Thoughts about choosing a law school, part 1

So let me start with just a few thoughts about U.S. News and how much weight it should be given.  In my opinion, U.S. News gives a rough indication about how prestigious a school is.  Every prospective law student wants to know what a school will do for his resume, and U.S. News helps answer that question.  The top of the list – perhaps 5 to 8 schools – are sufficiently prestigious that simply going there will do a lot for the student in question in terms of career opportunities.  Beyond that, however, things get more dicey.  The schools that follow surely carry prestige, but employers will no longer pay attention “just because” a particular applicant went to the school.  The individual’s ability matters more.  That’s not to say that a school’s reputation becomes irrelevant.  It remains relevant, but in my opinion a prospective lawyer needs to think about what school will make him a capable lawyer.

To make this clear, look at the numerical scores assigned by U.S. News to various schools.  In last year’s ranking, Yale was #1 with a score of 100.  Harvard was #2 with 95.  Duke, Northwestern, and Virginia shared #10 with 80.  Now let’s take a look further down the line.  Three more schools shared #20 with scores of 66.  Five schools shared #30 with a 62.  In short, the difference between numbers 20 and 30 was one point LESS than the difference between numbers 1 and 2,  and 16 points less than the difference between numbers 1 and 10.  That means, according to U.S. News, there’s not much difference between a school ranked 20 and one ranked 30.

Despite this, I suspect that many aspiring lawyers place unwarranted weight on the relative rankings of schools outside the top few.  U.S. News (and maybe others) need to have a “top 20” or “top 50” to make rankings interesting.  A law student, however, needs to find the school that will best educate her, and I am hoping that the posts I intend to write will help students identify schools that will help them flourish.

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5 Responses

  1. Logan says:


    Something to include in these posts (and for aspiring law students to consider) is what kind of law they want to practice in the future. A lot of schools specialize in particular areas and also offer scholarships to those that are willing to work as ADAs or public defenders for a reasonable time period.

  2. Megan Lewis says:

    I think you overestimate the desire for a prestigious resume and underestimate the desire to just get in.

  3. Jeff Lipshaw says:

    The problem, as you point out, is the translation of a bell curve relationship into a linear one. I talked about this a couple years ago, but focused on the peer reputation score, and did it with a fancy graph over at PrawfsBlawg.

  4. John Henry says:

    I’d quibble a bit with the above analysis. For instance, the difference between the 8th ranked school and the 10th is 2 points in the U.S. News formula. Yale is in a class by itself in terms of opportunities for its graduates; Harvard and Stanford likewise are significantly better than Columbia/NYU/Chicago, which in turn are better than the rest of the so-called ‘Top 14’.

    It is outside the Top 14-16 that the national reputation drops off significantly, as Mr. Lipshaw’s analysis in the link above describes. For instance, the difference in the prestige scores provided by academics and judges between Yale and a 10th ranked school is basically 4.9 to 4.5-4.6. The prestige scores for a school ranked around 20 is about 3.5; 30 3.2; 40 – 3, and so on.