Thursday, March 6, 2014

March Madness


The US News Law School Rankings will soon be released, and I am surprised there is not a betting pool on the outcome.

For many years, applicants have relied heavily on the rankings when they were choosing between law schools. These choices were often made with disregard to the individual student’s cost of attendance. That is, a student would attend the school ranked 75th, rather than a school ranked 125th, even though the tuition at the 75th ranked school might be significantly higher.

A positive change that seems to be occurring is that the many law schools and students realize that educational cost can have a bigger impact on long-term career choices than the rankings. Students with lower debt leaving law school have many more options in the job market. Conversely, a student with large debt must find a job with a large enough salary to pay that debt and have enough left over to live on.

There is little doubt that the top students at top law schools have a better chance of being hired by the top 250 law firms. The NLJ grid found at the link below, therefore, is not surprising:

Each of the schools listed on the NLJ chart would be considered an elite law school. It is important to note that even at Berkeley and Cornell 55% of the graduates are hired in jobs other than big law jobs, or are unemployed and still looking.

The question applicants need to ask if they are not going to an elite school is what is the cost versus benefit of my education? I assert that there is very little real difference between, for example, a law school ranked 75th and one ranked 125th.

I admit it is true that the 75th ranked school will have better median LSAT and GPA profiles than the 125th ranked school. Because of that fact, some would argue that the applicant will be in class with “better” students at the 75th ranked school. I disagree with that position, because I am not convinced that a student with a 157 LSAT is truly “better” than a student with a 154.  Furthermore a student with a 157 LSAT at a school with a 157 median is less likely to earn a high dollar scholarship than a student with a 157 LSAT at a school with a 154 median. If the LSAT numbers have some value as predictors of first-year success, the student would arguably be better off at the lower ranked school, where she is predicted to be at the top of the class, rather than at the higher ranked school where she is predicted to be in the middle. That is especially true, if her cost of education is greatly reduced by being at the lower ranked school. The rankings give applicants the sense that they are making a rational decision by picking a school higher up on a list, even if that decision is economically irrational.

Wouldn’t it be nice if a magazine like Consumer Reports could create a reliable and useful ranking system for law schools.  Until then, we will have to endure the impacts of March Madness in legal education.

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