If you're an undergraduate filling out law school applications or a law student considering a transfer, you've probably spent time poring over law school rankings. After all, law school is a major investment, and you want to do your research. And school rankings are historically more important in the legal market than in other areas of academia.
But what exactly do these numbers mean, and how should they affect your decision?
While rankings should play a role in the decision-making process, there's also other information for prospective students to consider. Even if you don't get into Harvard, Yale, Columbia, or Stanford (like most practicing attorneys), you can still have a very successful legal career without having to shell out the money for expensive wallpaper.
To put things into perspective, consider that the Army's first female Judge Advocate General (the Army's top lawyer), Lieutenant General Flora Darpino, graduated from a law school that was ranked at 92/146 in 2016. It just goes to show that rankings do not always correlate with future success in the legal profession.
As you consider where to obtain your law degree, keep these factors in mind.
How Are Law Schools Ranked?
While there are different organizations that compare law schools, the most prominent and often-cited law school rankings come from U.S. News and World Report. It uses a methodology based on a weighted average of 12 different measures of quality to determine the top law schools, including:
- Median LSAT scores
- Median undergraduate GPA
- Acceptance rate
- Bar passage rate
- Expenditures per student
- Student-faculty ratio
- Library resources
- Peer assessments
- Assessments by judges and lawyers
- Selectivity in admissions
While the U.S. News rankings do impact the decisions of many law schools year after year, especially with staffing and resource allocation, they have been subject to criticism. Many law school deans and admissions officers have complained that law school rankings are unfair and counterproductive. In fact, in 2010, Florida's St. Thomas University Law School attempted to boycott the rankings.
Part of the problem lies in how the data is weighted. Another problem has to do with the accuracy of the data, which is often based on self-reporting by law schools and is not clearly audited for accuracy. This has, unfortunately, led to improper manipulation of rankings. For example, when reporting graduate employment rates, schools may count employment at non-law jobs to inflate their numbers.
Alternate Sources For Law School Information
Given the criticism of U.S. News' rankings and its influence, there has been a trend toward alternate school comparisons, which may be more valuable for current and future law students.
For example, instead of using a single metric with various inputs weighted by a news agency, organizations like Law School Transparency provide score reports that focus more on relationships between schools and job markets. Above the Law's Top Law Schools list focuses on job prospects for recent grads. The American Bar Association (ABA) also provides various statistics about law school admissions (though its information tends to be national in scope and lacks school-by-school comparisons).
What Else Should You Consider?
Instead of relying solely on law school rankings, other factors that may have more weight for you include whether a law school has:
- A strong alumni network in the area you want to practice
- Internship programs or clinics (a great way to build your resume while in law school)
- Programs to assist with student loan repayment
- Available scholarship opportunities
- Specialized programs tailored to your legal area of interest
- Joint degree opportunities
- Full-time vs. part-time programs
The best law school for you might be one that is geographically close to family or other personal networks. Or maybe you've always wanted to try living in New York or Los Angeles - law school could be a great opportunity to do so. You also might consider a school's application process. For example, if you're interested in both law school and another graduate program, you might wish to apply to one of the law schools that now accept GRE scores instead of the LSAT.
Lower-ranked law schools provide a similar education as more prestigious schools. They teach students how to think and communicate like lawyers and prepare them for a career in the legal field.
In the end, whether law school rankings matter to you depends on what you want. If it's the prestige of an Ivy League diploma or a Supreme Court clerkship you desire, then applying to a higher-ranking school would be to your benefit. However, if you're looking to be competitive in the job market and to minimize your student debt, a lower-ranked school with a good internship program, a strong alumni network, and better scholarship opportunities would suit you just fine.
Law school graduates from a wide variety of schools go on to have very successful careers. Remember, at the end of the day, your bar number is not ranked. It's a license to practice any law in your jurisdiction regardless of where you went to school. FindLaw's articles on choosing a law school can help you determine what factors are most important to you.