How much does your law school actually matter?
June 27, 2005 3:33 PM   Subscribe

LawSchoolFilter: Is there a glass ceiling or a hurdle facing graduates from lower tiered law schools? How much does it really matter where your law degree is from? I have been admitted and am attending the summer session at a high 3rd/low 2nd tier law school. Today learned I have been accepted off the waitlist at a school that consistantly places in the top 15-25...

I am now at a private school in my state's capitol. I have some political connections/aspirations and so am not entirely dissapointed with my lot. The credits for this summer won't transfer, but I am going to finish the session no matter what decision I end up making. The other school is public, tuition costs about 13K vs 23K (a scholarship at my current school makes this comparison about even, but I'm not assured that it will be issued every year), and there are a lot of opportunities in my other interest, international law.

Can anyone give me their take on the differences between schools in these ranges as far as future employment goes? I'm thinking specifically about larger firms, especially international in nature. I realize not attending a top 5 school all but rules out a Supreme Court appointment. My grades have been top of the class so far this summer. Can being a big fish in a small pond make up for the fact that the pond is small? Does a degree from a school in the 15-25 range give a lawyer much of an advantage over a school that is only listed alphabetically on "Top Law School Rankings"?

I am not a rankings junky, only applied to two school, and think I will be OK at either place. I just don't have anyone to ask about this other than people affliated with the two schools.

Googling this issue turns up a lot of speculation written by prospective students wringing their hands over their admissions prospects, but not much in the way of actual information.
posted by anonymous to Education (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
It counts for a fair amount. I have a bunch of friends in various lw schools right now doing comparably well but the ones in the upper tier seem to have it a lot easier. The two I know at Harvard barely interviewed for their summer jobs after the first year while those in the mid tiers kept bitching about the long interview process.

Also, a school in the top 20 will have much better relationships with more prestigous institutions than a lower class law school. I say go for the rankings, they are kind of silly but then there are a lot of silly people who will be hiring you that pay attention to them

Of course, this is from a guy who ignored rankings when he applied to med school, but the programs were a lot closer and so it didn't make much difference
posted by slapshot57 at 3:58 PM on June 27, 2005

International law is a relatively small field. With that in mind, attending the higher-ranked school would be of benefit to you with regards to OCI, summer clerking, and later, employment opportunities.

However, with political aspirations it may be to your advantage to attend the lower-ranked local school.
Do you think that you would be able to keep your grades up at the higher-ranked school? Would you be able to stay at the top of your class at the lower-ranked school? You need to think about what else you will have to do to distinguish yourself, regardless of where you matriculate. Will you do law review (and attempt to write-on after your first year)? Will you be involved with local and national organizations in your chosen field? Do you speak any other languages?

I think that many law students can find success regardless of the school they choose. I wish I had a little more information about the schools you're thinking of... email's in my profile.
posted by Coffeemate at 3:59 PM on June 27, 2005

I work at a big firm, and I think you will find it harder to get interviews with firms at a lower-ranked law school. Firms recruit at certain law schools every year through on campus interviewing (what coffeemate calls OCI), and if your school isn't on that list you will have to do alot more work to get your name and resume in front of the people who matter at firms you're interested in. It's sort of like going to a food court and having a range of choices right there available to you, versus walking around on a residential street looking for restaurants. (Except that at big firms, *you* are the food that gets chewed up and spit out, rather than the other way around! Kidding, kidding.)

An exception may be if you want to work for a local big firm in the state where the lower ranked school is and your school has a good reputation with them. Or alternatively, if the lower tier school is located somewhere like DC, where opportunities for employment in international law may be more plentiful than they are in other areas.

Finally, you are right that it will do you no good to go to the higher ranked school and have your grades do a nosedive. But if you are interested in larger firms, I suspect that on average your chances at getting interviews will be better at a higher ranked school.
posted by onlyconnect at 4:46 PM on June 27, 2005

Go to the higher-ranked school. Over time, it will open more doors for you than the third-tier school. Name recognition is key, and lots of resume decisions are made in a split second.

If you have political ambitions, make a point of doing summer jobs and/or internships in your state's capitol.

As Coffeemate observes, success is possible regardless of which law school you choose. However:
years ago, a roommate was in a similar conundrum. She had been accepted to a solid second-tier school, with a small scholarship, and also offered a free ride to a lower-third-tier school. Both law schools are in the same city. She took a survey of lawyers that she knew who practiced there, and the resounding advice was to go to the upper-tier school, regardless of cost. They all seemed to feel that even if she walked on water at the lower-ranked school, it would not be enough to overcome the handicap they perceived the lower tiered school would create. She wound up taking on a small amount of student loans to go to the higher-ranked school, and after graduation landed a job at a Big Firm.

posted by ambrosia at 4:52 PM on June 27, 2005

If you want to work for a big NYC, Chicago, etc. firm definitely go with the highly ranked school.

