More Thoughts on Law School Rankings: Does it Ever Make Sense to go to a Lower-Ranked Law School? Part Two, If You Have Choices between Law Schools Ranked Significantly Differently

In part one of this blog pair, I talked about factors that law school applicants with limited options should consider in deciding whether and when to go to law school.  Most of those considerations—especially the desire to be a lawyer and a good knowledge of how lawyers actually spend their days—apply to prospective law school students with a greater range of options, too.

If you’re fortunate enough to have a range of admission options that span a significant distance in law school rankings (whether you actually apply or not, you’ll probably have a rough idea of your range of options), your and your advisors’ jobs can actually become more rather than less complicated.  As I mentioned in the last post, a former large law firm partner thought that one important question to address was whether it’s ever sensible for an applicant to choose a lower-ranked law school over a significantly higher-ranked one.

We’re really talking about law school comparison investing.  What you’re buying by choosing one law school over another are enhanced probabilities of three principal goods: an enjoyable and successful law school career, increased earnings and more flexibility.  The latter two stand in as measures of long-term likely life satisfaction (assuming that you know you want to be a lawyer).  Because you’re purchasing probabilities rather than hard goods, your law school decision is more comparison investing than comparison shopping.

Law school rankings serve as important rough proxies for the second and the third of these product features (earnings and flexibility) more than the first (enjoying law school).  And they’re only rough proxies—they matter because, and to the extent that, they matter to employers.

Are there circumstances in which one might reasonably forego accepting admission at—or even applying to—higher-ranked schools?  There are, but nearly every one comes with significant caveats and forces the applicant to make decisions now rather than deferring them to another time.  And that means that an applicant should have a higher degree of confidence in those decisions, since she or he will foreclose some opportunities immediately rather than waiting to do that later.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing to do—even if you have a wide range of career alternatives open to you immediately after law school (as, for example, graduates of elite law schools often do), your options begin to narrow with each subsequent choice you make.  Do you want to go to work for a large firm after graduation?  Fine, but within a year or two (or less) of taking that job, a lot of areas of legal practice will be effectively closed to you—you’ll have become a specialist in a certain practice area and shifting will require retooling.  Every choice you make—and you will have to make them—begins to foreclose other options.  One question is when you’re comfortable doing that.

What You Want is Certain (or Close to It).  That brings me to the first reason why you might decide not to attend a highly-ranked law school, even if you have the opportunity to do so—you already are pretty much dead-certain what you want and a highly-ranked law school does not sufficiently enhance (or perhaps complicates) your ability to attain it.

I have a friend who attended his home state law school (currently a third-tier school) despite a near-perfect grade point average and (I assume, just based on what I know about him) a top-notch LSAT score.  My guess is that he could have attended pretty much any law school he wanted to.  I don’t know if he even applied to any but his home-state school.  Whether he did or not, he didn’t need to (which is why I’ve never asked him).  He knew very early that what he wanted was to live where he’d grown up and to be an excellent lawyer there.  He went to school basically for free, and is now a named partner in his firm and an influential force at the university and law school he attended.  He’s a terrific lawyer and he’s very, very happy.  Would he have been happier going to the number 10-ranked law school?  I doubt it, and even at that ranking, he probably would have had more trouble returning to his home state (because the number of truly nationally-marketable law schools is very small).  Would he have been happier had he attended the top-ranked law school?  I still doubt it, even though he likely could have easily returned to his home state.  In short, he didn’t need to hedge his bets because he knew, to a sufficient level of certainty, what he wanted.  He was very unlikely to experience remorse about opportunities foregone. 

If you have more wanderlust than my friend, or if you’re not sure to a pretty high level of confidence about what you want, or you think that what you want may well change, then you should probably come to a different conclusion than he did and hedge your bets if you can, taking into account any additional debt you’re likely to incur.

External Constraints.  My friend knew what he wanted but he could have done other than he did.  Some law school applicants don’t have such flexibility.  Many second-career or older applicants in particular have family or other commitments that limit their flexibility.  In essence, they’ve made prior choices that limited their life options.  In those cases, subject to the other criteria we’re talking about, applicants are usually best off expanding their range of options to the maximum extent possible within those constraints, which are often geographical.  So, for example, those restricted to the west coast will generally want to attend the best west coast law school they can get into.

Others may have a third party who is paying part or the entire tab for law school, such as an employer or family member.  Prospective applicants should do their best to persuade payers that the best decision—for them and you alike—is for you to get the most prestigious and best law school education available.  That’s often a hard sell for employers, who realize that prestige equals flexibility and therefore an increased chance that employees will bolt after the employer has incurred costs.  It’s usually easier to persuade family members (within the constraints of budget) and in both cases, you should consider developing and implementing a strategy to offer creative financing options (third parties can partially finance, or can finance part of a the full tab as a loan, or in the case of employers, you can agree to repay all or a portion of the financed cost if you leave the paying firm within a certain specified time period to take another job).

