The annual uproar about law school rankings might lead you to believe that the rank of the school you attend is the only factor in determining whether you will become a successful lawyer. As Above The Law points out, the T14 law school rankings, as determined by US News and World Report, rely heavily on inputs – especially peer assessment, grades, and LSAT scores — while ATL’s rankings rely more heavily on outputs like jobs and starting salaries. Given that the two lists overlap quite heavily at the top, I wouldn’t blame you for feeling like you might as well say goodbye to your law career before you’ve even read your first case note if you don’t get into a T14 school. But don’t lose heart! Many, many law school graduates attend non-T14 schools and go on to have successful law careers.
I speak from experience. By way of background, I graduated from Emory Law School squarely in the middle of my class. It was a great place to go to school, with whip-smart professors and clinics, but it was not T14 when I attended and still isn’t (though it’s been solidly T25 for many years). Emory is also located in Atlanta, which, for all of its charms, was not the city where I intended to practice upon graduation. Like so many others, I had my eyes set on New York City. I managed to write myself onto the law review which, given my highly mediocre class ranking, definitely helped boost my resumé. This, combined with my comfort with interviewing, helped me land a job in Big Law in the New York office of a Chicago-based firm, where I specialized in real estate law.
I jumped ship after five years and wound up in Cardozo’s admissions office, where I counseled prospective students about whether they should or shouldn’t go to law school, and why they might be a good fit for Cardozo in particular. I later returned to practicing real estate law with the New York City Economic Development Corporation. As a lawyer, first in private practice and later for the City of New York, I regularly interviewed candidates for summer associate and lateral positions. While I can’t speak for every law firm or government agency, I do think I have some insight about whether attending a T14 law school really matters—so here goes!
When does attending a T14 law school really matter?
Graduating from a T14 law school matters the most for your first job, when your law school can help distinguish you from thousands of other people graduating that year. This is especially true if you want to go into Big Law, if you want a clerkship with the Supreme Court, or if you have your sights set on becoming a law school professor. For the past 10 years, Law.com has published a list of the best law schools to go to if your goal is to work in Big Law after graduation. The “Go-To Law Schools” list, which ranks law schools by the percentage of graduates that took associate positions at the 100 largest law firms, lists T14 law schools in its top 10 year after year. Similarly, the chances of clerking for the Supreme Court are highest if you attend a T14 law school (and particularly excellent if you’re a graduate of Harvard or Yale) according to this list which ranks law schools by the number of graduates who have clerked for the Supreme Court since 1960. Likewise, if you are interested in pursuing legal academia, your odds are much better if you graduate from a T14 law school, according to several years’ worth of entry-level professor hiring reports.
Going to a T14 law school also really matters if you’re not sure where you want to live after you graduate, since these schools afford you the greatest amount of geographic mobility. Take Duke, which is No. 11 in the U.S. News & World Report ranking. The school’s data shows that almost 90% of the Class of 2017 found work outside of the Southeast. Compare that to Wake Forest University School of Law which is ranked No. 32 in the rankings: about 50% of its graduates remained in the Southeast region. Similarly, UNC Chapel Hill Law School, ranked No. 45, reported that more than 60% of its graduates remained in the Southeast. It's hard to say how many alumni of the two latter schools were actually looking for work outside of the area, but the variance in the numbers suggests that the higher-ranked the school, the greater the mobility.
When does going to a T14 law school matter less?
If you know you want to practice in a particular area, the location of the school matters almost as much as its ranking. Attending a well-known school in the region you’d like to practice can help land a great job. For example, more than 90% of 2017 graduates from the University of Georgia acquired jobs within 10 months after graduation, and of that group, 82% found employment in Georgia, North Carolina or South Carolina. More than 50% of its graduates secured jobs in private practice, with one third of those jobs at firms of over 100 lawyers. In addition, a solid 17% secured judicial clerkships, with roughly one third of those at the federal level. At UC Irvine, where about 90% of 2017 graduates secured jobs 10 months after graduating and 81% remained in-state, approximately 60% attained jobs in private practice, almost two thirds of which were in firms of more than 100 lawyers. Moreover, anywhere between 8% and 13% of UC Irvine’s last 3 graduating classes (2015, 2016 and 2017) secured federal clerkships – not too shabby, considering this puts Irvine in the same company as several T14 schools in this category, including Northwestern, Penn, NYU, Duke, Michigan and UC Berkeley. At Cardozo Law School, where 92% of 2017 graduates secured jobs in New York or New Jersey, over 50% were employed in private practice and over a third of those positions were at firms of over 100 lawyers. All of this is to say that a law school degree, much more so than an undergraduate degree, can be highly regional. There are several reasons for this.
Attending a regional law school provides valuable networking opportunities.
Attending a law school in the region you’d like to practice gives you opportunities to engage with the local legal community for three years—through clinics, internships and other law school programs—that you just wouldn’t have if you didn’t attend law school in the area. If large numbers of a law firm’s attorneys graduated from the same regional law school, you can expect that they will favor graduates from the same institution, despite its not being a top-tier school in the eyes of a particular publication. It’s just human nature. In addition, going to a regional school can show that you’re committed to the location, which is particularly important in cities that tend to be highly insular, like Boston. Given that most first-year associates generate less revenue than they cost, firms are not inclined to hire and invest the time in training someone who they think is going to leave in a year, so demonstrating that you’re there to stay is valuable.
Attending a regional school makes finding a job more convenient and less expensive for both you and your future employer.
