The Myth of Law School Prestige
Why you should ditch the rankings, stop worrying about the “best” law school, and focus on these 10 factors instead
Author’s note: After you read this article, you may get the sense that I don’t believe law school “prestige” exists. This may have been the wrong tone to take with the piece because to some extent law school prestige may be real. There are surely individuals, perhaps even hiring partners, who make their decisions based in part or in whole on their perception of prestige.
My point with the article below is that the discussion about the “best” law schools or which law schools are “more prestigious” than others is a straw man. Ranking educational experiences and attempting to quantify and measure prestige distracts applicants, some of whom will pay more than a quarter of a million dollars believing that they have a moral obligation to go to the “best” school. Meanwhile, these same students (and their families, who often play a large role in deciding where to go) could not list 3 felt, tangible, real ways in which a Harvard Law degree is better than a Northeastern Law degree.
It’s crazy that we are the most grammatically complex creatures in the known universe, and yet our discussion about graduate legal education revolves around an undefined superlative. Best in what way? Better than Law School X how? Or what about the word “prestige”? Come on, you can think of plenty of companies (like Pan Am Airlines, Arthur Andersen, Enron, MCI, Kodak) that were some of the most prestigious of their day. But we don’t talk about them anymore, because they are no more. Prestige doesn’t guarantee staying power in the business world: the only thing that matters out there are profits. Nor should we put any stock in a method of defining prestige that raises more questions than the answers it provides.
I want to talk in concrete terms. Because everything else in legal education is concrete. The students give up 3 very real, very concrete years of their lives to pursue a law degree. That’s almost 1,000 days of their lives where they could be doing something else. The $120,000 that the average law student spends to get their law degree (which is not on its own enough to practice law in 49 states) are real, concrete dollars that come out of real bank accounts. Perhaps not as felt but just as real are the opportunity costs, lost wages, and other experiences the student could have had did they not choose law school.
It’s not fair to the student (or their families who often help with tuition) to not give them any more factors other than “best” or most “prestigious” to analyze when choosing whether and where to go to law school. Especially when these rankings are invented by a nationally syndicated publication who has come under serious fire for the methods they use in their “rankings.”
Lawyers comprise the profession that agonizes over definitions, debates the nuance and subtlety of laws and their interpretation, and can sometimes reverse the fortunes of a person’s life based on the wording of a statute. Why then do we all sit idly by and remain so comically inexact when it comes to helping the next generation of attorneys make such a huge, life changing, and expensive decision as to where they should receive their legal education?
I can’t anymore. I couldn’t. So I wrote this article, however inartfully it came out. We have to use our big-people vocabularies (which many of us honed at houses of prestigious education) to talk about what a law school graduate should “have” when they graduate. I believe that a large part of what they should learn at law school is a deep and personal understanding of how to navigate the legal profession (and perhaps other industries) to give value and receive payment for their services or goods. They need to know how to make money, create opportunities for themselves, and repeat this cycle throughout their lives. I know this is not happening in law school today, because I was a law student at a “top ranked” law school 6 years ago, and have spent many of those 6 years trying to figure this out.
It’s time for a change. It’s time for a deeper analysis about what each of many thousands of applicants should be considering before they plunk down often $200,000+ over the next few years. The answer is not a magazine’s confusing and inexact “rankings” or some approximation of how BigLaw firms in New York make their hiring choices. I hope that my anger, frustration, and blog post can play some role in the debate.
“How can I get into the best law school?” It’s the question I’m asked most in my conversations, either in person or online, when I talk to law school applicants. What is striking to me is the assumption that there is a direct correlation between the prestige of the law school and the future success and happiness of someone who attends said law school.I have done very few things of note in my life, outside of ask my wife to marry me. (In what can be classified only as a substantial lapse of judgment, she said “Yes!”). However, I did attend and graduate from a law school that many consider, at least, somewhat “prestigious.” (Vanderbilt University Law School, in full disclosure.) While I have very little from my background to contribute to many of the debates raging in society today, I do perk up when the topic of “best” law schools comes up, because I feel that I have some value, insights, and stories to add to the mix.
