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Go to SMU, Not Harvard Law School! Huh?

Vivia Chen

October 15, 2012

Cowboyboots.imageI 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?


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Great advice, unless your a soulless vulture who only wants to go to a "top" blood sucking firm. Believe it or not some students don't want to go to a V25 firm and make top dollar right out of school to help corporate criminals.

It's absolutely sound advice. I had the choice between a T14 school at sticker price or a T20 with an 80% scholarship. I would not have made law review or a good rank at the T14 but I graduated top 5% from the T20. I ended up with a V25 firm job, and no debt, and I can't imagine having gone to the T14 and graduated with $140k in debt would have put me in a better position at all.

The Harvard versus SMU hypothetical is just silly because people that got into Harvard also probably received full-ride scholarships at T10 schools. So it's more like paying sticker at Harvard versus taking a full-tuition scholarship at NYU. I think going to NYU in this situation is reasonable.

PJM is right on point. Going to a lower ranked school thinking that you'll top the class is downright suicidal. If you're smart enough to be in top 10% in a top 30 school, you'll probably do pretty well in T14 school. Larger difference comes from how T14 schools open up incredibly wider opportunities for you. One shouldn't forget that many of the elite firms simply refuse to interview out of T14 these days.

makes a lot of sense actually. better to be on law review and the top 2% at school ranked at no. 38 when alumni in the same legal market will be likely to help you (assuming its a legal market you want to work in) rather than have a GPA with all Bs at school ranked no. 19 and have no other discernible advantage in recruiting season. HOWEVER, it is impossible to know you will be ranked at that top 2% because the mandatory grade curves are very difficult at lower ranked schools. So we can probably just throw out that advice along with all the other advice about picking a law school. It's a shell game.

So I guess we should just go to a school where we know we'll perform well academically. Sounds pretty simple to me... especially because law school exams are exactly like undergrad exams, and one's LSAT score is directly correlated with how well they do in law school. Oh wait...

The fact is, no one knows how well they're going to do in law school till they get there. The people who do poorly at Harvard are pretty likely to do poorly at SMU too, since the superior credentials that got them into Harvard in the first place have little bearing on how well they do on exams. Going to a lower-ranked school because one think's they'll crush it there against inferior peers is one of the most disastrous assumptions that one can make.

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The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: VChen@alm.com

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