National Law Journal Law School Report: Some Very Helpful Data (within Limits) for Law School Applicants and their Advisors

The National Law Journal published a terrific suite of articles recently relating to its annual report on law schools.  They are must-reads for those considering law school and their advisors.  The basic data are the top 50 law schools, by percentage of last year’s placements in the NLJ top 250 law firms.

The data are limited by their purpose, but considerably more helpful than the information that law schools are required to report by the ABA.  For one thing, these are legal jobs, with salaries that are generally verifiable (one might ask, if NLJ can get this data, why won’t the ABA?).

I won’t repeat the NLJ’s findings—links to them are included at the bottom of this post.  I’ll focus instead on the usefulness and limitations of the data for law school applicants and law school admission advisors.

The data are extremely helpful for certain purposes.  First, they make some effort to calibrate the law firm payoff from each law school tuition dollar.  It’s a rough cut, certainly, but a good one.  The NLJ’s highest value law schools included The University of Chicago (most people would have expected that) and Howard University.

Howard was a surprise to many (and to me).  What’s important is that it indicates that if you think you may want to start your career at a large firm, there are law school bargains available.  That’s linked to another point of interest in the data, sharp increases and declines in the percentage of graduates placed in large firms (the increases are more important than the declines, owing to a limitation of the data I’ll mention below).  Cornell, for example, saw a significant increase the percentage of its graduates placed in large firms.

What’s the link between Cornell and Howard (and others)?  The data indicate that the changing emphases and quite different level of quality of law school career placement offices can make a significant difference in the quality of employment prospects after law school graduation.

Law school applicants don’t pay nearly enough attention to career placement offices when they choose a law school.  But very soon after you get to law school, you’ll be looking for a position for your first summer, and what you get affects the position you’re able to obtain in your second summer, which in turn has a significant influence on what your first job out of law school will be.  As a new law student, you need to think about positioning yourself for the best opportunities available for you—and a good career placement service, well used (in addition to your other advisors), is simply invaluable for this.  The variable success and surprises in the NLJ report reflect, perhaps more than anything else, a placement office that works.

In addition, the top 50 in the NLJ report aren’t identical to, say, the top 50 law schools in the US News rankings.  That’s important, because employment (granted, just large law firm employment) is the core of the NLJ rankings but only a part of what goes into the US News rankings.  That doesn’t mean either is good or bad, but it does mean that you shouldn’t slavishly follow any “rankings” to make your law school decision.

For the most part, the NLJ report is a jumping-off point for you and your advisors to obtain data that are meaningful for you—no survey, no matter how good or complete, will tell you everything, or even most of, what you want to know.  I’ve talked before about the importance of developing a strategy to get the information you need from law schools.  That’s true of the NLJ report, too.  Moreover, simply because of its purpose, it has some limitations that law school applicants and their advisors should be aware of.

First, it’s most useful for prospective law students who want to keep the large law firm option open.  Big firm data is all it reported.  I emphasize keeping the option open, however; if you think you might want to work in a large firm as an initial job, you should care about the data.

Second, it’s important to realize that the data doesn’t tell us the percentage of NLJ 250 jobs that are filled by its (or anyone else’s) 50 top law schools.  The data go in the other direction—how many graduates of individual schools go to NLJ 250 law firms.  It’s hard to know, then, what the drop in that percentage from 30% last year to 27% this year actually means.  Was it just because there was less hiring at NLJ 250 firms?  Was it because law firms are starting to look at lower-ranked law schools more than they had in the past?  In the current economy (and from what I know of law firm hiring), I think that’s a lot less likely than the reduced hiring explanation but it’s possible and would potentially indicate the presence of additional law school bargains.  But the data just doesn’t tell us.

Third, 250 is a lot of firms.  Big firms are not, despite the press’ view, homogenous.  They have radically different working environments and styles.  Sometimes, they have different specialties and emphases.  For each person, there are really desirable large firms, desirable ones, and some that are not desirable at all.  And some are more desirable to more people–but the NLJ data don’t really differentiate.  So, while the data do indicate that these law schools have considerable credibility with larger firms, they don’t tell us which ones have the most credibility to the most desirable firms.   

If you’re interested in a law firm job, your advisors and you should have a short list of firms you’re really interested in and a longer list of acceptable choices.  To do that, you’ll need an advisor who knows a fair amount about those firms.  When I looked for my summer jobs during law school, I was well-advised and reduced the number of firms I wanted to work at to about 5.  Then I interviewed and felt less comfortable with some, and very, very positive about 2.  Then I went back for another round, did a lot of diligence on how the firms generated revenue, how differentiated their practice was, and so on—and then there was one.

That’s the kind of work Advise-In Solutions does for its law school clients.  Neither the NLJ nor any other report can do more than set you on the right road and help you generate questions you’ll want answered before making your best law school and career decisions.  Of the NLJ 250, I think it’s safe to say that no person would want to work at more than 10—they will be a different 10 based on who you are, but they are very few.  As a law firm partner noted in an earlier guest blog, you should make your initial employment decision in a way very similar to choosing a life partner.  If you don’t, you’ll run the risk of being very unhappy at the start of your career.

Fourth, it remains the case that there are very, very few “national” law schools, i.e., those whose degrees are portable nationally and, increasingly, internationally.  There are a few more regional schools and yet more schools whose realm of influence is largely confined to one or two states.  So, the percentage of people placed in large firms will generally be higher where there simply are more large firms—major metropolitan areas, in other words.

Fifth, the data does not break out by law school class rank.  That’s very important.  The issue for an incoming law student isn’t just how many people land good law firm jobs, but how deep the law school’s bench is.  When you’re deciding between law school admission and financial aid offers, you should be realistic about where you’re likely to finish in your class (unless you’re at one of the few law schools that doesn’t have grades from which ranks can be gleaned).  Then you need to be both realistic and a little pessimistic about your likely class rank.  If there’s a good probability that you’ll end up in the top 30% of your class but law firm job offer drop off the table after the top 10% (or less), then all else being equal, that’s not as good a school for you as one with a deeper employment bench.

Finally, be careful about looking at the percentages reported by the NLJ as if they are data gold.  Clerkships, for example, are not included in the data, and certain schools (Harvard, Yale, NYU) didn’t report clerkship data, so their law firm percentage data is a little lower than it would have been had their clerkship grantees been excluded.  More generally, the data don’t and can’t account for the percentage of any law school’s class that actually wanted a large law firm job.

All that said, the NLJ data is very, very useful and helpful, so long as its limitations are kept in mind.  Every responsible advisor to law school applicants should read it carefully and discuss it with their clients or advisees to determine what it means for them in the mix of information.  And if you’re an applicant, you’ll be rewarded by being familiar with the report.

Here are the links to the NLJ articles cited above:

     The report

     Best buys

     Top law school percentage decline

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on March 4, 2011.

3 Responses to “National Law Journal Law School Report: Some Very Helpful Data (within Limits) for Law School Applicants and their Advisors”

  1. […] unknown posted about this interesting story. Here is a small section of the postThe National Law Journal published a terrific suite of articles recently relating to its annual report on law schools. They are must-reads for those considering law school and their advisors. The basic data are the top 50 law schools, … […]

  2. […] certain vital information at all.  (Of course, don’t forget that the ABA and law schools aren’t your only sources of easily-obtainable […]

  3. […] certain vital information at all.  (Of course, don’t forget that the ABA and law schools aren’t your only sources of easily-obtainable […]

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