Shed a Tier

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 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.

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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.

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  • Zach Horowitz

    I think the article raises an interesting point about the costs and benefits associated with a big name private university. More then anything else, you are buying a brand name. I believe your education is less the school and more what you make of your time at the school. I personally know several lawyers who went to rather low-ranked inexpensive New England law schools that are now making huge salaries and at the same time I know someone that went to Harvard Law School that works for a small firm and appears to make a more modest salary.

  • Dave

    Interesting read as always. I also enjoyed the wordplay on your post title.

  • Anjoli Jagoda

    I think one could relate this argument to any school in general. I chose B.U. over a state school that would have cost a fraction of B.U.’s tuition. I’m graduating in May, and I have to admit my surprise when people who paid less money and went to lesser ranked schools were receiving jobs at companies of a greater or equal par as myself.

    I do have to admit I enjoy seeing people look impressed with me when I simply tell them I go to Boston University though. I guess you could also compare attending a high ranked school to buying into the whole name brand thing. It’s a status symbol. Whether the cost differential is worth it has been long debated for brand names, and could be debated for schools as well.

  • JesseR

    I agree with that article and post, except when you get to the part about negotiating a tuition discount which is quite a stretch. I would imagine most law schools would balk at such a negotiation, since there are thousands of people applying who do not mind paying the full price for a ‘top or mid-ranked’ school.