Law School Rankings – The Biggest Bunch of Bunk Since Unsliced Bread

Although I understand that this can be very difficult to do, you must view the popular published law school rankings skeptically. These rankings are not only untrustworthy, but mislead students into thinking they need to attend a highly ranked school or they will be second rate lawyers do to their “substandard” law school education. This is simply not true. What is true, in my opinion unfortunately, is that going to a highly ranked law school can have an enormous financial (note: NOT educational) impact on your early legal career. That is why I wrote Covert Tactics for Getting Into the Law School of Your Choice. As I explain in that book, however, even if you do not attend a highly ranked law school, you are not absolutely doomed to suffer professionally and financially for the rest of your life. Indeed, many times you may be well-served, both educationally and financially, by attending a lower ranked law school.

But back to law school rankings. In addition to a number of studies suggesting that the data underlying the rankings is inaccurate, due to schools trying to misrepresent the true data in order to achieve a higher ranking, it is impossible for any ranking to consider all of the relevant factors, which may vary from individual to individual.

Also problematic is the fact that most of the ranking are based, at least in part, on the subjective opinions of individuals at the various schools. Of course, such subjective opinions are likely to simply reinforce the historical opinions regarding the “top tier” law schools. Indeed, if you look at these rankings historically, you will find that they really haven’t changed much over the years.

The reason that it is important that you understand the invalidity of the law school rankings is that you should understand that the quality of your legal education is likely to be nearly as good, and in some respects may be better, at the University of Idaho as opposed to Harvard.

Depending on who you are, you may be much better off, for a variety of reasons, attending even a very low ranked school. This may be the case even if you have the opportunity to attend a higher-ranked school.

For example, if your intent is to establish a small town practice in rural South Dakota immediately after law school, it may be unwise to attend Stanford Law School over the University of South Dakota School of Law.

Why? Let me give you three good reasons, though there are likely many more. First, you are not going to be particularly highly paid in rural South Dakota, regardless of where you attended law school. As a Stanford Law graduate you are likely to either be saddled with a high debt load or have spent a significant amount of your savings getting through school. Although few law schools are cheap, you should carefully consider whether it is worth spending and extra $100,000 to have a fancy name on your wall.

Second, as a small-town practitioner, you are going to be very reliant on relationships with other attorneys, the business community, and potential clients in general. Spending three years in Palo Alto, far away from the center of your future universe, will do very little to develop those relationships, so law school rankings are virtually meaningless.

Finally, the education isn’t going to be much better at Stanford than at USD. Believe me, in writing this I have prepared myself for the inevitable barrage of criticism that will inevitably be hurled my way. I say this with confidence, however, because I know lawyers from a wide variety of law schools and find a relatively equal distribution of idiots among alumni from top 50 and bottom 50 schools. It really depends on what you are willing to put into it – not what they give you.

There are even some law schools not approved by the American Bar Association that may be worth considering in limited situations. Depending on what you want to do, and the particular laws of the jurisdiction where you intend to practice, a non-ABA accredited school may be a worthwhile choice.

At the end of the day, you need to make a wise choice that you will be happy with for the rest of your life. Don’t put a school on your list just because it is a highly-ranked law school or fits a formula or because you think it will look good on your resume.

Even if we find a cure for cancer in the next decade, you are not likely to live much more than 90 years on this earth. Don’t spend 3.5% of it in the wrong place.

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