Using rankings to decide where to apply to law school


    Rankings. They’re everywhere. Whether it's law school, business, school, college, or even high school, chances are there’s someone out there who’s come up with a rankings system. Their sheer ubiquity means that rankings are the one aspect nearly every applicant consults when making application decisions—and law school applicants are no different.

    These numbers certainly have their use, particularly at the start of the selection process when you need solid indicators to help you narrow down your choices. However, it is useful to know a few things regarding rankings and their usage:

    Rankings are in no way a definitive indicator of school quality.

    Although the schools in the “top” of the U.S. News & World Report rankings (arguably the most widely-used law school rankings out there) are certainly good schools with great reputations, this does not mean that schools ranked below the very top tier are deficient or in any way less worthy of consideration. Rankings do not take into account the specific and unique attributes of the law programs they rank, nor do they take into account how these unique qualities may fit for a particular law school applicant. You need to concern yourself not only with which schools are "best," but also which are the "best fit" for you.

    Remember, also, that the U.S. News rankings base a large chunk (40%) of each school's ranking on "assessments" by peers, lawyers, and judges. What does this mean? That almost half the weight of each school's placement within the ranking is based on a completely subjective score given by people in the industry, rather than a ranking based on objective, tangible items such job placement, return on investment, or ability to pay back educational loans post-graduation. Remember that program popularity plays a large role in rankings. 

    The U.S. News rankings, while the most popular, are not the only rankings out there.

    There are various other “methods” out there, including the rankings put out by Brian Leiter, Top-Law-Schools.com, and even other law schools. Many people and companies have gotten into the law school rankings game, which means that there a number of rankings out there for your use. Use as many of them as you can in order to get as broad a picture of each school’s “rank” as possible.

    Rankings are a business.

    Taking rankings to heart when making school decisions can be a risky move. It is important to remember a few things:

    1. Schools know that students use rankings to determine where to apply.
    2. Ranking companies know that students use rankings to determine where to apply.
    3. The methodology used to rank—particularly in the case of the U.S. News rankings—is widely known.

    Schools can, for example, inflate their rankings by only accepting students with UGPAs and LSAT scores above a certain number. Schools know how to affect their ranking; students should be aware that these scores do not happen in a vacuum, and can be manipulated, even slightly, by the schools. Although this can certainly end up with positive results for the applicants (after all, the higher the mean UGPA and LSAT score of an incoming class is, the more engaging and stimulating it will likely be), it is worthwhile to note that rankings can be affected, sometimes significantly, by the schools themselves—and that makes them subjective in the extreme.

    Rankings are not an exact science.

    As the 2009/2010 U.S. News/Brooklyn Law School debacle proved, mistakes or inaccuracies can definitely happen. In addition, what U.S. News considers unimportant, or less important, might be something that the applicant considers extremely important. Take a look, for example, at the methodology used by U.S. News to rank law schools. While they count a “Assessment Scores” (i.e., how people in the ‘law school business’ see a particular law school) as a whopping 40% of the overall ranking, they only count "Placement Success" (i.e., the number of graduates able to secure a legal job post-graduatoion) at 20% (although, in defense of U.S. News, it does look like they're planning on at least making that data much more detailed and comprehensive in future rankings). Ask yourself: Which would you consider more important—how the Dean or professors of other law schools view a school, or how likely you are to get a legal job after you graduate? Most students are probably much more interested (and count more highly) whether they’ll have a job upon graduation—however, those numbers do not figure anywhere near as high as academic perception of the school in the rankings formula.

    Slight minutia can have a large impact on the ranking of a school.

    This is why rankings can change often—and sometimes dramatically—over the course of a single year. Because the most widely-used rankings take into account “public perception” as the most significant percentage of their formula (as mentioned previously, U.S. News has this assessment score counting as almost half—40%—of the overall ranking), this means that a shift in public perception can alter the ranking of a school significantly.

    This breakdown is certainly not meant to discount the importance and usefulness of rankings. However, it is meant as a cautionary tale—be careful of taking rankings at face value, and take them with a grain of salt. If you will use them, use them carefully, sparingly, and at the start of your search—and certainly don’t use them as the deciding factor in your decisions. Make sure to:

    #1: Use multiple sources.

    As mentioned above, there are a number of different rankings available to the public. Use them all, and combine the knowledge of all of them into a comprehensive picture of the schools in which you are interested.

    #2: Use public perception to your benefit.

    Before choosing a law school, consider where you want to work post-graduation, and then investigate which schools those firms or companies consider best. Tailoring your education and approach to fit in with that of your desired future employer’s makes much more sense than going by impersonal rankings.

    #3: Use your knowledge of the schools.

    Don’t make decisions solely based on numbers. Remember, you're looking for best fit. Choose schools based on what you know they can offer you above and beyond those numbers. A school’s rank doesn’t necessarily indicate its fit with your goals, ambitions, and aspirations. While taking rankings into consideration as a part of your school selection process is not discouraged, choosing a school simply because of the rankings pedigree it will bring is not the best approach.

    #4: Use your location.

    Oftentimes, if you plan on working in a particular city, choosing a school in that vicinity makes sense, not just financially (in-state tuition, in the case of state schools, can save you thousands of dollars), but also because companies and firms have historically employed a higher percentage of graduates of local schools. To use a popular law school example, consider the following: although law firms in Boston certainly have their share of Harvard Law graduates, they also have a many, many Boston College and Boston University law graduates—and both of those programs are ranked lower than Harvard’s. Rankings aren’t everything, and location can sometimes trump the rankings card. Knowledge of the lay of the land is important, and the local advantage can often go far.

    Rankings definitely have their place in the admissions and application process—just be wary of turning them into the linchpin of your application decisions.

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