The dismal job market for lawyers has been a hot topic recently — many experts are saying that without attending a highly ranked school, law students have little hope of landing a job. So what do current law school students think? How did they decide where to go, and how do they think their choice will affect their prospects after graduation?
Personally, I can’t remember when or how I first made the decision to go to law school. But as for where, that decision was much easier. I Googled “top law schools” and applied to the top twenty schools on the ranking featured at www.top-law-schools.com, which consolidates all available law schools rankings (there are many). At least to me, it was that simple. I was coming from out of the country, and therefore had no ties to any geographic location. From skimming through the rankings, I thought most of the schools at the top of the charts were pretty much identical in terms of performance, boasting high employment rates, bar passage rates, and median salary after graduation.
Combining these vague statistics with the general truth that people, including employers, like everything better when it is at the top of some sort of chart or ranking, I decided to go to the highest ranked school I could get into.
My own misguided decision-making processes aside, I recently spoke to a variety of law students to learn more about law school rankings and how to effectively use them.
Rankings matter… sort of.
Unlike my ill-informed approach to choosing a law school, many students took rankings into account as only one of many factors when choosing where to enroll. “Prospective law students are curious about their likelihood of admission to certain schools, and rankings provide GPA and LSAT stats that give students valuable insight in their application strategy,” says Michael, a 2L at Boston University. Indeed, law schools often publish the median GPA and LSAT scores of their prior entrants to serve as a useful benchmark for next year’s hopefuls. If you have no idea what you are doing, the median scores are a good starting point.
Law school rankings are initially helpful in getting a sense of tiers, but students emphasized that a variety of other factors played a significant role in their decisions. “[Expenses] and being close to my family weighed in a lot,” says Mikaela, a 3L in Boston. Sarah, a Boston University 1L, took into account “holistic factors like quality of the faculty, course offerings, and student organizations.” In fact, despite the proliferation of law school rankings, many students cited these and other factors as more important to them. “I think the danger is in the students giving the rankings too much weight at the expense of other important factors, like the a school’s location, student body, culture, tuition and the like,” says Michael.
Location, Location, Location.
Law students who already have their sights set on where they want to end up after law school should place more weight on the location of the school rather than the ranking. One 2L student at UC Hastings chose her school because she wanted to remain in San Francisco after law school and knew that Bay Area employers were more likely to hire from Hastings in comparison to other higher ranked schools. “Unless you’re in a top 10 or 15 school, trying to find a job in a specific location outside of the general geographic area of your law school can be more of a challenge than trying to stay local,” she says. Picking the right school involves finding the right school for your preferences and goals in addition to evaluating the school’s reputation and prestige.
Say, for example, you want to work in San Francisco, a very tough market to break into for out-of-staters. Employers in the Bay Area are less likely to hire a graduate from Boston University and very likely to hire a graduate from Harvard, even if the two candidates are both from out of state, because Harvard grads are highly desired everywhere.
Rankings Change Fast, But Reputations Are Here To Stay
But are Bay Area employers more likely to hire a grad from Boston University, ranked #26 than a grad from UC Hastings, ranked #44? No.
“A school’s location, local reputation, and alumni network becomes much more important than ranking,” says Vikki. “Many hiring attorneys are much more aware of these factors than of the constantly fluctuating standings.” Rather than keeping track of small changes in rankings, employers just go by their perceptions of what is a good school.
If a candidate from Boston University #26 and a candidate from Boston College #29 applied for the same position, the employer is unlikely to give much consideration to the fact that BU was ranked three spots higher. Instead the decision would depend on the individual qualifications, school grades, interview skills, and local ties of each candidate as well as the reputation of their respective law schools in the local legal community.
So remember, the most influential factors are those that reflect your qualities as a lawyer, rather than what school you graduated from. Don’t pick to one school over another just because it’s a few rungs higher on the ladder. Remember when I said that there’s a general rule that employers (like everyone) like something more when it’s at the top of a list? Well, don’t let that generalization control your future. Remember to take other important factors like location, overall reputation and holistic factors like student culture into account when selecting a school.