Applicants want to get into the “best” law school they can, I believe, to mitigate risk. What they are looking for in a “prestigious” law school is one that will provide them with the most opportunities after graduation, as compared to other law schools. Now, whether this future perceived security is realized through a better legal education, a wider or more “successful” alumni network, or a more impressive background for prospective employers to note, matters little to the applicant. They want a guarantee, at least an implicit one, that attending this law school will be “good” for their future. In essence, on their way in, the applicant wants to have a head start on the competition. Or at least a head start on an alternate version of their own future, had they not gained admission to the more “prestigious” law school.
What still strikes me as funny, is that the applicants believe that they have the ability to forecast what their futures would be like were they to attend a certain law school. And they believe in their fortune telling abilities so much that they use it as THE determining factor when choosing law school. Often their only atlas in this decision is how other people have “ranked” educational institutions. I’m sorry, the older I get, the more perplexing this strange logic appears to me.
That’s because in their decision on which law school to attend, the applicant often just approximates whether some unknown, vague future will be “better” or “worse” based on their law school and how US News “ranked” it. Not, mind you, on actual real-life differences that they would feel were they to attend one law school or another. Differences like: money spent in pursuit of the degree, climate of the city where the law school is housed, state where the law school resides, type of city, and cost of living. Glossing over the three years and the three years full of these experiences which would affect them day after day, the applicant fast-forwards ahead to this “future”, senses whether it would be “good” or “bad” based on their brief mental experience with an education they have not yet received, and pulls the trigger. Often, these fortune tellers of a “good” or “bad” future don’t even have tangible experience on the job market. For many, this is their next step right after college.
The hubris, and the misplaced confidence in this activity (which in full disclosure, I employed in selecting Vanderbilt over other law schools) is confounding to me. My goal with this brief article is to get applicants to consider real, tangible factors when choosing their law school: not some imagined “prestige” which they can’t quantify, and it’s sway over a future they have not yet experienced.
A brief note: even if you disagree with me completely about the impact of a law school’s reputation (as many of you will), and scream at me like I’m a member of the wrong political party as you read my words, hold out judgment till you reach the list of 10 factors that every applicant should consider when choosing a law school. Even if you can’t let go of “prestige” or “reputation”, please consider the 10 factors I listed below alongside those you already have explored. I truly want to help add clarity and depth to the process. I come not to bring a sword, but peace.
Ok, here’s the thing I have learned from my 6+ years on the job market after law school. Employers don’t care about where you went to law school. Firms, companies, non-profits, and other organizations, by their definition, only care about a few things, principal among those, their bottom line. Companies need dividends and firms need paying clients. Their existence and continued success is not tied to how many graduates of prestigious law schools or colleges they can stuff their ranks with: it depends on having coins in their digital coffers.
Now, most people assume that all firms and companies use the academic pedigree of their prospective employees to aid them with employment decisions. Since you can’t learn everything you need to know about someone from a one or even multiple interviews, this version of reality says that the hirer predicts how a certain candidate will perform based on the prestige of their academic pedigree. In essence, it fills in the gaps that a person-to-person interaction cannot predict or account for. This account goes: hirers need info; hiring is a leap of faith; a person’s academic pedigree is a useful proxy to fill in some of the blanks.
I have to chime in here. I do so because I’ve hired people. Can I be honest? The last thing I cared about is where they went to school, or what the many lines on their resume said they had done. What me (and my assistants) cared about was whether we would like working with that person, and whether we thought, based off how they communicated with us and handled the interview, that they could perform the job well. If their past experiences indicated that they could adapt to the firm’s flow and the work environment, then yes, their past experiences did in fact matter. But what we cared about most were, “Do we like this person?”; “Could we work with them day after day for months on end?”; “Do they seem like they could learn to do the work required of them in a short period of time?”
Don’t gloss over this. We “profile” like this in our daily lives. We take some bit of information a person or a job applicant gives us (e.g. they come in with a wrinkled suit or blouse with spinach leaves in each incisor) and make a deduction about other aspects of their character (they probably don’t pay attention to detail). How a person speaks, how they hold their body, how polite they are to the assistants, how they sign their emails, and their ability to hold eye contact: each of these behaviors speaks volumes about a person’s ability to function on the job. And so it’s totally justifiable to care more about these live, living, and active forms of data more so than where they say they went to college or law school.
Now, to be clear, I was making a hiring decision for a position that did not require a graduate degree, but I have to assume that my human and social bents hold true on up the ladder, applying even to job openings that require graduate degrees. I think this must be either the genesis of or the proof of the theorem that “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” In part, I take this to mean that it’s not your credentials (where you go to law school, honors acquired there, GPA) that close a job interview. It’s your ability to convince that person sitting there in front of you, through how you give them streaming data, in the moment, that you can be trusted with a position in their ranks.
