More Thoughts on Law School Rankings: Does it Make Sense to go to a Lower-Ranked Law School? Part One, What if That’s Your Only Choice?

Last week, I published How Can You Avoid a Costly Law School Mistake? What the New York Times Says (and Doesn’t Say).  A former partner at an elite law firm wrote to say that he thought I might do a post about whether any potential law student should consider going to a third- or fourth-tier law school (the Times article focused on a hapless graduate of the fourth-tier Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego).  He also mentioned a few circumstances in which he thought that it did make sense (some of which I’m going to appropriate without specific attribution).

Our exchange dovetailed nicely with my post earlier this week, “Study Tells Us Law School Reputation Matters for Job Prospects: We Already Knew That, so Some Decide to Make It a Moral Issue.”  The conclusion of that blog was simple—law school rankings should matter to applying law students to the same extent they matter to employers (generally, a lot) and that prospective students should weight rankings heavily in their decisions.

That’s a good general rule.  But it’s a general rule.  At Advise-In, clients and I customize law school admissions solutions to fit individual needs and a public blog obviously can’t do that.  But it can lay out some of the factors that influence the strength and applicability of the general rule.

Let’s start with some basics.  Every law school has success stories, which they’ll be happy to tell you.  What should matter to prospective law students is how broad-based (as a proportion of all attendees) those stories are and how much you’re like those who are successful graduates of that law school.  Don’t expect law schools to do more than cherry-pick their successes; to get more, you need a clear strategy to uncover information that’s uncomfortable for law schools.

In addition, whether it can be a good decision to attend a lower-ranked or lower-tier school are different issues.  The chief difference is whether the applicant has an option to attend a higher-ranked law school.  In this post, I’ll talk about the applicant who doesn’t; in part two, I’ll talk about the applicant who has higher-ranked options.

Let’s start with the applicant who has no option—because of a suboptimal GPA, not obtaining the best LSAT score or other factors—but to attend a lower-ranked law school.  The issue is starkest here—should you attend law school at all, at least now?

To be clear, I’m not just talking about the fourth-tier subject of the Times article.  In the current market, in which some top 20 schools have developed programs to bridge their graduates’ difficult transition to full-time legal employment (and the success of these programs is an open question),  this isn’t just an issue for third- or fourth-tier schools but for all but the very elite law schools.

The basic questions for all law school applicants are ones we’ve talked about before: how much do you want to be a lawyer; and how much do you know about what lawyers actually do?

I really enjoyed my work and was happy as an associate at a large firm.  In large part, that’s because I did a lot of investigation into what life as a law firm associate would be like.  I knew that there was no point in making weeknight plans, that my weekend plans would often have to be cancelled and that I was essentially at the beck-and-call of clients and other lawyers alike.  That was the price of the type of law I practiced and where I practiced it.

I was ok with all that; law is a service profession, service is something I’m very good at and enjoy and I worked with colleagues and clients I liked.  Others weren’t comfortable with the sacrifices (or had family members who weren’t)  or weren’t as fortunate in their choice of firm, and many of them were much less satisfied with their jobs than I was.  Still others did the investigation they needed to do beforehand and refused to be caught within spitting distance of large New York law firms, opting for other kinds of practice and work environment.

Realistic expectations and, on the basis of them, a realistic answer to the question of how much you want to be a lawyer, is the key question for all law school applicants, regardless of their range of choices (leaving out of account those few law schools whose degrees are so prestigious that many immediate graduates go into politics, business or other professional careers).  It’s a more important question the lower on the ranking ladder you go, though, since the equivalent level of debt but significantly reduced earning power and flexibility increase the chances that graduates will have fewer career options and, if they weren’t diligent in their pre-law school investigations, find themselves trapped in a career they decide, too late, that they really didn’t want.

If you have a strong desire to be a lawyer and know what being a lawyer means (keeping in mind that the daily activities of lawyers differ considerably between practice areas, organization and geographic area, among other things), then it may make sense to go to law school, even a law school that is not the one of your dreams.  But you should still be careful, especially in this legal employment environment.

One of the best things any law school applicant can do (or hire an advisor to do) is to learn to use spreadsheets liberally and wisely.  You should have a clear idea of the costs of the law school you’re considering attending, and develop a realistic, conservative budget that accounts for your costs and clearly delineates your post-law school debt payments on a monthly basis.  Then you need to determine the likelihood that you’ll be able to get a job that will give you a fair living minus your debt payments.

How do you determine that?  That’s where pressing law schools for real employment information enters the picture, as distinct from the vague, unhelpful data that they’re now required to disclose.  Employment numbers are nearly useless—even if law schools were required to report legal employment (they’re not), it wouldn’t tell you nearly enough.  In what areas of law?  At what median income (median income is more helpful than average income, since averages are easily distorted by a few high earners)?  For how long (there have been a lot of law layoffs over the last few years)?  What was their sample size (I can’t prove it but I’d expect that successful graduates are more likely to self-report)?  How much worse have recent graduates fared (any law school’s claim that recent graduates haven’t fared worse is suspect)?  And of the recent success stories that law schools can point to, how much are those people like you?  (You should talk to as many such people as you can—if the success stories are aggressive go-getters and you hate the thought of selling yourself, then those triumphs have very little bearing on your likely prospects.)  And so on.

You and your advisors should then build scenarios reflecting a possible range of initial employment outcomes (best-case on down to worst-case) and be realistic about assessing the probability of each outcome.  And then you should compare it to your likely living expenses (including debt) after graduation.  Then you can make a considered, reasonable (not risk-free but risk-minimized) judgment about whether law school is likely to be a viable option for you now.

Here, your realistic desire to be a lawyer comes back into play.  If your heart’s desire is to be a lawyer almost regardless of the cost, you’ll be able to tolerate (and tolerate better because you’ve prepared for it) lifestyle discomforts immediately after graduation.  If you’d just as soon do something else (even if you’re not sure what that is), then you’ll want a higher expected return and a thin post-graduation lifestyle margin should discourage you from applying to law school.

For applicants whose law school admissions possibilities are not what they hoped, the best thing to do is to clearly assess your desire to practice law and weigh that against the results of a disciplined and complete investigation and calculations of your likely post-graduation career and financial situation.  In part two, I’ll talk about whether and when it might make sense for applicants to accept admission at a school that is lower-ranked than their top-ranked law school admission.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on January 21, 2011.

4 Responses to “More Thoughts on Law School Rankings: Does it Make Sense to go to a Lower-Ranked Law School? Part One, What if That’s Your Only Choice?”

  1. […] part one of this blog pair, I talked about factors that law school applicants with limited options should […]

  2. […] last two posts, parts one and two of “More Thoughts on Law School Rankings: Does it Ever Make Sense to go to a Lower-Ranked […]

  3. […] that is, earnings potential and flexibility.  Period.  And they’re proxies, which means, as I’ve discussed before, that they’re not perfect translators of your best law school options.  Their value depends on what you need from your law school investment and on any prior […]

  4. […] last two posts, parts one and two of “More Thoughts on Law School Rankings: Does it Ever Make Sense to go to a Lower-Ranked […]

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