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Thoughts about choosing a law school, part 1

The coming of spring means that thousands of aspiring lawyers will soon have to choose the law school they will attend. Over the last decade or so, rankings like U.S. News and World Report’s have become increasingly important in making those decisions. How heavily should a would-be lawyer rely on these rankings in making her choice of where to attend? And are there other things she should examine if rankings don’t tell the whole story?

Over the next few weeks, I intend to post my thoughts about these questions. Like most law professors, I’m curious to see how my schools (I teach at Boston College and went to Harvard) get ranked. But beyond that idle curiosity, I’ve thought a bit (and just a bit) about evaluating the quality of a school because I’ve had the privilege of serving on American Bar Association teams that visit schools and prepare reports for purposes of accreditation. These visits typically last 3 days and offer team members a real “look under the hood” of what is happening at a particular school. I’ve also had the opportunity to get to know a couple of other schools through visiting or other methods that offered more than a casual glance at their programs. In some cases, I’ve come away convinced that schools deserve their rankings (whether high or low). But in others, I’ve come away with the impression that a school is actually a lot better or worse than its U.S. News ranking suggests. I am not going to discuss the specifics of those impressions, but I will try to share the general things I’ve learned in hopes that it will help those choosing law schools.

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.