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Choosing the Right Law School: Do Rankings Matter?

Earlier this week I wrote about whether you should focus your sights solely on law schools with sports law certificates. Another question I’ve received lately is with regards to law school rankings and whether they matter.

Is there really a difference between higher- and lower-tiered law schools?

Yes, in my personal experience there was a difference. I say this as someone who went to a fourth-tier law school and then transferred to a first-tier. There’s a big difference, primarily in the number of traditional law firms that come on campus to interview students, the average pay for students after graduation, and the number of students employed in law after graduation. There are a number of ways to research this data and compare schools. One I’ve been introduced to recently is Law School Transparency. (I have not verified any of the site’s information and provide the link only so you can investigate yourself.)

Here’s what I can tell you about my experience going to both schools: Far more of my classmates at the first-tier school graduated with jobs. Most of my friends from my first-tier school made more money out of school than my friends from the fourth-tier school. Lastly, more of my peers from the first-tier law school passed the bar exam – although it’s worth noting the fourth-tier school was in CA where the bar exam passage rate is lower overall than it is in FL where my first-tier school was located.

Perhaps the best thing I can do here is explain to you why I transferred from my fourth-tier law school to a first-tier law school….

I bombed my LSAT. Not once, but twice. The LSAT and I just weren’t friends. (Luckily, the bar exam and I got along much better!) The first time I applied to law school, I didn’t get into a single school I applied to, because I’d only applied to first- and second-tier law schools. I thought my undergraduate record, well-written essay and resume with legal experience would help me overcome the poor LSAT score. I was wrong.

So, I took a year off and worked in a law firm, then I applied again to schools throughout all four tiers. I was accepted into four of the fourth-tier law schools and one third-tier law school. I visited 2 of the 4, and I’d been to the city of the 3rd school. I went with my gut and picked the one where I felt the best during my campus visit. In terms of job prospects they’d all seemed equal, and I feel the same looking back in hindsight.

I knew from day one I wanted to do well enough to transfer to a better school. My aunt is a recruiter at a fairly large and reputable law firm, and she made it clear I’d never work at any of the firms I was targeting from any of the fourth-tier schools. (As a point of clarification, I was targeting medium and large law firms with six-figure salaries. Job prospects vary greatly based on the type of job you want after graduation.) I also chatted with partners at several different law firms I thought I might want to work at one day, and each told me I’d never even get an interview coming from any of those fourth-tier schools. The bottom line is that firms of that size rarely hire outside of on-campus interviews, and those firms didn’t come on my fourth-tier campus.

The best advice I can give you would be to decide where you think you’d want to work (in terms of location) and what type of job you want, then check out the list of firms and organizations that do on-campus interviews at the school you’re considering. If you don’t see any of the places you’d want to work, then you’re probably not looking at the right school.

When I was growing up, my dream was to attend Emory School of Law. Imagine my elation when they accepted me as a transfer applicant after my first year of law school. Wait, you’re thinking…I didn’t go to Emory, I went to University of Florida Law. Yep, I turned down my dream school. Why? Because I did my research and found that more of the firms where I wanted to work came on campus at UF than at Emory. Had I wanted to go work in DC or NYC or somewhere else out of the region, I think Emory would have been the right choice. However, more of the Atlanta law firms that interested me interviewed students down at UF, so I went to UF. There was actually a huge contingent of UF attorneys at both my first and third law firms in Atlanta. Despite being in Florida, UF places really well in Atlanta (or did in 2007).

Beyond looking at on-campus interview schedules, reach out to people who work at the firm or organization you hope to be with after graduation. Ask them how your school decision will impact your ability to work there. Partners I reached out to (who were mostly alumni of my undergraduate institution) didn’t sugarcoat it – they told me the truth, even when it was negative.

I have met successful and intelligent people from schools ranked all over the map. When I was studying for the bar exam, I knew the material from my first-year courses at my fourth-tier better than my friend who’d gone to an Ivy League law school. Her school had focused more on theory than black letter law, which she surmised was because they mostly groomed students to become law professors. I’m not surmising that you can’t get a great education at a school just because it’s ranked in the lower half of the law schools in this country. I am, however, telling you there’s a difference in your job prospects after graduation. Depending on what you want to do, that might matter.

The situation gets even more complicated if a lower-ranked school is offering you more money than a higher-ranked school. You have to weigh that against your job and salary prospects after graduation. I may have a post examining this more in-depth soon.

My goal with this post was to give you the tools to research and ask the right questions as you choose between schools of different tiers. I’m happy to answer any additional questions you want to leave in the comments.

