I graduated from law school over 20 years ago and accordingly don’t spend as much time thinking about law school admissions as I did in the past. However, as the parent of a high school senior currently in the throes of the college application process, I’ve recently again been considering the right approach for a student to take while applying to undergraduate and graduate programs. In either case, there are myriad good options to select from, and the thought process used to narrow them down can be scattershot.
For anyone considering an application to law school – which I think is a good idea for most people who have an interest even though it’s unfashionable to say so – there are an overwhelmingly large number of available schools. Of course, some people have personal circumstances that naturally narrow the choices. I only applied to schools in Manhattan because I had just gotten married, and my wife was working at a publishing house in the city. Some students have a specific and narrow area of the law they are interested in, and they apply to the few schools that are strong in that department. And of course cost and financial aid drive the choice for many, though I would say that if you can get accepted into a top school and expect to practice in the private sector, it’s a reasonable choice to take on student loans to finance that education.
My advice here is for those whose choices aren’t limited, the many who apply without a definite idea of where their law school education will take them. One approach could be to follow the advice that New York Times columnist Frank Bruni provides for undergraduate admissions. Bruni, who was admitted to Yale but chose instead to go to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (an excellent public school) and has obviously thrived professionally, urges students not to stress about getting into the most selective schools. One could take a similarly relaxed approach to law school admissions, though not to the point of attending the lowest-ranked schools that have well-publicized problems in getting their students to pass the bar and get jobs as lawyers.
Leaving aside the merits of Bruni’s approach with respect to undergraduate admissions, I don’t think it’s a great idea for law school. Let me say, first of all, that I know many attorneys who graduated from “local” law schools and have had hugely successful careers. However, while I personally can assess attorneys based on their merit, not any mystique based on their law school, the industry as a whole is unbelievably status-conscious. From the U.S. News law school rankings, to the American Lawyer rankings of large firms, to the attorneys who send mass emails to other attorneys they know soliciting SuperLawyer votes, lawyers spend a lot of time thinking about where they and others fit on the prestige continuum. Many large law firms limit their recruiting efforts to a short list of the most prestigious schools. And many of the clients who hire lawyers use status markers in making their decisions. In light of that dynamic, it’s not irrational for students to simply attend the most prestigious law school that will accept them. Again, there are many students at mid-ranked schools that thrive, and going to a top school doesn’t guarantee success. But for better or worse, in the law, you can increase your odds of success through your choice of school.