Law School Quality – a comment for potential law students

US News came out with its law school rankings today (the magazine is on newsstands now). Ironically, I found out about it while serving on the ABA site evaluation team for another law school. The juxtaposition of learning about a school through a 3 day visit vs. through US News made me realize anew how problematic US News is.

US News serves two purposes. Applicants use it to help decide which law school to attend, and law school faculty/administrators use it to size up their competition in a rather unseemly show of academic vanity. I’d like to address the former.

If you are an aspiring lawyer and want to know the quality of the schools you’re considering, you really must visit the schools in question. Having just done it for 3 days, there is no substitute for talking to people at a school, meeting students, and studying the components of a law school’s program. US News has not done it for you. Numbers don’t tell you what you really need to know about a school.

Can those numbers tell you who teaches the classes that interest you most? Can they tell you whether the legal writing program is rigorous and staffed by experienced professors? Can they tell you whether the school uses adjunct professors who don’t keep office hours, or full-time faculty that are present in their offices? Can they tell you what kind of clinics, externships, or other skills courses are available? Can they tell you whether the school provides good student services?

I’ve now served on site accreditation teams for two schools that I knew something about before going to the campus. Both times I came away with a much richer and more nuanced understanding of the schools’ strengths and weaknesses.

Yes, reputation matters in choosing an education, and US News is in the business of manufacturing and selling it. But, in the end, people succeed in their careers on the basis of their ability. Please take the time to get the information you need to choose the school that will help you maximize your ability.

p.s. I intend to post in the next day or two with suggestions about how to check a school out when you visit.

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9 Responses

  1. stopping by says:

    How in the world can an undergrad learn that level of information about multiple law schools? Have the law schools done their share of distributing full statistical information about their schools? (Average debt loads; bar passage rates; bar passage rates per entering LSATs; jobs and salaries of graduting classes; which profs are post-tenure slackers; which specialities the school is really good at (and bad at)).

  2. M.A.B. says:

    I agree with your statements here. I chose a lesser-rated school which I love, and which I believe has actually given me a superior education. Unfortunately, the market doesn’t give a damn (I’m a 3L).

    As one candid senior partner said to me from across his desk, “If Jesus himself were sitting in my office, and He hadn’t gone to a top tier, we wouldn’t hire Him. It’s just a criteria that we don’t have to waive and won’t. Do we miss out on some good talent? Of course we do.”

    This gentleman was more forthright than most, but the story has been consistently the same.

    If you want an education, visit the schools. If you want a job, look at U.S. News. I have a great education, and the devil of a time getting hired.

  3. Matt says:

    Couldn’t you get at least a pretty good idea about many of these things by reading the web page of the school carefully? They may be a bit misleading at times but most of this information is there.

  4. Dave! says:

    I have to agree with M.A.B. here… academics can grouse all they want about how the rankings don’t really reflect the quality of an institution. But the reality for students and their post-graduation employment possibilities is that the rankings *do* matter.

    I also think that most faculty members (and I realize this is a sweeping generalization and there will be exceptions) actually care more about the rankings than they let on. If you have two candidates for a new tenure track position, both with outstanding publications, both gifted orators in the classroom, I bet the one who went to the higher ranked school gets the job over the guy who went to a “Tier 2 School”.

    Schools complain about the rankings all the time, too, but I’ve yet to see one who puts their money where their mouth is and boycotts the process. If 25% of the USNWR rank is based on peer surveys, who’s filling those out? The same people who give so much lip service to rankings not being a good measure.

    Sure, in an ideal world, the rankings shouldn’t matter. In the real world, the world we live and work in, however, they do.

  5. law student says:

    If the schools were genuinely displeased with the rankings, they would not participate in the US News surveys. It’s that simple.

    But the schools do . . . every year. The sad fact is that much of law is little more than ranking.

  6. Michael D. Cicchini says:

    If you’re a potential law student, don’t count on any law school teaching you anything of real value. The quality of your “education” is up to you, regardless of where you go. If you’re smart and take it seriously, you’ll have learned all you can from professors about half-way through your first semester, with the exception of the skills-type or clinical courses, and possibly legal writing courses. Law school is 80 percent self-taught, make no mistake about it. The professors are there to publish and, if they’re good, entertain you in the class room and provide you with the occasional nugget of insight or knowledge. That said, you should decide on a school based on geography, cost of the “education,” and US News rank. You might want to live in a certain area, and you certainly want to emerge with little or no debt, which I hear can be staggering these days. Beyond that, however, don’t underestimate the power of US News. It’s not that you’ll do any better or worse in a job because you went to a “top” school. It’s that you may not even get an interview for the job, let alone the job itself, unless you went to a “top” school. Finally, the very people who condemn the rankings are the ones that rely on them the most. For example, ask any law school dean when is the last time his school hired a professor who didn’t graduate from a “top 15” program, let alone top 50 or even second tier. And if he did hire such a person, it would be a rarity.

  7. Robert Rhee says:

    Selecting a law school is ultimately an economic decision. The cost of legal education plus the cost of three years of lost opportunity is enormous. Ultimately, the student signed up for law school as a career choice, which means that “J.D., X School” on the resume must have economic value. Depending on the goal, ranking could be important. If you want a job at the big prestigious firm in New York City, you should attend the most prestigious school as possible. If you want a job in the local prosecutor’s office, going to Harvard may not be necessary. Selecting the school is a combination of ranking, geography, direct cost plus scholarship, and if possible a visit that gives you a feel for the place. Students must also keep in mind that most legal markets are regional, and thus most law schools are regional. National ranking may give some relevant information, but it may be useful to figure out what is the regional reputation of a school compared to its regional peers. If school X is ranked 40 and school Y is ranked 50, but regionally they are considered the same, then other factors may weigh in the choice, for example, tuition, cost of living, and scholarship dollars.

  8. “The quality of your “education” is up to you, regardless of where you go. ” – I absolutely agree with Michael. If you need a job at the big prestigious firm in NYC, and if you are smart enough and responsible enough, you will get it. From my experience, people don’t really need teachers after they get some basic education if they need knowledge and are ready to work hard. However, we don’t have necessary conditions for self-education yet. So one gotta select a school. Some schools can be really helpful, some of them – just a waste of time, and it doesn’t always correlate with rankings. And your future in in your hands, wherever you go.

  9. Erika says:

    As a law student beginning this fall, here’s my two sense. I wasn’t prepared to take on $60,000+ in debt for reputation alone. With a very high LSAT (98th percentile) I decided to take the full-ride at the regional school in the area I want to live and practice instead of attending a top National school. Why? Less competitive stress, much less financial stress. I will move and work my current job from home, keeping living income and benefits. My goal is to graduate debt-free… it will happen! Also, like most entering students, I barely have an idea of what the practice of law entails. I did my research thoroughly (talked to Stanford, U Mich grads, etc..)but I come from a blue-collar background! If I don’t enjoy it and I’m not in debt, no skin off my back to change the plan!