What should I consider in making my law school choice?
Rankings of law schools on a yearly basis by organizations with high visibility and wide popular reach such as the well known U.S. News & World Report magazine, have attracted a considerable amount of publicity over the last few years. Critics-including many involved with law school admission offices and committees-often complain that too much importance is given to rankings of this type, and that it tends to obscure many other factors which should be considered in choosing a law school that best fits the applicant's needs. The debate has been ongoing for quite some time now and it is doubtful that the matter will be put to rest anytime soon. For students particularly keen on examining the issues in contention in this debate, the following article which I penned, may provide an interesting read:
By Justin Giordano*
The issue of law school rankings has come increasingly under attack and it appears that a crescendo has yet to be reached. The criticism has been sharp, fierce and sustained.
Articles specifically denouncing one ranking source-the U.S. News and World Report's annual ranking of law schools (this publication also ranks graduate business schools, medical schools, and a full array of graduate programs covering most fields of study), have been proliferating over the last few years at least. And wouldn't you know it, as if to add fuel to the fire and strengthen their critics' resolve, U.S. News and World Report served them on a silver platter, a major blunder four years ago. This came in the form of a public admission on the part of the magazine involving a miscalculation of a severe enough magnitude in their spring 1997 issue (the same issue containing their famed annual rankings) that they took the unprecedented step of reissuing that year's annual rankings. Needless to say, the critics have used, and continue to use, this priceless faux pas for all its worth, proclaiming their vindication to all who would listen.
The critics are by no means small players in the field of law and legal education. Indeed they encompass the LSAC (Law School Admission Council), the AALS (American Association of Law Schools), as well as the ABA's (American Bar Association) Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. Law"color: rgb(0,0,255); ">School Admission Council clearly underscored their displeasure via the purchase of an ad in the magazine in question's annual rankings issue of that year. The ad stressed LSAC's disapproval of the U.S. News and World Report rankings, while encouraging the prospective law school applicants/candidates to explore alternative sources of rankings and related law school information.
Some have suggested a compromise, perhaps a ranking only limited to the top 10 to 25 schools (equivalent to the first tier classification of the U.S. News and World Report rankings). The principle advocates of this alternative are prominent and well respected members of the legal education community. This learned group features among its rankings: Phil Sheldon, president and executive director of LSAC, who proposed a ranking limited to the top 10 to 25 law schools; John Sexton, president of AALS, who is spearheading this "minimalist objective" movement; and, of course, the 150 law school deans who signed a letter to U.S. News and World Report urging them to return to their pre-1987 practice of ranking only the top 20 law schools.
There are others who would simply prefer the practice of ranking being entirely done away with. However, a major, if not complete, overhaul might be an acceptable alternative. This group's position is based on their own analysis that uncovered, in their view, a substantial number of errors and biases (whether intentional or otherwise). To illustrate the point, Professor Leiter, of the University of Texas at Austin, School of Law, in his article in NAPLA (National Association of Prelaw Advisors) magazine, makes a convincing case that an anti-public law school bias exists in the U.S. News and World Report's law school rankings. Professor Leiter's conclusion is based on his own and others' analysis of the magazine in question's rankings. The questions that beckon are: Why is this such a crucial matter, if indeed it is? And how much do law school applicants truly rely on the U.S. News and World Report rankings and/or, albeit to a lesser degree, on similar rankings in other publications of this genre?
In my varied capacities as an attorney, faculty member and prelaw advisor, it has been my experience that the answers to the above inquiries are not at all clear cut. Is the rankings issue critical to every law school applicant? Clearly not. However, if one considers that 400,000 students, according to Patricia M. McDonough's (McDonough is an associate professor of education at UCLA) study titled, College Rankings: Who Uses Them and With What Impact, use five major college guides, (Namely, these include ones published by: U.S. News and World Report, Money magazine, Newsweek/ Kaplan, Time/Princeton Review, and Rolling Stone magazine), the popularity of rankings is unquestionable. Putting popularity aside, do these rankings carry any effective weight in the actual decision making process? In fact, according to Professor McDonough's study, out of the nearly 222,000 students from 432 colleges, only 11percent of the students found rankings "very important" in choosing a college, while 60 percent said rankings were not at all important. It should be noted that this study encompassed undergraduate as well as graduate programs and schools. Nonetheless, it seems evident that it is a valuable tool for a portion of the candidates at various levels of their education. Furthermore, the suspicion is, at least with regard to law school candidates, that the percentage that view the rankings as important or somewhat so may be higher than the aforementioned 11percent (which includes graduate and undergraduate candidates). Consequently, I subscribe to the following position: if the candidate deems it a useful piece of data, then let the rankings, including the much maligned U.S. News and World Report, be utilized irrespective of their limitations.
