Despite the major flaws in law school rankings, every year the release of the U.S. News law school rankings creates at least some buzz. And this year is no exception. Above The Law is actually collecting law school administration responses to the rankings, which will undoubtedly be an interesting read. But what do law school rankings really mean? Are they accurate? What information do they provide to prospective law students and law firm hirers?

Warning Law School Ranking Spoiler Alert!

According to U.S. News, 2011’s top 5 law schools are:

  1. Yale
  2. Harvard
  3. Stanford
  4. Columbia
  5. University Chicago

Look familiar? Yes, it’s the same as last year’s top 5. Now I don’t know all the science and magic that goes into ordering U.S. law school rankings, but I think that most of us would agree that these are all excellent law schools. And as we move down the list, despite some minor differences at the edges, I would suggest that there wouldn’t be very much argument related to the top 25. Perhaps even maybe the top 50? And as we continue down the list, cases will be made for one school over another for a variety of reasons. Better students. Better faculty. Better library. Better job placement. Unfortunately, as pointed out at Above The Law, it may be something very silly.

Reliance On Law School Rankings

And even more unfortunately, is the fact that many prospective law school students use these rankings as the holy grail for admissions decisions. In fact, I personally know several lawyers and law students that took the “attend the highest ranked school” you can mantra. Are they right?

In today’s uber-competitive legal profession, of way to many law students and lawyers, and not nearly as many law firm jobs, does it make more sense to attend the highest ranked school to which you are admitted? Sure, there are several other factors that probably “should” go into your decision. But do any of these trump rankings?

I remember when I was going through the on-campus interview process at Wayne State University Law School (a mere #121), there were several interviewers that were quite candid about not even interviewing students from certain other low-ranking schools. I would love to hear from hiring partners about their firm’s scouting policies. Is it common for some firms to only recruit from top schools? My hunch is that it is. Which makes my friends’ “top school or bust” mentality make more sense.

To me, rankings weren’t a huge factor in my application decisions. Perhaps that was because I didn’t think I would get into a top school. At that time, I wasn’t planning on leaving the state of Michigan, so that really narrowed things down. I never really thought about the quality of legal education that I would receive. I figured that the school would prepare me to pass the bar exam and help me get a job. Perhaps neither of those were good assumptions either. While I was a first-time passer, I think it had more to do with bar preparation than it did with my property class, but who knows. There is no question that it was at least somewhat important to me to graduate from a school that I believed law firms would respect enough to give me an interview.

What do you think about law school rankings? Are they accurate? Do they tell prospective students anything of value? Do hiring partners use these rankings in their recruiting processes?



  1. I really like the way you phrase the first sentence here. “Despite the major flaws…” It’s true — everyone seems to agree that there are major flaws in the US News rankings that show them to be completely subjective. But the US News rankings continue to have a major influence on what people perceive to be the best law schools. What needs to happen for this to change?

  2. I am in the process of applying to Law School and yes the rankings are affecting my decision. I was very selective in where I applied and got into three schools. The lowest ranked school I booted and am now trying to decide which school to attend…I guess the easy thing is that they are ranked within two spots of each other in the 2011 rankings and are on two different ends of the country.

    So the rankings are not really factoring into my decision among those two schools…It is other factors like location, specialties and the job I think I will want in 3 years….

  3. BL1Y says:

    Law school rankings are a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    So much of the quality of your education comes down to how smart your fellow students are, especially in seminars and Socratic method classes. Then there’s group projects, negotiation exercises, journal work, and mock trials, all of which are greatly enhanced by the intelligence of the people involved. You’ll also just have more intelligent conversations out of class, whether relevant to your studies or not.

    If all the best applicants all agree on what the top schools are, and all go to those schools, then those will be the best schools. Professors will compete to teach the best and brightest, and firms will recognize a consistently high quality of graduate and focus their recruitment efforts there.

    The “go to the highest ranked school you can” mantra is a good one, but only if there’s a big enough difference in ranks. If you get into a top 14 (the “national” schools), go there. But, outside of that, only look at big differences in rank. Minnesota is ranked slightly higher than BU, but if you want to live and work in Boston, duh, don’t go to Minnesota.

    Of course, the people who can’t figure out what ought to be obvious exceptions to the rule, or that the rule isn’t a rule, it’s a guideline, ought not to be going to law school in the first place.

    • Definitely self-fulfilling. If 25% of the ranking is based on:

      “Peer Assessment Score (.25) In the fall of 2010, law school deans, deans of academic affairs, chairs of faculty appointments, and the most recently tenured faculty members were asked to rate programs on a scale from marginal (1) to outstanding (5).”

      I’d like to see which schools this group of folks attended…

      • Really good point. Also — I’m no huge Malcolm Gladwell fan. But his recent New Yorker story on school rankings pointed out that these peer assessment scores are often reinforced by the perception these representatives have of schools based on current rankings.

  4. James says:

    It is always interesting to hear the different arguments following the release of Rankings.

  5. Andres Mejer says:

    Rankings have value precisely because of the perception and credibility (or lack there of) that they provide. It is a flawed system, but it is seen as providing an objective assessment of the quality of the individual and the institution. I did not go to the best school that accepted me. I could have gone to Louisiana, Washington DC, but I wanted to be a NYC attorney so accepted the NYC law school that fit my needs — Brooklyn law School. There is no shortage of law schools to choose from in NYC. Now that I am an attorney in NJ I wonder whether that was the best criteria . . . Plans change. The law school debt, however, follows you wherever you go. My advice to anyone how really wants to be an attorney — look to the financing. Consider the cost of a public vs. private. Consider the scholarships being offered. Graduating with 200k in debt is no way to begin a career, particularly in the law and in this economy.

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