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November 20, 2009

The Rankings Question

Today at a lunch for prospective students, I was asked "should the rankings matter when we make a decision on where to go to law school?"

My first instinct was to answer "no," and then describe the usual litany of complaints lodged against the U.S. News rankings (which clearly were what he was referring to).  However, his question was not if the rankings were accurate or even if they had a correlation to quality, but if they should matter in choosing a law school.

At some level, the answer is "yes."  Higher-ranked schools offer more opportunities, at a very basic level.  Sure, this may be built on artifice, but it simply is true.  In the end, that is what I told the student, and then elaborated on some of the things that the rankings do not measure that truly matter in the student experience.

What would you have said?

-- Mark Osler






November 20, 2009 | Permalink

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There is a big advantage to knowing what one wants to do ahead of time. Patents, tort litigation, corporate. The rankings do not guide the student as to the best place for a specialty. One must ask around for the most rigorous and cutting edge program in the subject. And it is the top person, not the school that matters. They tend to gather together. So the resource in the field has very unequal distribution. Having top people in the specialty as teachers gives the student a tremendous head start.

The rankings are based on name celebrity. Because the Ivy Leagues are great at self-promotion, they land on top regularly. However, their grads regularly get their heads handed to them in real world legal combat.

Example. You hate America, the traditional values that make it a good country. You want to learn cutting edge legal concepts to bring the country to its knees. You go to Yale. Learn from the top and most innovative, cutting edge, lawyer traitors in the country. Not reflected in the rankings.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Nov 20, 2009 10:08:25 PM

I would have said, "It depends ..." In this case, it depends on a student's goals and ambitions. Some goals and ambitions are practice-specific (desire to litigate, desire never to be in a courtroom, etc.), some are subject-specific (I want to be an estate planner, I want to be a prosecutor), some are location-specific (I want to practice in my home state), but some goals and ambitions really do require (or become more attainable in the presence of) some "name celebrity" -- e.g., clerking for a prestigious court, working at certain firms, and teaching. It would be disingenuous to pretend the ranking of a school has no bearing on those kinds of ambitions, just as it would be inaccurate to credit ranking with telling you the right school for some of those other aims. In addition, I usually explain to whoever asks exactly what the rankings are based on (to the extent that is possible, anyway) and tell them that, insofar as what they want out of law school is reflected by those measures, then the rankings are worth considering.

Posted by: Julia Belian | Dec 3, 2009 11:04:19 AM

It also depends on the student's financial situation. Many students are incurring upwards of $150K to go to law school. Many of them assume that graduating from any decent law school will guarantee them a decent income. They need to understand that the greater number of opportunities available after graduating from a higher ranked school may make a huge financial difference -- the difference between having the option to choose a job that allows them to (for example) pay off their student loan while also having enough money to support a family, or spending years barely able to manage a crushing debt load and still living like a college student, sharing housing and eating tuna and peanut butter.

Posted by: Victoria Hadfield Moshiashwili | Dec 4, 2009 9:58:47 AM

Unless one seriously plans and believes feasible a career a single career path a law review editorship, a federal clerkship, the seeming pro forma 2 years in a big firm, and a law professorship, I would state the answer should be an emphatic, "No, the rankings should not play a role in your decision." And considering the likelihood anyone's ambitions to succeed on such a path are so small, it would seem to me the rare student to whom the rankings should really matter.

I'd suggest a comparison of reactions to this question between practitioners and law professors: I'd bet you dollars to doughnuts the practitioners would tell you the rankings are pure b.s., and that whatever other considerations are driving your choice (including those mentioned -- specialty, location, money), should be the controlling criteria.

Honestly, do any lawyers out there think attending the 4th or 7th school, the 33d or 48th, the 48th or the 62, . . . etc. will make one damn bit of difference, merely because of the difference in rank, to the course of one's career?

Posted by: peter | Apr 24, 2010 10:18:50 AM

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