I admit, this is a gross simplification of the hiring process, and I’m sure it doesn’t apply evenly across the board, at every law firm, judge’s chamber, or company board room across the country. But it’s my experience, as seen from both sides of the hiring desk. So I’m writing about it. Even assuming that the prestige of their law school helped a student get an interview or even moved them closer to an offer of employment (which very well may happen), I can testify from personal experience, once you get a first job, and are firmly entrenched in the working world, no one really cares where you went to law school.
Take my life for instance. At my firm, there are lawyers from law schools of every rank from across the country. The “prestige” of the law school has nothing to do with how effective each one of these attorneys is in their individual practice, their personal lives, or in the size of their paycheck. Once you a part of an organization, and your goal is subsumed in their goal to make money for the larger body, details like alma mater really fade into oblivion. Lawyers from Harvard and Howard yuck it up across conference room tables, with not a hint of deference to the “rank” of that person’s law school alma mater. Once you’re in, once you are on the market and part of the real world, the only thing that matters is the pedigree of your ideas and how they can affect your teammates, diploma be damned. I’ve seen this live and in living color.
I’m even willing to admit that there are some specific instances where the name of a law school has helped someone, in ways that run contrary to the heart of this article. I can’t account for all places of business, and some firms / companies may value certain traits and educational experiences more than I am giving them credit for. I happen to believe that this is the exception, and not the rule. Therefore, to have an exception to the rule as a pillar of conversation in the determination of where one should go to law school is ludicrous to me. And, as I said, in my conversations with applicants, this concern over pedigree, rankings, and the “best” clouds all conversation.
At Vanderbilt University Law School, “ranked” #17 by the World Report that Shall Not Be Named when I attended, I firmly believe that I received a commensurate legal education as any other attendee of a law school “ranked” in the “top 150”, or wherever you would like to arbitrarily draw the line. Me and any hypothetical other law student would have attended the same classes, heard the same lectures, highlighted the same text out of the same textbooks, and travelled with trepidation towards the same Event Horizon of law school exams as December crept closer. In fact, I posit, outside of the name of the law school sign, the experiences of law students across the country are virtually indistinguishable in large measure.
This is why I believe that instead of talking about which law school is “best”, the discussion should focus on “What is the BEST way for me to spend my three years in law school preparing for my future?” Doesn’t that question seem a tad more in line with our notions of success, self-reliance, and Manifest Destiny that we share as Americans? It also removes the responsibility from a school (made up of self-interested yet wonderful staffers who work there for money to support their futures and their families) from procuring opportunities or mitigating risk for us. Because I’ll tell you one thing for sure: the moment you graduate, you’re on your own, my friend. Your degree from your law school goes on your wall: it doesn’t keep you warm at night, nor does it attract jobs for you like a mosquito light at night. I think that it’s much better, from the outset, to have a clear understanding of what mitigates risk, gets opportunities, and provides avenues for success after law school. That my friend, is the person reading this article. It’s you.
When you accept that the real question is how to use the three years of law school to prepare you for your decades’ long career as an attorney, you take the pressure out of the question of where you should go for law school. After you come to this realization, it almost doesn’t matter where you go to law school. There are a MYRIAD of things you can do in law school, no matter if you go to Vanderbilt or Valparaiso, which will put you in a shockingly better place to succeed than someone who simply attended a higher ranked law school but did not do these tasks. In future posts, I will write about them, and detail how each can improve your life. I’m not a magician: I don’t cloud my tricks in secrecy. If you can’t wait until then, get up with me and I’m happy to help.
For purposes of this article, I’m truthfully not concerned with whether “prestige” ever moves the needle. I’m concerned with whether thousands of applicants should base the entire analysis of where they should attend law school on their perceived understanding of a phenomenon that I have seen directly contradicted and invalidated throughout my professional life. Phew. Okay. Off my soapbox.
Once you eradicate “prestige” out of the equation for where you should apply for law school, it opens your decision up a bit more to comport more with reality. It allows you to think about with tangible measures of how much you would enjoy and benefit from an experience at a specific law school.
