What Law School Rankings Don’t Say About Costly Choices by William D. Henderson and Andrew P. Morriss (The National Law Journal, 16-Apr-08) provides empirical data that reinforces the lessons I’ve learned from my anecdotal experience: “Some students should consider lower-ranked schools that offer more grants, better opportunities.”) (Aside: Today a student asked that I explain what I mean by anecdotal experience. Anecdotal here means “not based on objective research or systemic collection of facts but on what has happened to me.” In one sense “anecdotal experience” is redundant, because we learn most of life’s lessons from whatever events cross our path, not from double-blind surveys. My life experience tells me that white cats with blue eyes are deaf because I have personally known two and heard of other deaf, blue-eyed, all-white cats. I would (and probably have) assert at a dinner party that white cats with blue eyes are deaf. I would not assert this as fact to the International Conference of Cat Breeders and Genetic Biologists without conducting more conclusive research.) The authors summarize the role of U.S. News and World Report rankings on law school applicants, discusses the gap between the demand for “sophisticated corporate legal services” and bread-and-butter non-corporate work, and provide data on the “bimodal” income distribution of law graduates: [T]here is a heavy concentration of salaries in two distinct ranges . . . out of 22,684 starting salaries reported for 2006, 4,809, or 21.2 percent, were in the $125,000 to $145,000 range . . . In 2006, 8,577 reported salaries, or 37.8 percent, were in [the range of $40,000 to $55,000.] The payments on $100,000-plus worth of law school debt look quite different to someone earning $50,000 than they do to someone earning $160,000 a year.”
After discussing some of the reasons for the dramatic increase in corporate-firm associate salaries the authors concluded that “only the highest-ranked students at a broad swath of regional law schools can hope for access to these high-paying jobs. [By "regional law schools" the authors, who state that in their estimation there are fewer than 20 national law schools, mean "most law schools."] Slavishly following the U.S. News rankings will not significantly increase one’s large-firm job prospects. And the excess debt that students incur is likely to undermine their career options.” They review hiring statistics for the top National Law Journal 250 feeder schools, noting that “[b]elow school No. 26 . . . a graduate has a less than one in five probability of starting his or her career at a large law firm. If 80 percent of law school applicants are convinced that they will make that 20 percent cutoff, three out of four are destined to be disappointed.” They conclude that prospective law students should attend a regional law school in the geographic area in which they want to work and “use their entering credentials to negotiate for a substantial tuition discount.”
Excellent advice. Read the entire article.
PS: If you are interested in this article you should read the others linked at The Blogosphere’s Advice for Current and Prospective Law Students.