Choosing a Law School: Part I
Factoring rankings into your decision
Published January 5, 2012
So you took the LSAT, filled out all your applications, got into a handful of schools and now are left having to choose which law school to attend. In this three part series, we’ll be examining the three major factors that you may want to consider in choosing a law school: rankings, tuition costs and scholarships, as well as miscellaneous factors such as a law school’s personality, its clinics and its location. This article, the first of a three-part series of articles, will outline rankings and how they may factor into your decision.
So just how important are rankings?
The USNews Law School Rankings are important as hiring partners are aware of them, and therefore you should be too. However, some students may have a tendency to overvalue a particular school over another school solely based off of rankings. Rankings are typically broken down into the following tiers:
A top fourteen is a national school. A school like Georgetown, for instance, which is ranked fourteenth consistently places students at the top firms across the country. The other top fourteens tend to do even better in offering students geographical flexibility, and the opportunity to conceivably be in play in most major cities throughout the country. Even if a student makes law review at a second or third tier school, it is rare that they will have the opportunity to bid on firms ranging from New York to Los Angeles.
That said, students should make sure to note that while as little as ten years ago attending and graduating any top fourteen with even mediocre grades would generally lock in fantastic career options, a student cannot attend NYU Law, and just sit back. They will still need to perform well in school, and work on their interviewing skills in order to be safe in today’s legal economy.
If you are fortunate enough to be choosing between two or more schools in the top fourteen, it is important to not rely solely based off of ranking. There are some fluctuations each year, and attending school #7 over school #9 just because it’s two spots higher is always a weak decision. It is conventional wisdom that being ranked in the top third at a school ranked number 10 is almost universally regarded as being superior to being ranked in the top half at a school ranked number four or number five.
Additionally, although these schools are all national, certain schools place better in certain regions than their top fourteen counterparts that may be ranked higher. For example, Georgetown University will generally put one in a better position in the D.C. mid-Atlantic market than Berkley University, although Berkley is the higher ranked school.
The rest of the first tier
Schools ranked 15 through 50 are generally regarded as being part of the first tier, and can be considered semi-national. While it may always be difficult to transition from coast to coast in this range without prior connections, many of these schools such as Vanderbilt, University of Southern California/University of California, Los Angeles, George Washington University and the University of Notre Dame are by no means limited to their distinct cities. Although one will generally need to be towards the top of their class to be able to land a job in New York City coming out of USC, it is not uncommon for Trojan grads to find gainful legal employment in San Diego, Phoenix and elsewhere in the southwest. Similar trends are found across schools in this region.
One mistake that some applicants make here is becoming too focused on the subtle distinctions in rankings at the expense of attending a school that will give them better odds at finding a job in their city of choice. For example, The University of Minnesota may be ranked a solid ten spots in front of Fordham University. However, if one is hoping to spend their career in New York, then there is no question that Fordham is a substantially better decision than any non-top fourteen institution.
Additionally, the drop between two tier one schools in the same region is often not that vast when one considers the yearly Vault rankings. While Fordham may be ranked 20 slots higher than Cardozo in the USNews rankings, the distinction between these two schools in terms of employment prospects and general regard is substantially smaller than the distinction between Cornell and Fordham, two schools that have a difference of fewer than twenty slots. The general consensus is that once one leaves the top fourteen and the top twenty, slight drops in ranking become increasingly less important.
Second tier law schools
Tier two schools are generally perceived as strictly regional. However, many of these schools are well respected in their regions, and in some instances are state flagship schools that offer enviable career prospects. While these are fine schools, applicants should choose to attend them with the knowledge that while they will have a shot at that top firm in their school’s region, they will also likely be limited to that region in their job search.
Third and fourth tier schools
These schools are strictly regional, and have a tendency to sometimes struggle in placing their students in jobs that provide them with a strong opportunity to pay off their school’s full sticker debt. However, all is not gloomy at these schools, but they will require either top of the class grades and/or the ability to really take steps on your own to get your foot into a firm of your liking, which requires a work ethic and personality that not all young men and women possess.
While a ten ranking distinction throughout the lower first tier, and second through fourth tiers is notables, it likely should take a backseat to factors such as scholarship money, and geographic location.
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