(This article is an adaptation of my interview on LSAT Blog, and is further elaborated in Barrister on a Budget: Investing in Law School…without Breaking the Bank.)
Choosing the right law school is not as easy as it seems. One tool that applicants rely on heavily is law school rankings. While this method can be easier to do side-by-side comparisons, the reliability of some of these rankings have been called into question as law schools have found ways to boost scores in ways that may not be accurate. Regardless, some employers use law school rankings when deciding between candidates. Your goal is to be hired upon graduation, so you can use the rankings to help you decide, but further digging and research are always recommended. Here are a few tips regarding law school rankings.
Law school rankings are important for employment rather than education since the material you learn is mostly the same between each of the ABA-accredited schools. Recently, Harvard came out with a study that 96% of their 2012 graduates were employed, while at the national level only 65% of 2012 law grads were employed (and this includes the underemployed). Clearly reputation of a school can affect your chances of employment upon graduation. Employment also greatly depends on grades and class rank. For example, if a particular “Biglaw” employer will consider a top-25% graduate of Harvard, they might seriously consider only a top-10% graduate of law school #25, and maybe only top-5% from law school #50.
Schools that are highly ranked usually come with a hefty price tag and, because most students are clamoring to get in the doors, will offer fewer scholarships, while lower-ranked schools use scholarships and lower tuition as an incentive for students to enroll. If a school is offering a good scholarship and is only a few notches lower than another school you’ve been accepted to, then chances are the reputation won’t make much of a difference and you might as well get the same education for a better price (although this may not always be true if you qualify for in-state tuition at the higher-ranked school). However, if the ranks greatly differ, then there should be other factors you consider such as in-state tuition, cost-of-living, the school’s reported employment, and location.
The end goal is employment, and statistically the 4th-tier schools are partially 4th-tier because their students struggle to get employed. While these schools will likely be the cheapest options, this is a time where you may not want to look at price and scholarship deals. Instead, look to other factors such as location. Is this school in an area where there is a demand for lawyers? Does it have a competing law school with a higher rank in the area? Those who bombed the LSAT, but otherwise do really well in school may consider a 4th-tier school as a spring board to transfer and trade-up to a better school after the first year. Still, transferring is difficult and can affect your rank, deduct some of your credits (affecting your graduation date and course load), and may eliminate possibilities like law review, moot court, honors/awards, and scholarships.