Choosing a law school is very different than choosing many other types of professional or vocational school. Law school rankings are, to a certain extent, the most important factor to consider when deciding which school to attend – or are they? Is there a way this dreaded fact is actually fiction? Isn’t there a more individualized approach that will liberate perspective lawyers from applying within the select T-14? There certainly is.
Why are law schools ranked the way they are? This is a complicated question, and the full answer is steeped in historical complexities. But the easiest and most current answer is job placement rates. The schools which make up the T-14 are the only US law schools which boast full-time law job placement rates upwards of 85%. This statistic is not just about the percentage employed, but also about the actual jobs students are getting: many of these young lawyers are headed to prestigious clerkships and big, well-known law firms. That being said, many successful lawyers attended schools outside of the T-14. It isn’t impossible to work your way to the top, but you have to be prepared for a more arduous road to stardom. It comes down to this: when answering the question if you should attend a lower ranked law school, the answer may depend on what you want. There are a series of factors which will be important to any prospective law student while deciding which law school to attend, and which will vary based on a school’s rank.
What To Think About When Deciding on a School
The first factor that (needless to say) everyone should think about is the school’s quality of education. Somehow this teeny tiny detail seems to get lost in the flurry of rankings, test scores, and grades. In general, if you’re looking for a high quality faculty and curriculum, you can dare to explore outside of the T-14 – in other words, dozens of law schools across the US have great JD programs. If your utmost goal is to get a good education because you value the academic experience above all else, you can afford to attend a lower-ranking school. That being said, if you also aspire to get a stellar job at a top law firm right out of school, you might want to think again.
Another unavoidable aspect of law school rankings is the opportunity, resources and connections which reputable law schools have ingrained into their education experiences. T-14 schools simply have more of this to go around, and the difference in opportunities afforded to their students can affect income potential and employment choices. Opportunities are certainly available to certain students at mid to lower ranked law schools, but usually only those in the top 10-15% of their class. If you either don’t consider your future earning potential a deal breaker, or you are confident enough in your ability to be in that 10-15%, then maybe a T-14 isn’t your only option.
Many prospective lawyers bank on the option of transferring to a well-ranked school after their first year at a lower-ranking school. This mindset can, unfortunately, be very dangerous. First of all, most T-14 schools reserve very few spots, if any, for transfer students. These spots only become more prevalent when students drop out or take a leave of absence. Additionally, there is a strange grading phenomenon in many lower ranking law schools which could deter you from attending them entirely. Many low ranking schools give out exceptionally dismal grades in their students’ first year: at many lower ranked schools, the GPA of the 50% rank is between 2.0 – 2.9. At mid ranked schools, the 50% GPA is around 3.0. Top schools have a 50% GPA of 3.3. Also, most low ranked law schools are very stingy about giving As and Bs (or their equivalents). So say goodbye to the option of skating your way through a low to mid ranking school – that isn’t going to happen.
In my opinion, this is a disgusting scheme to prevent students from transferring, but unfortunately, it’s a reality. This is also a testament to how hard it is to end up in the top of your class at this kind of school. And needless to say, this will also impact a student’s employability after law school.
In general, choose a law school depends on what you want out of the experience. If you’re set on being a fancy, well-known lawyer at a top law firm in a big city then going to a T-14 is certainly the easiest place to start. But if you are the kind of person who’s going to law school simply for the educational experience, or you want to become a very specific type of lawyer through a program offered at only very specific schools (or if you don’t even want to practice law in the long run), then you have the freedom to explore other options. I think that the best way to feel like you are making the right choice is to know exactly what you want before making one of the biggest investments of your life. If you’ve done your research by looking at the specific programs offered by the schools on your list, and if you’ve looked at the list of firms and organizations that these schools are connected with (and offer on-campus interviews) then you’re headed in the right direction. If the school doesn’t associate with any of the places where you’d want to work, then you’re probably not looking at the right school. Ultimately the decision between different schools comes down to time and effort: how long are you willing to wait and how hard are you willing to work to accomplish your goal?
Looking for some help to do your best in law school? Find out about our law school tutoring options.