Would You Sign Up For a “Second-Tier” Law School Education?

At the end of this Bloomberg Law video, Above the Law’s Elie Mystal predicts law schools will split into two tiers, one for law students who are aiming to become white-shoe law firm partners and Supreme Court justices, and another for law students aiming for a middle-class existence in smaller markets.

I suspect he is right, but I wonder how many law schools will voluntarily adopt second-tier status. Because how many prospective law students are willing to be realistic about their chances to reach the top of the profession? If they were realistic, they probably wouldn’t be applying to law school in the first place. A de facto second tier may emerge (if it hasn’t already), but I’ll bet most of the schools in that second tier will continue to sell broken dreams.

Elie was talking about big-firm “worker bees” vs. those on the partner track, but his prediction is just as relevant for solo and small-firm lawyers.

My thoughts on disruption aside, there is a real need for lawyers who can make a decent living while charging lower fees. I don’t want to be that lawyer, in part because I’ve still got some pretty massive student loans to pay back. The same goes for pretty much every other lawyer I know. But if I could have graduated with a more-reasonable debt load (or none at all), and some practical legal and business skills, I might have taken that option, even if it meant I couldn’t realistically dream about becoming a BigLaw partner or stepping behind the federal bench.

There are law schools already billing themselves along these lines. I was in North Carolina last year, and learned about Campbell Law School, which focuses on teaching lawyers how to practice law in the local community. But for the price tag, Campbell seems like exactly what is needed in a “second-tier” law school. Except “second-tier” isn’t really the right term. The “elite” lawyers may consider lawyers in solo or small-firm practice to be second-tier, but I don’t know many solos or small-firm lawyers — some who are practicing law at the highest levels — who think of themselves that way. Campbell has a narrower focus, is all. And price tag does matter. You cannot lower your prices while you have a mortgage-sized law school debt to pay off.

There is currently only one form of legal education, really, and one price tag for it. That’s despite the fact that basically everyone acknowledges that the current form of law school education doesn’t do much to educate lawyers on practicing law. Even limited-focus law schools like Campbell don’t change much about the curriculum — or the tuition.

If law schools can accept the idea of limited focus and budget in order to better serve certain lawyers, it would probably be good for everyone, from law students to lawyers to clients. Maybe Elie’s 15-year timeline is about the time it will take for law schools to finally realize that.



  1. Avatar Jay says:

    I’m not a fan of ATL, and Elie in particular. However, I believe many schools are already doing this. They are not calling themselves Tier 1 vs Tier 2, etc. But some are clearly focuses more on practical skill sets and training so attorneys are (more) ready day one. Versus others that still cling to the old school method of teaching legal theory classes with the expectation that you will spend the next five years as an associate at a Biglaw to learn the real world implications. For example, in Michigan, Wayne State, Detroit Mercy, and Cooley, and to some extent MSU have started to transition to more pratical legal education.

    Now, I doubt any will revisit the education cost structure without force.

  2. Avatar Vivian Rodriguez says:

    To answer the post title: probably.

    I graduated law school 25 years ago. My only requirement for the law school was that it accept me, not because I had low grades (I didn’t) or low LSAT scores ( which I did), but simply because I wanted to do something that was challenging–which came after law school, of course. I had no clue about Big Law so I had no ambition in that regard; and didn’t want to work out of my geographical area. (I am indebted to Sam Ross, a veteran lawyer who mentored me and has since passed away).

    Everything I needed to learn in terms of theory from a law school, I could have learned via the bar review course I took. Sometimes ignorance is indeed bliss, and I’m glad I didn’t have a clue about law school tiers.

  3. Avatar Nick says:

    The 80-20 rule still applies. Which means that among the so-called ‘tier 1’ schools – there is going to be a sharp dividing line. Let the chattering class theorize all they want, but in any field the best and the brightest will rise to the top regardless of the school they went to. If you consider the ‘top’ of our profession to only be if you have the chance to make it to the fed bench, or to be a 3000-hour a year paper pusher – then you’ve already lost.

  4. Avatar The Last Honest Lawyer says:

    I’d go to business school and only use the best “second tier” lawyers.

  5. Avatar JJ says:

    I attended a “second-tier” law school because it was cheap (lots of scholarships). I had no dillusions of BigLaw – having worked Big4 accounting (back then Big8) for several years prior to law school, I knew too well where that BigLaw road leads. Sure, the T14 crowd may not consider me an equal, but really who cares? Either you enjoy the law or you do not. The best in the profession will rise to the top regardless of law school atteneded.

  6. Avatar Ashley N. McCord says:

    I’m planning to go to a law school that is less prestigious. Anyone who thinks the school is more important than the individual who studied there to career outcome has been misled. Schools are rarely blamed for their “failures” (Unabomber, random school shooters, etc.), but they are frequently given credit for successes. Personally, I think that is illogical. Also, I’d rather be awesome at a small place than forgotten at a prestige factory.

    • Avatar Sam Glover says:

      Since you’ve yet to try out your diploma in the job market, I think you might want to reserve judgment.

      Based on my own experiences in the job market, it mostly depends on what you want to do. If you want to work for someone else, the name on your diploma definitely matters (not necessarily the ranking, though, since many schools have a strong reputation locally).

      If you want to start your own practice, though, all you need is a license, and it doesn’t really matter where your diploma comes from, as long as you learn what you need to.

      You are right that if you just want to be a lawyer, it’s not the ranking that matters. It is the quality of your legal education and your own quality as a lawyer. However, both those factors correlate to rankings (higher-ranked schools generally deliver a higher-quality legal education and generally attract higher-quality future lawyers. It’s definitely not always true, but as I said, there is a pretty good correlation.

      Just something to consider. Your prospects as a lawyer are definitely less rosy at a lower-tier school (not that they are particularly rosy in the first place, these days). But you can definitely still have prospects.

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