The Myth of Law School Prestige

  • Photo by Faustin Tuyambaze

By Andy Brink

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This article lists 5 starting points for evaluating your decision on where to attend law school, divorced from the law school prestige or rankings. 

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Law school prestige is a myth. There, I said it. I’m not saying I don’t believe in it at all. To some extent law school prestige may be real. Who knows? There might be individuals, perhaps even hiring partners or judges looking for clerks, who make their decisions based on an applicant’s educational pedigree.

My point is that talking about the “best” law schools or which schools are “more prestigious” than others is a straw man. It’s insane that homo sapiens are the most linguistically complex creatures in the universe, but when we talk about how to select a law school, the discussion devolves into an undefined superlative. Best? Best how? Best for who? Best at what price point? We have to do better. Especially if this undefined and lazy superlative has taken over how nearly 40,000 applicants choose their law school.  

In our daily practice, we lawyers live and die by the definitions of words. Lawyers can reverse the fortunes of a person’s life by convincing a judge of their interpretation of a statute. Why then do these same wordsmiths sit idly by and remain comically inexact when it comes to helping the next generation of attorneys make the monumental decision as to where they should go to law school? It strains credulity. We’re letting you applicants down. I apologize on behalf of all of us.

Let’s talk about how to pick a law school. But let’s do so using concrete terms that affect your life, for real. Everything about your decision to attend law school is for real, consequential, andnot theoretical. If you attend law school, you will give up three years of your life to pursue the first half of a law license. That’s 1,000 days of your life where you could be doing something else, say, making the $50,000 a year the average college grad makes. The $120,000 the average law student spends on tuition alone is real currencyexiting real bank accounts. Not to mention the opportunity costs and experiences you forfeitwhile you pursue a J.D.

May I introduce you to someone who is real, concrete, and who should play a huge role in your decision on where to attend law school? It’s your future-self. Get to know this person well. You need to make your decision about law school with him or her in mind. I mean, that’s what you’re going to law school for, right? To be in a better position when you leave? Make your decision on where to go to law school based on factors that will set your future-self up for success.

What say we use our big person, highly-educated, nuance-grasping vocabularies to talk about how to make your law school decision with this future version of you in mind? I’ll get it started. Here are five factors more concrete than a law school’s prestige or ranking that will help you determine which law school will be a good fit for you.

 

1. Return On Investment

Going to law school is all about the money. It shouldn’t be, but it is. Law schools have made it too expensive to make it about something different. You fork over a fortune just to go. You turn down three years of five-figure income to attend.

When you graduate, you’ll hope to make more money than had you not gone to law school. The moniker of “getting an education” cloaks the truth that when it comes to law school, it’s all about the money. Not just anyone’s money: your money. Don’t hamstring your future self with six figures of debt before you even have a job to pay that money back. (Or an idea of what you would like to do.) Especially not because the US News Rankings tell you to.

Enroll at a school that gives you a sizable discount. Test out your future negotiating tactics to get these merit-based scholarships. Are your numbers not generating sizable offers? Retake the LSAT, even if you have to do it late in the game. My December LSAT score was not to my liking. I retook the test in February, got my score back on March 2nd, and was admitted to several “highly ranked” schools after their deadline officially closed. If you prepare for your second tango with the LSAT wisely and with rigor, your decision to retake it could morph into a $100,000 windfall. Unlike “prestige” saving $100,000 is very, very real. Your (far richer) future self will appreciate your current self’s gumption.

 

2. A Thriving Legal Community

When I enrolled as a 1L, I didn’t have a clue what I would do after I graduated. Even if you have a good guess, you’re probably a bit off the mark. Fret not if either of these is you. After all, you bought three years to figure it out.

Listen up: you will NOT figure out what type of lawyer you want to be by going to class, taking notes, and cramming for exams for six semesters. Beware! These are the activities your law school’s curriculum will keep you occupied with for your three years. To discover your direction, leave your law school campus, meet local attorneys, observe judicial proceedings, and make connections with everyone you meet (lawyer and non-lawyer alike). Once you discover an area you enjoy, try it out, either by working for someone, or using your 3L bar card to practice law as a third year law student. (Google it.)

How does this advice help you select a school? Go to a law school in a city with a thriving legal community.  A thriving legal community means more lawyers to meet, more proceedings to observe, and more opportunities to stumble upon. I was spoiled at Vanderbilt. Nashville was the county seat of government (state courts), Tennessee’s capitol (Supreme Court, Senate, House), and home to numerous Federal courts and agencies. My biggest regret from law school is that I didn’t get out in Nashville to observe legal proceedings, sit through jury trials, listen to Tennessee Supreme Court deliberations, or introduce myself to lawyers at Nashville Bar Association functions. I can count on one hand the number of courtrooms whose doors I donned during my Nashville residency. Shame on me. Seriously, shame on me. Failing to do these activities made my post-graduation life noticeably more difficult.