It makes economic sense for a firm to hire associates from a regional school. The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) annual Perspectives on 2017 Law Student Recruiting report found that while most law firms have rebuilt their summer programs in many ways following the near collapse of entry-level recruiting by large firms in 2009, the median number of law schools visited by law offices in New York, Boston and Silicon Valley all declined compared with 2016. Part of this decrease is surely explained by the fact that these firms are located in cities where there is no shortage of strong law schools from which to recruit. A firm hiring from local schools knows it won’t have to shell out money for tickets to fly one or more of its associates to law schools outside its city/region to interview candidates. It also knows that it won’t have to fly candidates in for follow up interviews. If you attend a law school in the area where you’d like to practice, you have the ability to interview on a moment’s notice and a level of flexibility that out-of-town law students simply do not have.
Getting top grades at a lower-ranked regional law school and having good interviewing skills go a long way.
It’s important to note that a T14 JD alone doesn’t guarantee a job. Employers will consider not just the name of your law school but how well you did there. In the words of one attorney, a summer associate hiring partner at a Big Law firm‚ “I’d rather hire someone in the top 1/3 at a strong regional school than someone in the bottom 1/3 of a T14 law school.” Graduating at the top of your class and being a member of the school's law review at a lower-ranked school may go just as far, if not further, than being at the bottom of a T14 school. (No one ever thinks they’ll be in the bottom half of their class, but 50% of those people are always wrong!)
Your interpersonal skills also play a large role in acquiring that first job. The previously mentioned 2017 NALP report on law student recruiting highlights the importance of these skills when it quotes one law school’s finding that, “Although our employment results are similar to those of last year, anecdotally, it appears that employers are managing their yields more tightly this year. Interviewing skills seem to have a huge impact on candidate success.” Having interviewed my fair share of summer associate candidates, I can tell you that once a person’s resumé has gotten her through the door, it’s the candidate’s ability to persuade me that I’d like working with her (sometimes around the clock and in stressful situations) that will convince me to hire her. Persuading a law firm that you’re not only capable of handling the job intellectually, but that you’d also be someone with whom they might like to work, is an important part of getting a great job.
Attending a T14 becomes much less important after your first job.
As I mentioned previously, where you attend law school will matter the most initially (i.e., to get your first job), but it won’t matter forever. Moving laterally to another job (including to another state), is much easier once you have a few years of solid work experience behind you. Having practiced for over a decade in a variety of environments (law firm, in-house and government agency), I can tell you that once you start working, where you went to school is more of a conversation piece than a critical hiring criterion. The things that matter most are the quality of your work, your productivity, and your ability to work with clients. As a good friend who is a partner at a Big Law firm in NYC told me, “Once you’re hired the only thing you’re judged on is the work you do – not just the quality of the brief you’re writing but your ability to develop clients.”
Attending a regional law school on a scholarship may outweigh the benefits of attending a T14 school.
Attending a T14 law school may not be the right choice if the alternative is getting a substantial scholarship to attend a solid regional school. Law school is an expensive undertaking. Not only will you be paying tuition (you’ll spend somewhere between $150k to $200k, depending on the school you attend), but you’ll also be paying in terms of your time and lost earnings potential for 3 years. Graduating with no debt, or less debt, will give you greater flexibility after you graduate, which is important in any market, but particularly in a bad one. It may afford you the freedom to take a non-Big Law job right out of law school and could allow you to follow other career paths and interests like a clerkship, public interest work, a job in government, or a position with a small to mid-size firm. While these jobs may not pay the big bucks like Big Law, the solid foundation and hands-on, practical experience you’ll gain and the improved quality of life you’ll likely experience because you haven’t had to
sell your soul take a six-figure job in order to repay your student debt, may be well worth the trade off.
You can find success even if you don’t go to a T14 school.
Instead of viewing the rank of the law school you attend as the ultimate determinant of whether you will find happiness and success as a lawyer, view it as one of several factors to consider before choosing a school. A T14 school and good grades may initially open more doors, but talent, drive and charisma will make all the difference in the long run. Your success and happiness in the legal profession will largely depend upon you, not the prestige of the institution from which you graduated. So, to recap:
- Attending a T14 law school puts you in the strongest position to do the following:
- secure a job in Big Law
- attain a clerkship with the Supreme Court
- become a law school professor
- work anywhere in the country
- Attending a T14 law school matters less in these cases:
- if the alternative is to attend a strong regional school in the area where you would like to practice
- if you achieve top grades, make law review, or have strong interviewing skills
- after your first job
- Attending a strong regional law school with scholarship money may outweigh the benefits of attending a T14 school.
- Attending a T14 school does not guarantee (and attending a school outside of the T14 does not necessarily preclude) the goals set forth in number 1.
One final piece of advice: once you choose to attend a certain law school, make the most of it and embrace your choice. Start building connections through professors, clinics, and other law students while you’re still in school. Have reasonable salary expectations and be smart about the debt you take on. Connect with firms, companies and organizations that are close to your school. Network like crazy. And don’t be that guy who, while introducing himself on the first day of school, announces, “Just like the rest of you, this was my safety school.” True story—this actually happened my first day of law school. Needless to say, this did not endear him to many people, and lo and behold, he ended up failing out after his first year. So yeah—don’t be that guy.
📌 Useful Resources
- NALP's summary of employment outcomes for recent classes
- ABA employment disclosures
- Law School Transparency
About the Author