Are Lower Ranked Law Schools Better For Your Career?

Bad news, like the majority of the population, you did not get into Harvard or Yale Law. Worse news, you did not get into a school ranked in the top 20 schools in the country. Should you still go to law school? Depending on what you want to do, and where you want to practice, all is not lost.

Envision your career before school

You probably do not know exactly what you want to do after law school, but I bet you have some idea. Figuring out what type of lawyer you want to be (big firm, solo, government) and where you want to practice (locally, somewhere else) are extremely important in helping pick which law school you attend.

Do you want to be a big firm lawyer?

If the answer is yes, you can still go to a lesser-known law school. It will be more difficult to get a big firm job, but it is still possible. You will need awesome grades and probably need to write for law review too. Not impossible, but your work is cut out for you.

A good rule of thumb, based on an informal poll, is that going to a top 20 school is the equivalent of going to a lower ranked school and finishing in the top 10%. For big firms, if you are at a lower ranked school, you need to excel.

Do you want to go solo?

Many lower ranked schools place a higher emphasis on practical training. Some of the bigger schools focus on policy and the bigger picture. In other words, if you want to jump right in and practice, a lower ranked school might be better for you.

Many of the professors at lower ranked schools have years of experience in their practice area and they might also teach a clinic in that area. This is a great chance to get some real experience from someone who knows what they are doing.

Where are the school’s alumni?

Some of the lower ranked schools might not be known nationally, but they are well regarded in their region, and the alumni stay in town. In that case, that lower ranked school might give you the best shot to get a job in that city.

Alumni tend to help their own and many prefer hiring graduates from their alma matter. Because the alumni are already in the same city, you can network during school to help enhance your chances after school.

For some of the top 20 schools, the alumni spread out across the country, which can make networking in town rather difficult.


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  • Agree completely with your analysis and suggestions here – the better your plan is for yourself, the more options you have for schools that will help get you there. But go to the best school you can get into that supports your goals, and you’ll also have more flexibility. I actually did very similar analysis for business schools years ago. Only a handful of schools really transcend geographies, and it’s less than people think (probably 3-4 at most). The value of the network is high, and probably more importantly, the value of the classmates is highest in my opinion. Learning next to the best and brightest, being driven by their ambitions and competitiveness, and developing longstanding friendships with people who will go far (large firm, solos or other things) has a big positive impact.

  • Randall Ryder

    @ Carey – I agree with most of your points, but I do think there are situations where not going to the “highest ranked” school will ultimately benefit you and your career.

    For example, if someone really wants to practice in certain geographic area, they should attend a school in that region – or a school that has strong ties to it.

  • Nancy Glover

    How about some postings with info on legal careers in the federal, state, and local governments? “Quality of life” is the reason most often cited by lawyers who come to the agency where I work (GAO). Many come from the private sector but have found the hours and stress to be incompatible with their family life. Others seek federal work because it is at a level that can affect lasting change, however slowly the wheels turn. And others find the work to be more interesting and/or fulfilling. The reason I suggest this topic is that this kind of work is often overlooked and undervalued. The truth is, to earn the big bucks in the private sector, you have to sacrifice a whole lot, whereas in the public sector you can have a nice life and make enough money to live well. You won’t be a millionnaire, but you can afford an upper-middle-class life style, send your kids to college, and retire.

  • I don’t think that public sector jobs are undervalued. Most law students would kill for a government job. They just can’t get one.

  • Also, hi Mom.

  • Randall Ryder

    I think government jobs are awesome – I tried to get more then one. As Sam noted, the biggest problem is that they are nearly impossible to get. The Minnesota Public Defender, for example, has had a hiring freeze for three years.

    As far as judicial clerkships, the usual “norm” was clerk for a year, then move on. With the economy in the tank, some clerks are staying indefinitely. Other courts, like the Minnesota Court of Appeals, face budget cuts and have drastically slashed the number of clerks they actually hire. It is a tough job market, but government jobs are especially hard to get right now.

  • Going to a lower-ranked law school than the best one you got into, in a geographic area the you want to practice in, taking the scholarship money (because you’re over-qualified), and graduating near the top of the class may be the best financial and career decision a prospective law student can make in this economy. I don’t get the impression that very many non-lawyer consumers of legal services ever ask where the lawyer went to law school or have any idea how the schools came out in the rankings.

  • @Eric

    This is great advice. Depending of course on your practice area, generally speaking, being the bigger fish in the smaller law school pond will pay off big. As you point out, this is especially true when it comes to consumer-based practices.

    The state of Michigan is a great example (despite its additional economic woes).

    Being at the top of your class at Wayne State Law School or Michigan State Law School (formerly Detroit College of Law), may serve you much better than grinding it out in the middle of the pack at University of Michigan (Go Blue!)

  • Guy – the problem with your advice is that law school is a crap shoot. If you go to a lower school, you may not necessarily wind up at the top.

    I agree that in this economy, decisions need to be motivated in large part by finances, meaning that attending a lower tier school on scholarship may position you better than taking out $200k in loans to go to Yale or Harvard.

    But – assume that money were no object. My guess is that most people would attend the very highest ranked school they could get into, and indeed, they would find that it would give them the most options.

    Also, don’t assume that a degree doesn’t matter in starting a firm. You never know what will appeal to clients. Some clients might be impressed by a lawyer working their way through law school, others may be impressed by top school credentials.

  • Randall Ryder

    @ Carolyn – I agree that if money were no object, most people would pick the highest ranked school. But money is extremely important, especially in this economy. If you do not see yourself working at a big firm (assuming you can get a job), many of the lower-ranked schools may actually put you in a better position to open your practice.

    In terms of clients, I agree that depending on what type of law you practice, your pedigree could matter.

  • @ Carolyn

    I would suggest that any form of pursuing a legal career in the current climate is a crap shoot.

    Success at any law school is a crap shoot. However, I’m assuming that of those admitted to Harvard and Yale, their likelihood of success at a lower tier school is, to some degree, is better (which I concede may be a false assumption).

    While there is no doubt that there are generally more global and national opportunities for Harvard and Yale grads, than lower tier schools, there is also generally a much larger financial commitment.

    I think that we can all agree that if finances aren’t on your short list of considerations, then you’re really rolling the dice.