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Commentary: Law school rankings are the Emperor’s New Clothes

The new U.S. News Law School rankings are here. Like a junkie, I immediately clicked on the link to see how my own law school fared. But I shouldn’t have succumbed. Why not? Because I don’t believe that the U.S. News rankings offer meaningful data or information to today’s law school applicants.

Before the Great Recession, the rankings may have offered some useful information.

Once upon a time, law school was a path of least resistance for many an undecided college senior — the debate-team president, the Jane Austen scholar and the White House intern could all rest assured that a law degree would help them learn a marketable skill and secure a high-paying job. Landing a summer associate position guaranteed you a job after graduation, and graduates could eliminate law school debt with just a few years of big firm bonuses.

In this world, law applicants needed an easy way to discriminate among law schools, many of which offered parallel paths to the same big law jobs. My college career services department advised undergraduates to “attend the highest-ranked law school” that accepted them. I knew lots of folks who agonized between a full ride at a lower ranked law school and admission at a “top-ranked” institution. After a few weeks of hand-wringing, however, everyone I knew chose the higher-ranked school.

It is likely this was never the best way to select a law school. But when lots of folks were making lots of money, it was easy to ignore the fact that “attending the highest-ranked school,” may not have been the wise advice.

In the new economy, the rankings don’t offer useful information and may even mislead applicants.

The pre-2008 world is gone. College seniors can no longer afford to choose law school simply because they don’t know what else to do. Indeed, too many folks are drowning in student debt and underemployed as a result of this choice. To avoid this problem, I would advise anyone considering law school to think hard about why they want to be a lawyer. I would encourage potential applicants to envision the job they want; intern or volunteer with an attorney or firm to confirm the interest; and think about where they would practice and how much their ideal legal position is likely to pay. Only after completing such a self-evaluation should someone attend law school.

But which law school? I wouldn’t attend law school today without a specific plan, and I would select my law school to meet that plan’s goals:

• You want to work as a public defender and your college internship with your local defender’s office confirmed your interest? Awesome. Based upon your salary research, I would recommend selecting a law school that has an excellent loan forgiveness program for students who pursue public interest work. Alternatively, I would pick the local law school with connected and respected graduates that can offer you a scholarship.

• You’re a nurse who wants to attend law school and develop a health care practice while staying in your small-market hometown? Research local programs to determine which schools have the best programs (and alumni networks) to help you land your dream job.

• You’re an engineer who wants to attend school in the evenings to become a patent attorney? Identify the best evening/weekend programs and start networking with these schools’ patent practitioner alumni to identify opportunities.

You can’t get any of this information, however, by just looking at the list of rankings issued by U.S. News. (U.S. News does offer a bit more information if you pay for it, but this same information — after-graduation employment rates, student-teacher ratios, specialties, etc. — can be found free of charge on most law schools’ websites.)

Worse than providing incomplete information, the rankings list can lead an applicant to overlook a school that is a better fit for the applicant’s educational (and financial) needs. Intense, investigative research reaps its own rewards. Connecting yourself with a school’s alumni before you attend is a great way to begin networking early — finding folks who may be able to assist you in landing a summer associate gig or even a post-law school job. And, speaking with folks in the financial aid office to discuss scholarships and loan-forgiveness programs may increase your award or uncover other sources of funding.

There has been much hand-wringing because several of our local schools dropped in the rankings this past year. While, of course, the rankings may affect application numbers and faculty recruiting, they will do so only to the extent we all buy into the premise that the rankings mean something. This Emperor’s New Clothes effect should be stopped. There are lots of great reasons to choose law school, and lots of great reasons to select a law school that isn’t ranked in the top 20. But the rankings themselves aren’t going to tell you anything about it.

Sybil Dunlop joined Greene Espel in 2010. Her practice focuses on representing individuals, corporations and public-sector entities in business and governmental defense litigation. She can be reached at sdunlop@greeneespel.com. A version of this column originally appeared in Minnesota Lawyer, sister publication to The Daily Record.