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.