Tuesday, April 21, 2009

US News Law-School Rankings

US News & World Report issued its 2009 law-school rankings yesterday, according to the Volokh Conspiracy here and here.

For better or for worse, the US News rankings are one indicator of how hard it will be for law students at a given school to find a job. (The other main indicators being law-school GPA and whether one was on law review and/or a moot-court team.)

I interview a lot of candidates for positions with my firm as summer associates or first-year associates. The rank of one's law school matters to us partly out of self-defense -- we receive thousands of resumes and talk to dozens of candidates, and most of the people we interview are pleasant and articulate with decent grades. Since we can't hire all of them, we need some other way of sorting to help us find the individuals who are most likely to succeed in our practice areas.

But law-school rank matters for two other reasons. First, the business of law is largely brand driven. Law firms work hard to establish strong brands and work hard to maintain their brands once they've been established. A lot of practitioners could do what the big-name firms do, very nearly as well and for a much lower rate. Clients pay a premium for big-name-firm service because they want the assurance of good work that comes with the big name. And one way in which firms build and maintain their brands is by hiring attorneys from law schools with strong brands.

Second, graduates of higher-ranked schools are, on the whole, more likely to be successful lawyers. Now, I hasten to add that there are many counter-examples. I know a few graduates of top schools who really struggled in practice, and I know a few graduates of fourth-tier schools who are brilliant practitioners. But when big numbers are taken into account, it appears that you have a better chance of finding great talent at the higher-ranked schools.

Still, small differences in rank do not matter much. I think most practitioners probably view law schools as falling into the following rough divisions: Yale, Harvard, Stanford; the rest of the top 10-20; the "second tier" (i.e., from ~20 to ~100); the "third tier"; and the "fourth tier." Also, most practitioners know the rankings of only a small fraction of schools. They know which schools are "top," they know where their own schools fall, and they know the ranking of a random assortment of other schools. For the rest, they frequently consult US News.

UPDATE: Law professor Brian Leiter's take on the rankings here.

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