I just read some advice to would-be law students that left me befuddled. The advice is this: Don't focus so much on rankings when you're choosing a law school; instead, you should go where you know you will perform well academically.
This counsel isn't coming from the dean of some third- or fourth-tier law school trying to drum up enrollment, but from James Leipold, the executive director of NALP (the association for legal career professionals). In his October NALP newsletter, Leipold offers a very sobering picture of the job prospects for law graduates. (In case you need reminding, Leipold tells us that "fewer than half of the members of the class of 2011 found jobs in private practice" and "just over 65 percent of the class found jobs that required bar passage.") In essence, he says that the legal market is changing (actually, shrinking), and that the days of wine and roses and high salaries are over.
But given how credential-obsessed this profession is and how competitive the job market has become for entry-level lawyers, shouldn't you go to the best law school you can get your foot into? Not at all, writes Leipold:
You should borrow as little as possible to get your law degree, and you should think about going to the school where you can be most highly ranked rather than to the school that is most highly ranked.
I was so taken back by this counterintutive advice that I called Leipold to ask him about his reasoning. "The name of the school is important," he says, "but if you go to a top five school and graduate in the bottom of the class, it won't help you. It's better to graduate at the top of a top 50 school [instead]."
I don't doubt that people who graduate at the tippy-top of the class at most any law school, even those near the 50th rank (U.S. News & World Report lists American and Pepperdine law schools in 49th place; none in 50th; and Florida State, Southern Methodist, and Tulane at 51st place), can probably get a desirable law firm job. But I am skeptical that those same people would have ended up at the bottom of the top five schools (Yale, Stanford, Harvard, Columbia, and Chicago). What's more, many—if not all—of those top schools don't rank students unless they graduate at the very top of the class. It might be tough to get on Harvard Law Review, but what do you care if you can still flash your Harvard degree?
So all things considered, should you really forfeit your ticket to Harvard for SMU or Pepperdine? The choices are seldom so stark, suggests Leipold. "Most people are middle-packers," says Leipold, meaning they are choosing between schools in the middle ranks. "For those students, picking the highest school in a down market when they won't be courted for scholarships may not be the best decision."
But I wasn't finished with Leipold. I also pressed him how anyone could predict how well he or she will do in law school. To that question, Leipold says the answer is quite simple: "What we do know is true is that LSATs do predict first-year grades. So if your LSAT score represents the 99 percentile for a given school, your grades for the first year will be good. But if you go to a reach school [where your LSAT scores put you in a lower percentile], you won’t do as well."
Hmm, I guess that explains my first-year grades.
What do you think? Is going to a higher-ranked school not what it's cracked up to be?