When people pursue higher education, whether it be college or graduate school, many almost instinctively prioritize getting into the best school over all other factors. The allure of attending the best school on the acceptance list is often so strong that they will blindly enroll even if they have to move across country or spend a fortune financing the decision. After all, it’s education. You can’t skimp out on education! There is some logic to this. Generally speaking, the better a school is the more favorably it is regarded by employers. In turn, the degree is awarded more weight and increases the student’s employment opportunities upon graduation. In addition, better schools often have better alumni networks and attract more employers to on-campus job fairs. However, these advantages notwithstanding, all is not paradise. For all the faults that may be present with this reasoning in the higher education context generally, it is particularly detrimental with respect to law school. Prospective law students often target the top law schools in the country because they believe there is very little that could go wrong by enrolling. They forgo scholarships or in-state tuition at lesser-ranked law schools for the glory and prestige of a Tier 1 powerhouse without much second thought. Unfortunately, due to the unique nature of legal hiring, for many this decision turns out to be more of a trap than a success story in the making.
Accounting for the impact of the recent recession, in most other fields graduates stepping out into the real world are greeted with a certain amount of positions that are relatively widespread with respect to starting salaries. To the extent jobs are obtained, some of the fortunate graduates land salaries on the high side, some land salaries on the low side, but by and large most positions have salaries that are middle of the pack. What’s expected for that field, and comprises the meat of the opportunities, is a salary range that falls between the great and the bad. The legal market, however, does not operate this way. Instead, the legal market generally produces two very drastically different outcomes for its graduates. On one hand, a small percentage of law graduates winds up in big law firms with six-figure salaries. On the other, past the rare middle of the road position, the vast majority starts out with salaries in the 30-60K range. Considering priority #1 for any law graduate is to break into the field and gain experience, there is immense competition among law graduates for even the lowest-salaried positions. This is especially the case when only about 60%+ of law graduates obtain employment in the legal sector shortly after graduation. This bimodal distribution in the legal sector creates a scenario where enrolling in law school can generally be expected to produce 1 of 3 results: 1) the high-salaried and mid-salaried few, 2) the low-salaried many, and 3) a big batch of the under or unemployed.
You’re probably thinking that doesn’t sound too bad. In fact, it even reinforces the need for a prospective law student pursuing private practice after graduation to go to a top law school. By going to a top law school you increase your chances of obtaining big law, and if big law is not obtained you will receive priority when applying for all the remaining legal positions available after graduation. Surely it is rare for a Tier 1 law school student to end up in the unfortunate third bucket. There’s so many law students at lower ranked schools that get pushed down the employment hierarchy when the top law school students apply for positions. Well, there lies the mistake that so many make.
What only a small segment of incoming 1Ls understand is that only the most coveted legal positions care about “prestige” factors such as school rank. These positions, at best, account for a generous 8-10% of all legal employment opportunities. That means big law firms, federal and top state court judges (who often hire the same candidates that have big law already lined up), and government honors programs. Outside of this limited niche of potential legal jobs, what will generally matter is not your school or class rank, your journal or moot court experience, but establishing some sort of connection or demonstrating you have practical legal experience. These former factors, often prioritized among law students, can certainly be beneficial. However, alone they are of little use on the job search front. Ideally, the best candidate will have many of these former factors on top of practical experience or a connection. However, when it comes down to it demonstrating you can hit the ground running because of your general or relevant legal experience most often takes priority (assuming you’re not dead last in your class). It also doesn’t hurt you if you are planning on trying to hang a shingle, as tough as it is to do right out of law school.
A key misconception reinforcing the top law school at all costs mindset has to do with the belief that these higher ranked law schools somehow have an extra magic educational touch. In reality, the difference between a low ranked school and a top ranked school means very little when it comes to learning the law. Sure, at a highly ranked law school more material may be covered in a class, but generally speaking as long as a law graduate can pass the bar the law school from which he or she graduated is irrelevant. Law school is simply another hoop to jump through before an individual is allowed to take the bar. Where that legal education is achieved matters little to your average legal employer. What Tier 1 schools often do have, however, is a stronger opportunity to obtain big law because there is a greater amount of big law firms stopping by for 2L OCI. This brings up the main point: whether attending a top law school is worth it depends only on two things. One, whether having a shot at big law or a similar outcome is the main goal of attending law school. Two, whether the student debt that will be required to attend that law school is reasonably proportional to the big law opportunities the school will provide. Otherwise, unless someone is paying for your law school education up front, going to a top law school over less pricier lower ranked law schools to pursue public interest, government work, or criminal work is perplexing at best. These places, above all, want to see a candidate’s commitment to that area of law. The exception to this rule, of course, is getting accepted to Harvard, Yale, or Stanford.
