A Useful Rating System in Law Schools

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But how do you tell how each school is rated? You can buy various publications that list the country's ten best law schools, or fifty best. Some publications even rank all of them, beginning with number one and running on through number 66 (which they conclude is in some way better than number 67) and finishing with number 176, the country's single worst law school. These rankings assume that one law school is superior to another in the same way that one football team can be said to be superior to another. But there's no tournament or league in which, say, Harvard Law will compete with Stanford Law, and no scoring method that can be used to award one or the other a larger number of points. Nor is there any way to compare the vitally important intangible factors.

For these reasons, it's nonsense to rank schools ordinally, concluding that there's exactly one top-ranked school, and one 66th, and one 78th. Harvard and Stanford are so similar, and offer their students so many of the same advantages, that it's better to consider them as two members of a group or level of excellent schools than to argue about which of them is marginally superior.

But there are career-relevant differences between the group that includes Harvard and Stanford and a group of local law schools with fewer (and less-qualified) full-time faculty members, fewer re-sources, and a student body chosen primarily from the neighboring community. Law schools can be clustered in quality groups. The schools within each group offer students similar career-related ad-?r widely in other respects.

As you read through the Official Guide entries, you may see a statement in fine print underneath or near a school's grid that says something like, "This profile includes 97.5 percent of all applicants admitted." Okay, so 2.5 percent of the admittees are omitted. Who might they be? Some schools omit candidates accepted under affirmative action and outreach efforts, who tend to have lower formal qualifications. (Some law schools, however, carefully note that they include such students in their grids.) They may also exclude foreign and transfer students, as well as older nontraditionals whose applications are hard to compare to those of traditional students.

Grids also may omit applicants who are accepted late. Law schools always admit more students than they have room for, assuming that some admittees won't be able to attend for financial or personal reasons and others will decide to attend other law schools. Less well regarded law schools are aware that they are used as insurance schools, and they expect to be turned down by many. But they can't predict exactly how many, so they keep waiting lists. Wait-listed candidates aren't admitted until after first-choice admittees decline to attend-not until May at most law schools, and sometimes not until well into the summer. I know of one candidate who was admitted three days before fall classes were to begin.

Late admittees have lower numbers than the turndowns they replace; that's why they were wait-listed. If the law school bases its grid on information available in, say, early May, it includes the turndowns among those accepted. But it doesn't include the inferior applicants who were wait-listed and later admitted to replace them. The law school's incoming freshman class will look better qualified on the grid in May than it actually will be in the fall.

But about 65 law schools don't publish them. How do you calculate your odds of admission to one of these schools?

Most schools provide at least partial information, either in the Official Guide or in their catalogs. Some, while not describing last year's applicant pool, identify ranges of scores within which you can rate your chances as good, competitive, or poor. Look for a statement like this:

If your GPA is above x and your LSAT score is at the t/th percentile or higher, you have an excellent chance of being admitted. If your GPA is below x and your LSAT score is at the t/th percentile or lower, you are unlikely to be admitted. If your numbers fall in between these extremes, you have a chance to be admitted.

You can use such a statement as you would a grid and put the school on your insurance list, your possible list, or your wish list.

Some schools publish only an average: "Our freshman class had a median undergraduate GPA of 3.5 and a median LSAT score at the 70th percentile." If you've taken a statistics course, you know that an average isn't very useful without the standard deviation, which law schools almost never provide. A 3.5 average could describe ten students with 4.0 GPAs and ten students with 3.0 GPAs. Or it could describe ten students with 3.49 GPAs and ten with 3.51 GPAs.

For less well regarded schools that don't publish grids, your prelaw adviser may know how alumni of your college have done in past years. He or she may also have off-the-record information about how given schools make their decisions. If you visit the law school, you can ask the admissions representative to rate your chances as excel-lent, good, or poor.

If your GPA and test scores diverge, you'll find it helpful to know whether the law schools you are considering emphasize grades more heavily than the LSAT, or vice versa. You can deduce this information from the admission formula that a law school uses. Law Services will send you a list of formulas when it sends you your LSD AS report.

Whatever bits and pieces of information you can collect for such a school, you're unlikely to be able to calculate your odds of admission as precisely as you can for a school that publishes a grid. It's best to allow for a margin of error. Don't use such a school as insurance. Lengthen your application list instead.

Tips for Putting Together Your Application List

Now you have to decide which of the schools on your preferred list you will apply to. I'm convinced that one main reason for a candidate's failure to gain admission to a law school is the candidate's failure to apply to enough schools.

If you're an average applicant, your numbers are good enough for you to get accepted somewhere, but not really good enough for you to be a competitive applicant to a school in Group I or Group II. So it's important to choose enough of the right schools to maximize your chances of getting in somewhere and to optimize your chances of winding up at the school with the highest possible reputation and quality.

You should pick two insurance schools, two or three schools at which you are competitive, and, if you have some good reason for wanting to attend, one or more wish schools. Your list will contain at least four schools, and optimally five to seven. The schools will be distributed across at least three levels of selectivity.

If you're a nervous type, you can apply to more insurance schools. But since insurance schools by definition are all places where your odds of acceptance are good, you're simply increasing the likelihood that you'll get accepted to more than one school within the same quality range.

If you are a marginal applicant with numbers distinctly below average, you may be able to go to law school if you persevere, but you may not be able to attend a school on your preferred list. You won't have any insurance schools; at best, you are poorly competitive. Reread what I said earlier about making the subjective parts of your application as strong as possible. To maximize the possibility that you will find an admissions committee willing to give you a chance, you should apply to many schools from among those in groups IV and V that promise in their catalogs to look at the "complete individual" rather than relying on "mere numbers." Investigate schools in unpopular regions. Expect to apply to at least fifteen schools. Applying to more won't hurt.

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