Recently, articles about law school and the legal profession have captured my attention more than is customary. I’m not certain why. There are obvious reasons: I’m nearing the bottom of my pile of to-be-written LSAC recommendation letters, I’m talking often about law school, I’ve had retrospective discussions about law careers, and Damages recently concluded its initial season. Uncanny how that show captured the essence of my first year of practice in the municipal finance department. Murder, intrigue, double crosses, nights at the financial printer’s proofreading offering statements . . .
This time I’ll point to Legal Blog Watch, where Carolyn Elefant has done all of the heaving lifting in a post titled Law School Rankings to Students: Don’t Tell Me What You Want, What You Really, Really Want. The entire post and its linked materials (except the Spice Girls’ lyrics) are worthwhile to those interested in law school. Briefly, law students rank “quality of teaching, bar passage rate, placement rate at nine months, practical skills training and faculty-student relations” as most important in evaluating law schools. The U.S. News law-school rankings don’t “consider quality of teaching, practical skills training or faculty-student relations” and give less weight to bar passage rates and placements. U.S. News bases 25% of its rankings on reputation among law professors and deans, 15% on reputation among lawyers and judges, and other factors declining in significance.
Trying to put the U.S. News Rankings into perspective for prospective law students can be frustrating. The rankings promise to impose order on the difficult choice of selecting a law school but like many analytic tools, people wield them without understanding how to do so or try to make them do more than they can. There’s just something irresistible, atavistic even, about numbered lists. I recall a student deciding between two schools who was convinced that a school ranked 63rd by U.S. News would provide him with a materially better education and job prospects than one ranked in the mid-70s. That’s nonsense. Finish at the top of your class in either school and you’ll have excellent job prospects in their markets. Finish in the bottom half of your class and it won’t matter if your school is ranked in U.S. News’s top 20. Many wanna-be law students forget that half of them will finish in the bottom half of their class, at least until Lake Wobegon Law School opens its doors.
The disconnect between law students’ wants and the U.S. News ranking factors reflects the yin and yang of law school education. Does law school introduce students into analytic thinking that is the backbone of legal problem-solving or does it teach a trade? Which is more important for a law school graduate, sophisticated understanding of legal principles or knowing how to search a title? This should not be binary question; lawyers should know the how and the why of law. There are extremely smart attorneys who are flummoxed by law’s mundane, boring, and necessary details and law mill practitioners churning out form documents who can’t see the forest for the trees. Elefant agrees with a blogger who “wonders whether law student[s] are sufficiently qualified to evaluate the quality of a law school, or to know what aspects of legal education are important.” She says “the most important skills that law school teaches are (1) writing ability and (2) analytical thinking.”
I think the answer is more complicated. Recent posts have discussed the difficulties some law graduates have finding jobs that pay enough to cover their law-school loans. Many students enter law school without any clear understanding of what lawyers actually do only to discover that (1) they don’t like doing it, (2), they aren’t good at it, and/or (3) it is not at all what they expected. The practice of law is stratified, with the handful of top graduates (not all of whom graduated from the U.S. News top-ranked schools) landing the best paying jobs at corporate firms and everyone else finding their niche along the continuum from “interesting and challenging” to “mind-numbingly and soul-suckingly dull.” Learn to analyze, learn to write, but if you are in the bottom half of your class at a lower-ranked school and $150,000+ in debt, you had better come out of law school knowing how to do something besides spot issues.