If you want to be sole practioner it doesn't matter.
posted by Carbolic at 5:02 PM on June 27, 2005

If you're not going for the big brass ring the third tier school is fine.
posted by inksyndicate at 5:12 PM on June 27, 2005

I'll add another vote for the higher-ranked school.

Choosing a law school that is significantly less prestigious that another option makes sense only if motivated by location or money. Location meaning you want to be in a particular place for family or other reasons; money meaning you can save a pile of cash (and/or avoid a pile of debt) by attending the lower-ranked school.

It sounds like neither of these factors is relevantyou. The state school might even turn out to be cheaper. And it sounds like the "prestige gap" is material based on your description. So go to the better school.

Don't worry about getting worse grades. If you're doing well in the summer session, you'll do well at the other school. Possibly not *as* well, but that will be more than offset by the better reputation of the school.

It sounds like you have big ambitions: international law, big firm, NY (I think), possibly politics. Going to a 'better' school will help open doors. Could you do just as well if you went to the lower-ranked school? Maybe. But if you want to maximize your odds of success, go to the better school.

Good luck to you, whatever path you choose.
posted by brain_drain at 5:31 PM on June 27, 2005

Go to the top school.

I'm in an interesting situation. My GPA/LSAT was good enough only to get me in at the bottom of the first tier, bt my 1L grades were good enough to score a transfer to a higher ranked school (maybe even "HYS" as the message board groupies call it.) I chose not to apply for a transfer, and I don't regret it—or at least I think I don't.

It is true that tenure-track faculty are chosen largely from the top 15 law schools, and you should transfer if teaching is your main ambition. However, there are definite exceptions, and schools are starting to hire their own alumni—particularly retired or sabbaticaled law firm practicioners—for legal writing/research instructorships.

Clerking in a federal court is another such position where going to a top school is extremely helpful, but even this maxim peters out at the district court level where a judge is just as likely to favor top students from the school nearest to his or her chambers. Even appeals court clerkships can go to top students at lower-ranked schools, though this is more difficult. As you rightly note, you're probably shut out of SCOTUS, but so are 99% of Harvard and Yale kids anyway.

If you want to work in a firm, the keyword is proximity. I go to law school in Hartford, Connecticut. Think of the outflow of graduates from my law school as dispersing into concentric rings around the campus. The highest concentration of graduates stay close by; some go to New Haven or Stamford; some go to New York or Boston; and others scatter elsewhere around the country. Hiring partners look for known quantities; if a partner in a particular firm is an alum of your school, you have become a known quantity. If they hire you and have a good experience, you are the extension of your school's reputation in that firm and in that location. You draw in the next person. But it's still a trickle, not a flood. If you're not a "known quantity," your school gets evaluated in the only objective way your firm knows how: the US News rankings. This is why, if I ever had to pack up and move to Alberquerque, I'd be breathing much easier as a Georgetown Law grad than a UConn Law grad. I, however, wanted Boston, and I rode one of the outer rings to a summer position at a fantastic firm. This would have been the same route for me as a BU or BC student. So the lower ranked school with the lower tuition and the more distant location was a gamble that paid massive dividends.

Here's the caveat, though, and it's a big one. You aren't guaranteed good grades at your lower-ranked school even if your application was good enough to get you into a higher-ranked one. Grades are a total crapshoot based on whether or not your analytical style conforms to your school's and your professor's expectations. It's easy to acquire knowledge of the subject through a commercial outline but it's incredibly difficult, and largely intuitive, to translate this knowledge into an excellent exam answer. I didn't get any smarter between my B- political science papers in college and my A law school exams; the difference is that I have a few more years of maturity and I'm simply more cut out for legal practice than I was for academia. And then there's an element of pure randomness. So YMMV, and proceed with caution and with your ego reined in as tightly as possible.

So I don't regret not grabbing the opportunity to climb the rankings ladder, but I only don't regret it because I managed to do well where I am now. Being on law review is a more valuable learning experience than were any of my classes, and I likely would not have made it onto a journal as a 2L transfer student at a big-time school. I still regret that snobbery reigns in so many facets of the legal profession, and that I'm shut out of quite a few career paths just because of my stupid LSAT score. But I think I'm much better off in the long run for having stayed.

Yours is an opportunity to get three years of law school education at a top-ranked school, and I recommend you go for it.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 5:51 PM on June 27, 2005

I'd say go with the higher school and try to transfer if you can. I don't see how being in a top 3 law school couldn't make a lefty feel like a total hypocrite, as you basically swerve right into a fat job based on your class connections (a fancy brand name, rather than the old boys clubs). If you're in a better law school, you typically skip several rounds and months off the interview process.