It has been the experience of this writer, premised on law school candidates who have come into my office clutching a copy of the U.S. News and World Report annual rankings issue, that they value the contribution it makes. The latter, however, is typically considered along with the mountains of information they have already amassed, in their pursuit of the perfect choice for their legal education. It should be equally obvious that bringing in a published ranking, whether it be the highly touted U.S. News ranking, or the less publicized others mentioned above, simply serves as a starting point from which to engage in a substantive discussion. Invariably, the discussion rapidly leads to the core issue, namely, what is the direct relevance of the "ranking(s)" in question, to the candidate's individual needs, objectives, realities and aspirations? The vast majority of candidates will have already targeted certain schools based on a variety of factors. Should that in fact be the case, the rankings of their choice(s) supplies a sort of validation of their selection(s).
Conversely, should the ranking totally be out of step with their expectations, it will inevitably raise probative questions about their intended choices(s). More often than not, if the arrived at choice is grounded on sound foundation (i.e., whether there is a necessity to remain in a certain geographical area; overall cost related to tuition, lodging, etc.; family demands; traditional ties to a particular institution; academic realities such as GPA and LSAT scores, etc.), then the prelaw advisor's (or anyone acting in a similar advisory capacity) job is made substantially easier. Essentially, his/her role is to help validate the student's choice or conversely to raise questions of genuine relevance to the candidate's choice(s). Ultimately, once the process of reaching a decision has been fully and properly completed, the rankings question tends to be quasi-entirely erased from the equation. Indeed once the candidate has discussed his/her choice(s) and/or preference(s) with family members, prelaw or other academic advisors, read about, visited campuses, and met with admissions and other law school representatives in his/her choice group, the rankings issue may become totally immaterial.
It would thus seem that the emphasis placed on ranking(s), and particularly on the controversial U.S. News and World Report's annual rankings (which has drawn the ire, perhaps justifiably so, of most of the critics), might be worthy of reconsideration. Whether the criticism levied on one or more ranking systems is valid and justifiable given the methodology(ies) utilized or any number of other specific points is not the question at issue here. Those delving in the field of academia (and law, if to a lesser extent) will always argue such points of contention. In this case, the learned critics may very well be right on the merits. However, I have not studied nor explored the issue in controversy adequately or indepth enough as to feel that I can render an appropriate judgment in this regard. Nevertheless, in the overall scheme of things, it is the opinion of this writer that this matter of ranking(s) does not merit the tremendous amount of attention it has received, nor the expenditure of valuable time it has generated. It is worth remembering that we (in the field of law and legal education) evolve in a competitive arena, within the confines of a nation that has been built upon the spirit of healthy competition. It is also worth noting that colleges and universities routinely seek to rank their football, basketball and a full array of other sports programs, with the aim of making their respective institutions more attractive to prospective students (albeit primarily at the undergraduate level). Consequently, it could be argued that rankings are a natural reflection of the American mindset. Not surprisingly, law school candidates will seek reassurance for their choice(s) in a variety of ways, the most superficial and easily accessible being the rankings in popular magazines. Therefore, those most likely to place undue confidence or exaggerated importance on rankings, or rely solely on them for guidance, are generally the nonserious law school candidates. Usually this group does not go through the often tedious, decision-making process in a thorough manner. In the majority of these cases, this could be termed the "lazy person's" approach. It generally betrays a lack of underlying determination that is so vitally necessary if an individual is to successfully surmount the numerous obstacles on the long journey culminating in a law related career.
Giordano, Justin, Law School Rankings: Do They Really Matter, NY: Queens Bar Bulletin, 1997.
* Editors Note: Justin Giordano, admitted in NY, NJ and CT, is an associate professor, prelaw advisor and faculty chair at Empire State College, NYC.
To actually examine the various rankings, contact the " Internet Legal Resources Guide" at irlg.com/schools.html.
Another source is the Boston College On-Line Law School Locator . The locator uses a matrix to array median LSATs and GPAs for most ABA-accredited law schools.