Are Law School Rankings the Best Way to Pick a Law School?

You’re thinking about going to law school, so, to get some guidance, you look at the latest version of U.S. News & World Report and its Law School Rankings.  While this research can be a starting point, before you send out your applications, you might want to consider what the Rankings actually tell you.

1. The Rankings focus mainly on Inputs:

The Rankings are based primarily on inputs rather than on what goes on inside each law school.  So, for example, the Rankings weight outsiders’ assessments of the reputation of a law school’s dean and faculty; the GPA and LSAT scores of the entering class; and the selectivity of the admissions process.  There are a number of other factors, however, that are missing from the Rankings.  And these are the kinds of things you might want to consider as you think about which law schools will meet your needs.

Diversity is not counted in the overall ranking of a law school, for example.  It is on a separate list for informational purposes only.  However, we live in a diverse society and world.  If your legal education is going to prepare you to practice law, then it should include classes filled with a diverse law student body so that you can gain insights and information from people who come from a wide variety of backgrounds.  Your law school education will happen not only in class but also outside of the classroom as you interact with your colleagues in many different settings.  No one can predict what clients you might represent in your future legal practice and what their backgrounds might be.  It would serve your clients well if you had familiarity in law school with classmates from diverse cultures and backgrounds.

2.  The Rankings show very little about actual experience at the law school:

Nothing in what the Rankings measure addresses or assesses the law school experience as lived by the students.  For example: what does it really cost to attend a particular law school (tuition, fees, books, and living expenses).  For many law school applicants, the cost of law school is the single most important factor in deciding which law school to attend.

Another assessment missing from the Rankings is what types of practice skills are law students acquiring during their three years of law school.  In some law schools, skills courses are mandatory in the first and second years, while other schools do not require them beyond a basic research and writing course in first semester of first year.  Practice skills are very important for you to acquire while in law school because you can “practice” them in an educational environment where mistakes and tweaks are part of the process of learning and becoming a lawyer.  These skills are the bread and butter of an attorney’s day-to-day work.

Along with practical skills, you might want to look at whether a law school offers clinics and what types of work the clinics perform.  Some clinics offer you the opportunity to work with live clients and on a variety of issues.  You can try out your understanding of the application of the law to real life situations, using your practical and theoretical skills, under the supervision of a professor-attorney.  Although the Rankings list clinical programs separately for informational purposes only, this category is based upon the views of professors who are working in law school clinics so it may give some guidance for further research on clinical programs.  Think about it this way: would you want to go to a newly licensed doctor who had never seen a live patient?  The same thing is true for newly licensed lawyers: you should have some experience in law school working with live clients.  Clinical programs can give you this valuable experience.

Overall, then, the actual Ranking achieved by a particular law school (Top Tier, Fourth Tier, etc.) might not help you to find the law school that fits your needs.  Let’s say that you want to work in the field of environmental law.  The Rankings will tell you that a fourth-tier school has the top environmental program in the U.S.  But you wonder why it is not a Tier One school if it has the number one environmental law program.  While that Tier Four law school may not be in the Rankings’ top tier, the school actually produces graduates who are superior practitioners in the school’s specialty as well as in all other areas of legal practice.

Here’s the bottom line:

You can look at the Rankings as a starting point in your search for law schools.  Your best guide is to decide what you want from your legal education. You want to find the best value for the dollars you will be spending based upon your particular needs and aspirations.  Then go online and look at a wide variety of law schools so that you can find the legal education programs that are potentially the best fit for you.  Let the Rankings be your starting point for this research, not the end point.

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