9 Responses to "Choosing the Right Law School: Do Rankings Matter?"

  • Kenny G
    Thursday, July 11, 2013 - 11:09 pm Reply

    Hi Kristi. I enjoyed your article Choosing the Right Law School: Do Rankings Matter. I have been pondering law school on and off for about 5 years. Twenty years ago I debated after college should I go to grad school and pursue a masters or law school. I ended up attending Indiana University and earned a masters (MPA). I come from a family of attorneys my dad, older sister, brother, niece etc are all attorney’s .I am a Chicago Police Officer and my job has tuition reimbursement so paying for it is not a problem. I’ve been reading about how law school grads are unable to find jobs. In fact there are many police officers that I know who have law degrees and are attorneys. Some articles state law school is just not worth it. I have also read that because of dwindling enrollments, the high cost and graduates suing law schools, some are looking at making radical changes re’ law school. For example eliminating the third year and not putting so much emphasis on the LSAT. Like you I bombed on the LSAT(I have terrible hand writing and on the last part I think maybe the graders couldn’t understand my hand writing LOL) I enjoyed your article. Thanks Kenny

  • Kaitlyn
    Wednesday, July 2, 2014 - 11:37 am Reply

    How do you go about transferring? I too have bombed my LSAT but i am truly a great student. 3.9 GPA, excellent LOR’s and Great essay.. But i dread that i will probably only get into 3rd or 4th tier schools. I take my LSAT again in Sept. but if i don’t do better i will have to rely on transferring after i do well in school…

    • Kristi Dosh
      Tuesday, July 29, 2014 - 4:06 pm Reply

      I’m going to try and write a post on this, because I seem to be getting it a lot lately! Really, the key to transferring is simply kicking butt at your first school.

  • Anne B.
    Tuesday, July 29, 2014 - 3:52 pm Reply

    Hi Kristi,
    Great great info…only wish I had seen it back in January, I wouldn’t have wasted time and money applying to basically anything but 4th tier (I too bombed the LSAT twice and hoped my writing and 3.89 gpa would overcome the deficit) I realize no matter how much schools say “they are not only interested in your score”, they don’t mean it.
    What is your opinion on standalone schools in the 4th tier for making the transfer next year?

    • Kristi Dosh
      Tuesday, July 29, 2014 - 3:59 pm Reply

      I feel your pain, Anne. I too wasted a lot of time and money applying to schools I never had a shot of attending with my LSAT. I went to a 4th tier and worked my butt off and transferred, and I have several other friends who did as well. I don’t know how much transferring has changed since I did it in 2005, but if being an attorney is what you REALLY want to do, than I’d say go to the 4th tier and work your tail off to transfer. That being said, understand the reality of your situation if you end up staying at the 4th tier. I have friends who graduated from my 4th tier and are doing great seven years later, but I also know a few who have really struggled. Of course, with the legal market the way it is today, you can struggle even if you graduate from a 1st tier. The best advice I can give you is to network like crazy with attorneys in the practice areas or firms where you want to eventually be.

  • Bane
    Friday, January 2, 2015 - 7:35 pm Reply

    Hello Christy,

    Thanks for this beautiful and realistic write up. I have read and come across many stuff on deciding to go to law school but yours represents 100% my situation. Although I ham yet to take the LSATs, I have been practicing and my scores in the practice tests have been quite discouraging although I hope to get better.

    My question to you is, could you at give me an idea or range of what you refer to as “bombed” the LSAT? This would help me have an idea on which tier schools to go for in the end.

    I have a great uGPA, statements, experience blah blah blah but if we are being realistic that the LSAT does matter despite all the balderdash many schools speak of on their websites about diversity, general attributes and what not, then I need to start being honest about my choice of schools to apply to before I waste money I don’t have enough of on applications.

    I have also really thought of this approach of applying to a lower tier school and transferring later although I am aware its a bit of a foolhardy one but it does has its realistic pros. I intend to at least get into a T2 or so in case a later bid to transfer bombs, then I can at least remain there!

    • Kristi Dosh
      Wednesday, January 28, 2015 - 10:22 am Reply

      Feel free to email me to talk about this more. When I applied, law schools were experiencing all-time high application rates. Now they’re at the lowest in decades. I have an intern who had virtually the same credentials as me who got into T1s last year, whereas I only go into T4s. Very different climate now.

      • J
        Thursday, April 21, 2016 - 6:35 pm Reply

        I attend Cooley. I was accepted as a transfer to John Marshall Law. I do not mind practicing in MI or IL. Should I go? Cooley has a terrible rep!

  • Melissa
    Tuesday, February 3, 2015 - 11:07 pm Reply

    I’m sort of the opposite, I did ok on the LSAT but the 167 won’t even begin to counteract my awful under grad gpa…are there scholarship opportunities for transfer students? I have no idea if anywhere will take me with my sub 3.0 gpa

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