Forget on campus interviews. Everyone in your law school class (and every law school in your area) is applying for a handful of jobs. Interfacing with your city is how you find work, make connections, engineer your own luck, and figure out what you would like to do for a living. Don’t just go to law school to learn from legal textbooks. You’ve done this for 16 years (1st grade through college) and you still don’t know exactly what you want to do when you grow up. Force yourself to try something new — even if it isn’t natural. Go to law school with the intent to insert yourself into a bustling legal community and watch the magic happen.

 

3. Where You Plan To Practice Law

Twelve of the 17 partners in my firm’s Houston office have one thing in common. Can you guess it? No, they did not all graduate from “top 50” law schools. They weren’t all on the Dean’s List. Nor were they all editors on their law review.

Did you figure it out? Location! Over 70% of the partners in my firm’s Houston office graduated from Houston-area law schools.

Where you attend law school correlates strongly with where you practice when you graduate. Do you think 22 percent of all students who enroll at Vanderbilt Law School plan to stay in Tennessee after they graduate? I doubt it. But that’s what happens. (For perspective, 11 percent work in New York, the state with the 2nd highest number of Vanderbilt grads.) Why the correlation? Because it’s easier to make professional connections with your neighbors.

If you’re repeatedly engaging with members of your local legal community, you’re likely to amass the random encounters that will lead to an employment offer. If you know you want to practice in a specific area of the country after graduation, limit your search to law schools in this area. If you are sure you want to live in Birmingham, Alabama, then why would you venture to the Pacific Northwest for law school? Consider schools in the vicinity of your desired practice area, pick the one that gives you the best financial package, and become a fixture in that city’s local legal scene from day one of 1L.  

 

4. Town, Country Or Somewhere In Between

I live just outside of Houston, Texas. One of Houston’s three law schools, South Texas College of Law, is smack dab in the middle of downtown. In contrast, Vanderbilt Law School is smack dab in the middle of an arboretum, where the squirrels outnumber the students. The other 202 ABA-approved law schools fall somewhere between Gotham City and American Pastoral. The contours of your daily experience will be shaped by your law school’s location within the city, not its rank or prestige. Life inside the walls of a law school is the same, whether you’re in Nashville, New Haven, or Norman. It’s what’s on the outside that matters.

Know thyself: if you don’t do well in fast-paced, downtown environments, opt for a more collegial atmosphere. If you crave the bustle, don’t apply to law schools in university towns. You may have to visit the city to get a feel for it. When you go, don’t just scope out the school. Ask where most of the law students live, and see if that area of town jives with your essence. You don’t want your daily commute to frustrate you needlessly. Can’t visit all of your target schools? Google Earth each school’s campus to get a better feel for the area of town that will serve as your home base for the next three years.  

 

5. Your Temperature Temperment

As the world heats up, climate concerns will dictate many of our decisions as a species. All of us will eventually feel the effects from mass migrations, super storms, and El Niño’s cousins. (Perhaps I’m bitter, having recently evacuated my Houston home for eight nights owing to Hurricane Harvey.) Thankfully, when applying to law school, you only have to worry about that area’s climate for the next three years.  

If you can’t stand the snow, don’t go to Harvard Law. I don’t care how highly a school is ranked. You will live in this city for 1,000 days and 1,000 nights. If half of those are spent gritting your teeth against the Old Man Winter or battling heatstroke like a Death Valley ultra-marathoner, you’re in the wrong spot. There are plenty of law schools in climate bands you will feel comfortable in. Choose one that suits your temperature temperament. 

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I just gave you five lenses through which to view your law school decision. Unless you can list for me five concrete ways that a school’s rank, prestige, and reputation will affect your life as a law student and beyond, I urge you to consider these five factors first.

What you need to learn as a law student is not found in the curriculum, the classrooms, or deep in the dusty legal tomes of your law school library. It’s inside of you, gleaned from your interactions with your professors, your classmates, and the local attorneys in your community.

You want to be like them, right? Well then, learn from them! View law school as a required door into the legal profession. Success on the other side requires gaining a deep and personal understanding of how to navigate the legal profession, and perhaps other industries. This understanding comes when you learn how to give value and receive payment for your services (what all lawyers do). It means learning how to create opportunities for yourself, and repeat this cycle throughout your life, as you change along with the global economy. These skills, disciplines and behaviors are real. The prestige, ranking or reputation of your law school will not grant these to you by divine right. Trust me: I’ve been there.

Make where you go to law school about YOU. The world is waiting, begging for YOU to solve its lingering problems — problems like climate change, student debt, rampant poverty and racially divided communities. Make where you go to law school principally about your experience, both as a law student and as a future member of the legal profession. Don’t make it based on what other people say they would do if they were in your shoes. They aren’t.

You’re going to spend your long life and illustrious career changing things for the better. Start with how you view your decision on where to attend law school.

 


 

Andy Brink would love to speak at your law school. He is a lawyer, public speaker, law school admissions counselor, and writer from Alabama who now lives in Texas. You can read his work on medium.com/@andybrink and message him on Twitter @andrewbrink.