Yes, this means that the rest of the “Top 14″ does not deserve the blind enrollment treatment. This phenomenon, where only a small number of legal employers care about factors such as school rank to any great degree, leads to another major point: outside of Harvard, Yale, or Stanford, there is an approximate threshold class rank below which law graduates at top law schools have little to no edge over their lower ranked law school peers with respect to employment opportunities. This is known as the top law school cliff. After enrolling 1L year, each student with hopes of big money has a limited window of opportunity to justify enrolling at that top law school. That opportunity is 1L exam performance and 2L OCI. If the student secures great grades 1L year and achieves a particular class rank (which varies by school), he or she qualifies to interview with big firms at 2L OCI with the potential to snatch a summer associate offer. If the student does not do well enough to qualify for a sit down with the big law firms coming to school or fails to grab an offer after interviewing, 2L OCI is a bust. With 2L OCI in the rear view, so are inevitably almost all chances of landing big law. The financial bet of enrolling at that law school is lost. The student falls off the cliff and into a giant pool down below, comprised of all the other law students at all the other law schools around the country. The top law school edge is gone unless the student is hoping to snatch a prestigious clerkship or government honors position closer to graduation (the latter of which is extremely rare).
For prospective law students wishing to enroll in a top law school with the intention of maximizing this small niche of prestige-based employment opportunities, the higher the ranking of the law school the better the opportunity. This means that short of Harvard, Yale, or Stanford, the Top 14 provides the best chance at achieving such employment. This is followed by the next group of peer schools ranked in the 20s and 30s of US News. Past that second row of schools, however, there is a very steep drop off in opportunity. Short of zero debt financing, if your goal is big law or the like, anything past the second row of law schools is not a wise decision. In fact, depending on the extent of your student debt, any of these schools may be a bad bet, including many of the Top 14 law schools. The more student loans are required to attend, the greater your chances better be to avoid a financially crippling result. General class rankings necessary for each of these law schools can be seen in the 2L OCI: How the Process Works article. On that note, because of how the law school curve works to determine each year’s class rank, don’t ever assume you will be a particular class rank after your 1L year. This is a common, yet very unfounded, assumption made by prospective law students who believe falsely that they can predict how they will fare against their intellectual peers for purposes of obtaining something like big law or transferring to a better law school after 1L year to achieve the same. Undergraduate performance is irrelevant, not only because past performance does not predict future results but because law school grading is very different. The safe bet is to always assume you will do no better nor worse than your peers after 1L year. This means assume median grades, and plan accordingly when deciding between law schools.
On a final note, there is something to say about a Top 14 law degree. There is indeed prestige there: some added bonus from employers for attending such a school (if not nationally, at least in the school’s regional market). However, because of the nature of legal hiring, at some point a student at a much higher class rank at a second row top law school will simply be preferred over a bottom of the barrel Top 14 law student. This is why incoming 2Ls below median at most of the Top 14 law schools, short of the three untouchables, are not safe from failure if private practice at big firms or high-end clerkships is the goal. This is also why blind enrollment isn’t a wise choice even at these premier law schools. Back when tuition was much lower, attending a Top 14 law school even at sticker price made perfect sense. Today, not so much. It all depends on your goals and your finances. The same can be said for any top law school below the Top 14. The major takeaway here is to be smart about which law school you attend, because most law students debt financing a law school education do not have the financial flexibility to graduate dry into the abyss. This is not the golden age much more familiar to your parents or grandparents, when school tuition was remarkably low and the mantra of attending the best school at all costs would do little to no harm if things went sour. This is now, and in the New Normal a decision to enroll in any school, let alone law school, should be met with much more scrutiny.