Geographic Factors.  There are very few law schools whose degree is truly national, a few more that have regional credibility, more that have credibility in a single state, others whose credibility is largely restricted to the cities in which they’re located, and others who have little credibility at all.

If you have options in geographical areas you don’t know that well, it’s invaluable to visit the law school and the city in which they’re located.  Unless you go to a national school, there’s a very strong chance that your law school choice will determine where you live after law school and you want to be sure that it’s an area—city, state or region, depending on the reach of the law school’s typical placements—you like.

If you have a strong desire to live in a particular region, state or city, you’ll probably want to go to law school there unless you gain admission to a national law school.  That depends on your strength of preference, of course.  You’ll need to know, among your admissions possibilities, the number and quality of placements in your preferred area.  But as a rule, if you have a powerful geographical urge, you’re not an entrepreneurial go-getter and you don’t have a pre-set arrangement with an employer in the location you want, it probably won’t make sense to attend a school ranked number 30 if it’s far away from where you’re pretty sure you want to end up.  You want to increase your flexibility, not limit it.

Financial Aid (but Be Careful).  A law school’s willingness to pay your way, or a significant part of it, often is a significant inducement to applicants, both because of the financial help and because it makes applicants feel wanted.  The first is important (the second, I think, is mostly an illusion), and more important when the “investment factors”—enjoying the next 3 years, earnings potential and flexibility—are close calls.

But recipients of financial aid offers should recognize a simple fact: law schools are businesses and they’re offering you money because they think that you may well have admission opportunities at better law schools than theirs.  There’s simply no other reason for a law school to offer you cash.  None.

So financial aid offers should cause you and your advisors to get out your calculators and spreadsheets again to decide whether the financial aid offer is really worth the sacrificed income potential and career flexibility.

As important, you and your advisors should not view financial aid offers as discrete.  In the same way that the merit grant is being offered by the law school because it’s part of a commercial system (and is trying to prevent upward leakage of its class), applicants should keep their eyes on higher-ranked schools that they would rather attend.  A skilled advisor can help you navigate, leverage and subtly negotiate financial aid offers between schools.

Alumni Networks.  The strength of an alumni network matters.  I had a client who, among his other applications, wanted to make one—and only one—application to schools in a major city.  The schools we considered differed in their U.S. News rankings neither significantly nor negligibly—that is, the difference was middling.  I called around to a few people I knew who worked at major employers in that city and they confirmed what I suspected, which was that the alumni network at the lower-ranked school was a measure stronger than that at the higher-ranked law school, such that employers (to the extent they had an inclination) ended up giving a slight edge to graduates of the lower-ranked law school.  It wasn’t a huge difference but it was decisive.  Rough proxies aren’t always accurate.

Enjoying Your Law School Years.  If you’re deciding between two relatively evenly-matched schools (in terms of post-graduation career options and career flexibility), then a decisive factor can be how comfortable you think you’ll be at each of them.  Your three years in law school matter.  Yes, law school is a future investment but three years now is three years now, and your pleasure in them should count in your considerations.

This is another reason to visit law schools you’re considering and to do your own walking around and talking to people, in addition to any meetings and tours the school may arrange.  From personal experience, I can say that it’s surprising how much of a difference that can make.  When I applied to law school, I firmly disliked one of the (then) top 5-ranked schools when I visited it.  Had I had no other options, I might have swallowed my annoyance, of course.  And although I ended up at Yale (the best choice for me on every criterion that mattered to me except one), one of the schools that lasted much longer in my consideration than its high-teen ranking might have indicated was one I just liked, and was in a city I loved (which was necessary since my post-graduation opportunities would have been restricted to that city and the surrounding region).  The limitations that this school presented were no different than those presented by the schools ranked between about 8 and 15, and I liked the location and feel of the high-teen school better.

These are a few of the more important factors that applicants do well to think about when deciding between law schools.  I’ve left out practice area preference and considerations of likely class rank.  Those are even more individualized than the factors I’ve discussed and I’m still thinking about how to address them in a public blog (and, to tip my hand, I also think they’re usually so uncertain as to merit less weight than other factors).

Fundamentally, if you know you want to be a lawyer, know what you’re investing in—your three years of law school, and future earnings and career options—and use every means at your disposal to make that investment decision a wise one.  Deciding between law schools is an investigation that requires a lot of effort to come to the best decision.  You and your advisors will need to gather a great deal of information (and have a thoughtful strategy for obtaining information that is hard to get) and process and compare that data with various possible long-term outcomes in mind.  Rankings are a useful rough proxy (and an independent factor that you should weigh) but they’re far from the whole story.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on January 22, 2011.

3 Responses to “More Thoughts on Law School Rankings: Does it Ever Make Sense to go to a Lower-Ranked Law School? Part Two, If You Have Choices between Law Schools Ranked Significantly Differently”

  1. […] 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 Law […]

  2. […] 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 constraints on your flexibility that you may have […]

  3. […] it can make sense to attend a lower-ranked law school.  Our answer was “yes,” in certain narrow circumstances, mostly having to do with how much you really want to be a lawyer and how much your law school […]

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