Over the years many of my students have asked for advice on choosing a law school. Here, I’ll tell you how to decide which school to attend:
The highest-ranked one you can get into.
But… you say. And I say no, there isn’t a but, at least not until you’re deciding among top fourteen schools. (I’ll discuss the top fourteen — also known as the T14 — in a subsequent post.) If you’re asking this question, the answer is really simple. Ranking matters, so much so that for most applicants nothing else does.
But you could have read that on a hundred different sites, so I’ll explain. Why does ranking matter so much?
The answer is going to disappoint some people. Ranking matters not because it reflects the quality of legal education students receive, or anything else substantive (though to some extent it does). No, ranking matters primarily because so many people think ranking matters.
Huh? Am I saying that ranking would matter even if it were completely arbitrary? Yes, I am saying that, and here’s why. If rankings stay fairly consistent from year to year, and if people take them seriously, then two very important groups of people start to make decisions based on them: employers and other law school applicants.
Employers: If employers think ranking matters then it automatically does, assuming you care about your job prospects. Employers tend to favor the higher-ranked school, meaning that going to the highest-ranked school you can will tend to pay off, maybe in salary (or any job at all) right out of school, maybe in flexibility ten years in the future.
This effect is real. Just today a friend who hires lawyers told me “When I’m looking at resumes, and I see that a candidate does not have ALL of the desired experience, but he or she has gone to a top 10 or 12-ish law school, I assume that he or she could learn quickly and that training the person might be worth the investment.” She went on to explain that experience and other qualifications matter more, but that school ranking (not just in the top tier, but throughout the range) is sometimes a significant factor.
Is she right that students from higher-ranked schools tend to be better than others? Frankly, it doesn’t matter (but see below). This is someone who has hired many lawyers1; would you rather she, and a lot of others like her, default to thinking you’re qualified based on your school, or have to be convinced of your qualifications notwithstanding where you went? I thought so.
Other applicants: This is the tricky one, and the ultimate reason rankings continue to matter as much as they do. If most, or even many, applicants use rankings to determine where they go (and they do), and if schools can distinguish reasonably well between more- and less-qualified applicants (and they often can — hello, grades and LSAT score), then the more-qualified candidates will tend to go to the higher ranked schools. That, in turn, will mean that my friend the hiring manager (and thousands of others like her) will be right that students from top schools will generally be better qualified; her hiring bias toward top schools will be reinforced and the effect will be even stronger next year.
But there’s another, more subtle effect, one I’ve never seen discussed elsewhere. Law school, more than any other professional school, is conducted in discussion groups. Much of your first year and some of the subsequent two is going to be spent surviving (and perhaps loathing) the Socratic method, wherein your professors conduct class by quizzing you or one of your classmates. And a lot of class time will be devoted to students discussing cases with each other. And let me tell you from firsthand experience: You get a lot more out of class when the other students are sharp and prepared than you do when they’re not, so you’ll tend to learn more in a class composed of top students. And since other students are going to the best schools they can get into, and schools are trying to choose the best-qualified candidates they can…
In other words, a top-ranked school will tend to provide a better education than one that is lower ranked, just by virtue of having better students.
Notice that this is all totally unfair. Yale (which has been ranked #1 for decades) gets the top students, so employers consider it best and other students want to go there, so it retains its #1 ranking year after year whether it “deserves” it or not. A lower-ranked school can have terrific faculty and facilities and so on, but employers and applicants know that its ranking is low so its ranking stays low. Welcome to the weird world of law school ranking, in which US News determines who’s who among schools more than they do themselves.
To an economist, this is called signalling. To an advocate of social justice it is manifestly unjust. But to you, a prospective law student who’s trying to decide where to go, it means that your decision is refreshingly simple: You read the rankings for the past few years and choose the one that has had the highest average ranking.