So, I won’t leave you hanging. I listed 10 factors (plus a bonus for reading an articleof more than 4,000 words!) more important than a law school’s “reputation” or “prestige” for applicants to consider. Also, let’s be fair: I’m totally fine if you disagree with me on my thoughts about “prestige.” You may be right! However, I know in my soul that if you focus on how you can spend the three years of law school preparing for your future AFTER law school, you will be in a much, much better place than if you entered law school believing that the prestige will carry you, or play a big role in your success. Again, I’m happy to introduce you to graduates from “prestigious” law schools who have struggled or are currently struggling on the job front, knee deep in the debt they acquired for the experience of attending a prestigious law school. I can also introduce you to graduates from lower “ranked” law schools who make more than $1 million per year. You can debate the merits of my intellectual parries and thrusts (and I encourage you to!) but, as they say, numbers don’t lie.
Unless those numbers are the US News and World Report Rankings.
So, without further shots fired at institutions with clout, here are the 10 things that I believe are more important than the law school’s “prestige” that you should consider when choosing the law school that’s right for you.
1. The amount of scholarship funds you can get from the school → Attending law school is a financial decision at its core. You enroll in law school with the express purpose that, when you graduate, you will be in a better position financially than when you entered. Maybe not at the outset, but certainly as time goes on, and you use the tools you paid good money for to earn you good money. Law school is expensive. You also pay in 3 years of your time, energy, and lost earning potential. I firmly believe the most important factor for most people to determine (excepting those whose grandparents’ wills fund the entire operation) is what school gives you the most cash in scholarship funds. Why? Trust me, when you graduate, those loans that were figments of your imagination and numbers on a computer screen take on real form, gain real weight, and develop a real malevolence to your monthly balance sheet. Graduating with no debt, or very little debt, gives you freedom on the other side. In a market where there are far more graduates than open legal jobs, this is key, in fact THE key. Not you at the moment? Don’t have schools offsetting your tuition costs? Strongly consider retaking the LSAT, getting a higher score, and seeing how this one detail magically changes how law schools relate to you.
2. Geographic location relevant to a desired future practice area → This is not the place to debate whether there are “national law schools” whose reputation will allow you to walk into any office from Anchorage to Arkansas and land an interview. My point is, it’s a lot easier to make relationships with people, firms, companies, and organizations that are geographically proximate to where you go to law school. If you know you want to practice in Wisconsin, go to law school in Wisconsin simply because that’s where your future firm, company, or clients reside. These three years of school, and the years that follow after graduation, will be tough, trust me. Make it easier on yourself and place yourself closer to known future opportunities.
3. Climate → if you don’t like snow, don’t go to Boston University School of Law because it’s your “dream school.” On that first October morning when you run to your car and have to de-ice the windshield, you or your thermoreceptors will begin a vigorous protest of the accuracy of your intuition. You’re going to live somewhere for three years: don’t move to a city where the weather would tangibly affect your happiness negatively.
4. Where the law school is located, Google Maps-wise → Not all law schools are erected equally. Some law schools are smack dab in the middle of a bustling downtown metropolis, where you have to navigate street parking in order to timely make your Torts class. Others are in much cozier parts of cities, with room for parking, walking, and space to ponder O. W. Holmes’ rather snobbish opinions. The campus of Vanderbilt Law was in the middle of an arboretum. Before you accept an offer, make sure you don’t just like the “feel” of the campus, but that you are comfortable with the location of the campus in relation to its city. This matters more than you might think, as it will affect where you live, the price of living, and how you commute to campus.
5. Is the law school innovative / forward thinking? → learn about the law school. Are the futuristic minded? To survive, lawyers in the future (read: present) cannot rely on old ways of getting jobs which don’t take into account how drastically the landscape of jobs, value creation, and life itself is going to change as the future marches on toward some crazy technological Event Horizon we can’t even comprehend at the moment. Any law school worth its salt should be seeing 10, 20, even 30 years into the future (for however hazy a glimpse) and preparing its students to meet this head on. Your law school needs to understand what is going to happen to things on a grand scale: “work”, “jobs”, “careers”, the “legal system” even “money” itself. Hitch yourself to leaders and law schools that understand this and are ahead of the game. Trust me: an understanding of where the market is going and how to make money off it is 20x more valuable than the warm glow of prestige as it wafts off the framed diploma hung on your wall.
