student will get appreciably better grades at the lower ranked school than the higher ranked school. This assumption is often correct, and Sander and Yakowitz support it with their data, but it is uncertain to be sure at the individual level. Exam taking, as law professors often observe, is a specialized skill. Scoring well on law school exams doesn’t flow so directly from native intelligence such that anyone smart enough in some general sense to be admitted to Boalt can be sure they would get top grades at Florida. It’s still a bet, though perhaps a good one. But if I’m the prospective student that Sander and Yakowitz imagine, I wouldn’t be as sure as they are that I’d have a GPA in the 3.25-3.5 range at Florida but only in the 2.5-2.75 range at Boalt. In fact, even if Sander and Yakowitz are right about the GPA comparability, this estimation pushes me to attend Boalt, not Florida. I can average a C+ to B- at Boalt and get roughly the same predicted salary as a B+ to A- GPA would get me at Florida.

I think that probably sounds like an attractive deal to many students, particularly if they have any measure of risk averseness, to say nothing of a taste for “eliteness” for its own sake.

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6 Responses

  1. Patrick says:

    Worth noting with regard to your last point about decision-making: A student who can get into Boalt is exceedingly likely to get a substantial scholarship (probably a full ride) at a school like Florida. My gut feeling is that this makes Florida the better investment for the student you describe (C+/B- student at Boalt).

  2. SoCal says:

    Good point, but at the same time, should the applicant just assume that she’ll get good grades from the more elite school, at which she’ll have to pay full price?

  3. anon says:

    There is no such thing as a B-/C+ student at Boalt, since they have no grades there (only H, P, etc.).

  4. Mary says:

    If you believe you will get higher grades at Florida than at Boalt, you are assuming, before even walking into law school, that you will do poorly at Boalt. Given how unpredictable everyone acknowledges law school examinations to be, do you really want to make this kind of decision off the bat based on your perception of your own mediocrity?

  5. Ken Rhodes says:

    The marketplace for young lawyers should be a reasonably “efficient” market. That is to say, the buyers (the firms doing the hiring) should be making their purchase decisions based on reasonably complete, and mostly open, information.

    So the buyers should be able to make informed purchases, including the various factors such as school quality, competitive difficulty, student grades, Law Review credentials, etc., and come to a conclusion about the estimated value of the potential hire based on all the relevant factors.

    Thus saith the Efficient Market Economist.

  6. Rusty says:

    This is an interesting post, and there seems to be more and more findings that substantiate Sander and Yakowitz’s paper. Although top law firms look for students who graduate from top law schools, the debt factor plays a substantial role for many students. I recently read an article that talked about how most attorneys at top law firms leave after 5 years to work at another firm. That being said, choosing Florida to avoid substantial debt, working at a respected law firm, and moving to a top law firm later sounds like a smart idea.