That being, said, I don't think it's the end of the world if you go to the first school you mentioned, you'll just have to work harder. Here, our reliable friend anecdotal evidence enters stage left. A friend of mine from school out of the top 25 just got a job at the DA's office in a big CA city. A girl from my 1L internship who was, I think, out of the top 50 got a job at Paul Weiss. And so on. I know of one firm that's a leader in international arbitration and it has a number of people who are from schools outside of the top 25. The difference is really a matter of how much work you want to put in.

On preview: I think Saucy has a lot of accurate things to say. I'd emphasize also that the higher tier law school may actuall be EASIER. As you slip into the top tier, law schools (I think) start to take on academic pretensions and resemble political science departments more than law schools. Additionally, most of the top tier schools have generous curves. (I think the one at Harvard is set at B+).

Also, if your criterion is just cost, you should go wtih the higher ranked school.
posted by kensanway at 5:55 PM on June 27, 2005

Without knowing more about your situation, I would say go to the higher ranked school, especially since the disparity seems to be fairly great. Going to the higher ranked school won't guarantee you anything and going to the lower ranked school doesn't necessarily mean doors will be closed, but it's all about increasing your odds. One thing I would check if you are interested into going into local or state politics is to check out the resumes of politicians in the area. If a large proportion of them have law degrees from the school you are currently at, then it might make more sense to stay there in order to have something in common with the politicians. Otherwise, absent exceptional circumstances, go with the higher ranked school. You may not regret staying at your current school, but you'll almost definitely not regret changing schools.
posted by EatenByAGrue at 6:41 PM on June 27, 2005

I think it depends on what you want to do, like everyone else has said. I went to a top 10, and I work every day with people who went to third tier schools. We do the same work and make the same money - I have debt, and they don't.

But, if I wanted to, I could do some things they probably couldn't. I could have worked in any state - that's a good reason to go as high as possible, if you don't know where you want to settle. I could have clerked (partly I didn't becuase of the debt. I should have done it anyway). I could have gotten a lot of my debt deferred. Blah blah. It all depends.
posted by dpx.mfx at 7:48 PM on June 27, 2005

The prestige of your school will make a huge difference for the rest of your life. I hate to say it, but it's true. Going to a top ranked school will open doors in countless ways.

Even setting aside networking and such, having a top ranked school on your resume immediately marks you as smart. I review quite a lot of resumes at my job, many of them from JDs. The school makes a big diiference in whether I give them a second look. There's much more of a hook to a Cornell or BC or Georgetown. If someone went to East Kentucky Law, well, I figure they are dedicated but maybe not top ranked in smarts.
posted by alms at 8:10 PM on June 27, 2005

Optimize your pedigree - it's what gets looked at.

People look at me, they see - Harvard, Columbia, Neuro Institute of NY (neurologists, at least, know about the NI). In fact, at my last interview the guy opened with a look at my resume, said, (I quote) "Harvard, Columbia, NI. OK, you're a neurologist. What do you do in your spare time?"

And that was it. There wasn't any further discussion or probing about competence - it was just assumed. We spent the rest of the interview talking about weird/interesting places we'd traveled to, SF vs New York, and essentially making small talk.
posted by ikkyu2 at 12:27 AM on June 28, 2005 [1 favorite]

I'd say go with the higher school and try to transfer if you can. I don't see how being in a top 3 law school couldn't make a lefty feel like a total hypocrite, as you basically swerve right into a fat job based on your class connections (a fancy brand name, rather than the old boys clubs).

I think that's a little unfair, especially since there's no question that admission to the club was based on merit.
posted by grouse at 1:01 AM on June 28, 2005

Yep. Go to the higher-ranked school. Remember also that rankings often shift considerably, so what is a #15-25 today might be a #10 by the time it matters most to you. The chance of that happening with the lower-ranked school is pretty slim, if it's in the bottom half of the second tier.

Getting S.A. positions is a snap if you're going to a higher-ranked [note I'm not saying better, because that may not be the case, despite the rankings] law school. You also will have an easier time making the backwards move to local politics with a better-esteemed degree than you would trying to move into something other than local/state politics with the less-esteemed degree, if you end up hating politics-- which may happen.

Don't worry about SCOTUS. Seriously. It gets less and less important as the years go by... focus instead on some really exciting jobs that'll challenge you and teach you something you'd never learn otherwise.
posted by LGCNo6 at 1:10 AM on June 28, 2005

In addition, higher rank will give better chance at clerkships which are VERY important for big firms. Also, government jobs tend to go to top students at top schools, and Federal government jobs to the very best. And a US gov atty will always be welcome at good firms.
Remember, each step on your resume is a short-hand for the next step. "Oh, they said he was good, so he must be good." You have to prove less to the next guy.
posted by johngumbo at 1:46 PM on June 28, 2005

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