How Law Schools Are Usually Rated
Law schools can be ranked according to objective criteria. You'll see rankings based on the number of books in each law school's library, the qualifications and accomplishments of faculty members (as measured by how many books and articles they have produced), the quality of their facilities, and similar "countable" variables. Other rankings are based on the law schools' reputations, usually as measured by a survey of law school deans or other knowledgeable persons. The National Jurist ranking is based on "student satisfaction" as measured by a survey of law students.
However, little of this has any direct bearing on the quality of education that a student is likely to receive. The world-famous research libraries possessed by Illinois and Yale (among others) are primarily of value to graduate students or scholars; although law students are required to do extensive research, they can manage quite well with the minimal library holdings that the American Bar Association requires all accredited law schools to possess. And because of these accreditation requirements, all law schools build their curriculums around the same basic courses. All teach most first-year and second-year courses by the "Socratic" method in large lecture sessions. All now have legal writing and clinical training programs.
Although the highest-rated schools have more well-known faculty members and are centers of legal scholarship, they don't necessarily provide better teaching. The nightmarish, high-pressure freshman contracts course in the movie The Paper Chase was offered at Harvard. Professor Kingsfield, the remote and downright scary teacher, was represented as a lawyer of high professional reputation, the consultant of appellate judges. Yet many lawyers who attended law schools of more modest reputation can usually recall some concerned and hardworking teachers who had the ability to make difficult material more understandable.
If this is so, are there any career-relevant advantages to attending a better law school? The answer is yes. The better a law school is, the more likely it is to offer consistent strength: to have all its courses taught by competent, if not inspired, people who have the time and resources to be effective teachers. The better law schools offer extensive arrays of specialized programs; although they may not cover every specialty in the fast-changing legal world, they are most likely to provide well-qualified faculty members in the specialties that they do offer.
Because they possess these resources, the better law schools sometimes offer unique opportunities. Although all schools have clinical programs and all law students have some opportunity to work on real cases under supervision, only at Harvard can students-a very few students-work on the cases of noted appellate advocate Alan Dershowitz. All law schools publish student-edited law reviews, but only at the top schools can students work on reviews that are regularly read and quoted by appellate judges. It is mainly at the top schools that specialized reviews in cutting-edge newly emerging legal specialties-women's law; Hispanic-oriented law; law and ecology-are begun.
If nothing else, die simple fact that some law schools are thought to be better allows them to attract better students. Good fellow students are more important than good teachers-they will arouse your curiosity, stimulate you to work hard, and even answer most of your questions. They will become lifelong friends and colleagues. And because top schools can choose their entering classes from a large pool of applicants-sometimes 30 or more for each vacancy-all of whom are of extremely high quality, they can gain the benefits of diversity, as well as of individual talent.
Top law firms tend to recruit from top law schools because they know that this is where high-quality students can consistently be found. For the same reason, many appellate judges fill their prestigious clerkships only from among the top graduates of the same schools. Certain kinds of legal jobs-teaching at a top law school, working for a blue-chip New York law firm-are almost impossible to attain unless you attend a top law school. And the prestige of being a graduate of a top school will make it easier for you to secure legal employment nationwide.
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You've probably noticed that this argument is circular: because these law schools have the reputation of being better, people treat them as though they are better. They then attract the better students... whose performance and eventual successes make the school look better... which perpetuates the school's reputation ... which generates more success ... which attracts more of the better students...
In other words, there's a house of mirrors here. Perhaps there's nothing underlying a law school's reputation for quality except a history of having such a reputation. Status may be based on nothing but perceptions. But it exists nevertheless. Top law schools do draw better students and faculty members; they do increase the career options available to their graduates.
Therefore, if you have the grades and LSAT score to qualify for one of the nation's top law schools, you should consider attending it even if it has an unattractive location or other drawbacks. You'll get a similar, though proportionally smaller, reputational advantage if you attend a school at the second rank, and even at the third rank.
Some of this quality advantage is based on things that can be counted or measured. Mostly, however, as the Supreme Court observed in Sweatt v Painter, the qualities "which make for greatness in a law school" are "incapable of measurement." Though intangible, such things as "the reputation of the faculty, experience of the administration, position and influence of the alumni, standing in the community, traditions and prestige" strongly affect the fate of a school's students. How can you tell which schools are better when you are dealing with intangibles?
Calculating Your Odds from Grids
The most important determinants of whether or not you will be admitted to any law school are your numbers-your undergraduate GPA and your LSAT score. The more highly regarded a law school is, the higher your numbers have to be to be reasonably sure of being admitted. How can you tell what your chances are at each of the schools on your preferred list? The task is easiest if the school you are considering is one of the handfuls of schools that publish detailed information about the fate of last year's applicant pool in the Official Guide.
Here are some other things that may give you an edge at schools at which you are competitive:
- If you are applying to a state school, make sure your application identifies you as an in-state resident.
- Make sure you identify yourself as a "legacy" if you apply to a school that one of your parents attended, especially if it is a private school to which your parents have donated money. As schools increasingly face budget problems, keeping contributors happy is becoming increasingly important.
- If you can pay your own way to law school, consider applying to schools that are known to be extremely expensive.
- Try to get whatever benefit there is in applying early.
- If appropriate, identify yourself as a sought-after protected group member. Affirmative action programs are still thriving.
- Finally, be particularly careful to make sure diat your application is complete, neat, and in proper form. When a committee has to choose between a numbers of candidates who have very similar qualifications, it may be tempted to simplify its decision making by becoming extremely picky about its formal rules. It can then eliminate applicants who make trivial errors or omit even unimportant pieces of information.