6. How the law school gets their students experience with real, live lawyers → don’t look at “median salary after graduation”, or “percentage of graduates employed” as stats that should sway you one way or the other on a law school. I firmly believe that this is an example of letting the good or bad experiences of someone else impact some mental version of what you think you will experience. Translation for all that gobbeldy-gook I just spouted? Those statistics don’t impact you or your laws school experience in any way. What does impact you is whether your law school has concrete ways for getting you experience on the legal market, other than relying on their prestige to bring in the interviews. Do they push the students to practice as 3Ls? (Google “3L practice statutes” if you are curious.) Do they encourage working in the evenings? Do they have relationships with firms or companies or non-profits where you can get experience while enrolled? Will their clinics get you hands-on experience with real, live clients? You need more than a degree and a prestigious name to know how to make cash once you graduate. You need reps. The more your school understands this, and the more they push you out of your comfort zone to gain these repetitions while you are a student, the better. Go with the law schools that have inroads to experience.
7. Testimony of former and current students → when we are considering spending $20 on household cleaning supplies on Amazon.com, we scour the reviews to ensure that at least 70% of the people who purchased it gave it 5 stars. (Or is that just me?) But, when we spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a legal education (with which you could buy lots of cleaning supplies) how many consumers the same product do we contact to quiz about their experience? I know I contacted NO ONE who attended Vanderbilt prior to my matriculation. You should 10000000% contact former and current law students from every law school you are thinking of attending and put them through a cross examination of F. Lee Bailey proportions. What do you have to lose? Actually, a lot, which is why you should get possessive over your experience. Start thinking about this money you are going to spend not as some ethereal expense for your betterment paid for by the law school tuition fairies, but an investment you are giving to the administration of a law school to improve your economic chances after you graduate. Thinking about your law school tuition as a pile of 150,000 $1 bills drives home the point that you both expect a return from said investment, and would be foolish to not be circumspect in ensuring that others who have invested the same money at the same law school don’t have buyers’ remorse.
8. Semester or trimester? → most law schools use the semester calendar, but some don’t, opting for trimesters, and other lengths for their “academic seasons.” See if you like one more than the other. It may be that you like the extended length of the semesters. Or maybe a truncated trimester is for you. Ask your admissions counselor for details.
9. Class size → Law school classes come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from the gargantuan, from the hulking mass of Georgetown Law, with almost 600 students per class, to schools like Vanderbilt with 200 or so students per class. Be honest whether this makes a difference to you: use your undergraduate and high school experiences as a proxy. Now, here’s where you have to pay attention. Don’t just base it on the size of the class as a whole, but find out how the school breaks down the class as a whole into its smaller parts. At Vandy, we had 2 sections of around 100 students: Section A and B. Other law schools may differ: I know some that have 30 students per section. I will say though, don’t be afraid of classes with 100 students in them. I found that even surrounded by the same 99 classmates each day for the entire 1L year, I could still forge wonderful friendships and never felt overwhelmed with it all.
10. Type of city / size → some law schools are in huge cities (looking at you, NYC schools). But another law school in the same state, Albany Law School, resides in a more quaint town of less than 100,000 people (albeit a state capitol.) If you don’t like big city experiences, don’t go to Columbia or NYU, despite the pull of their “prestige.” Know thyself, dear reader. Don’t over-value the academic experience or vault it to a level where you are willing to deny aspects of yourself that you know to be essential to helping you function. Make the difficult experience of law school easier on yourself and find yourself in a civic setup you enjoy.
11. BONUS → consider whether your law school supports a thriving legal practice, or serves as a center for state or local government. As a law student, you will want to hang out in as many courthouses, watch as many legal proceedings, and rub shoulders with as many practicing attorneys as you can. This is easier when there is a critical mass of lawyers and legal “things” going on in your city. I strongly urge you to consider how being close to city and state governments can aid the ease of your networking as a law student. Trust me, it’s not disaster if your city doesn’t have as many courtrooms as those in D.C.. Just know you may have to find other ways to witness as many proceedings as you can, in your attempt to learn what area of the law you could see yourself practicing in. Whatever city you find yourself in, get in touch with that city’s Bar Association, and network like mad once you do. Once you choose a city and a school, don’t compare: just make the most out of your situation.
**Thanks for reading. Happy to help if you have any questions. Respond in the comments or hit me up on Twitter @andrewbrink **