What makes a “good” law school? And what makes a “good” job?

  • /Reviewed by: Matt Riley
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    When I applied to law school, I was mostly concerned with one thing: getting a job. As a peripheral goal, I also wanted to get a job in California. But my main focus was on making sure that I would gain an offer of employment from a large law firm paying the market rate in a major industry. I knew I would be taking on debt to attend law school, and I wanted to be able to repay it quickly.

    I recently came across a list of law schools whose job placement numbers seem to be outpacing their U.S. News and World Report rankings (the rankings most commonly cited by applicants). Based on my metric, it would seem like these law schools are “good,” in the sense that a lot of their graduates get jobs. This post is going to take a brief look at a couple of those schools to underscore my main points which are: (1) not all law jobs are created equal and (2) try to avoid taking any rankings at face value.

    The top two schools on the list are Kentucky and Seton Hall, which boast employment percentages of 92% and 87% respectively. Those are great percentages, but digging a little deeper, I learned a couple things. First, according to Law School Transparency — the site I trust most when it comes to jobs reports — of the 92% at Kentucky, only 12.6% were employed at “large firms” and, of the 87% at Seton Hall, only 8.8% were employed at large firms. Now, I’m not an apologist at all for large law firms, but they are generally the firms that pay either major market rate ($180,000 per year) or regional market rate ($120,000-140,000 per year). Small law firms tend to pay substantially less, somewhere in the range of $50,000-$70,000, or less. Schools like Columbia (73.6% employed at large law firms) and the University of Pennsylvania (66.3% employed at large firms) obviously offer a better opportunity to get the large salary.*

    One additional complicating factor regarding the jobs available to graduates from schools like Kentucky and Seton Hall is that they are generally not very portable. In other words, an employer in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, or any other major market is probably less likely to hire someone from a strong regional school than someone from a strong national school, all things being equal.

    With all that said, I believe the schools on that list should be ranked higher. I expected to delve into the numbers and find a lot of jobs that did not require a J.D. or that were funded by the school. But that wasn’t the case. The graduates are employed full-time in bar-passage required jobs. U.S. News should give those jobs, unlike school funded or non-bar jobs, full weight in their rankings.

    And that leads me to my second point — don’t trust any rankings. There are a variety of sources out there, from USNWR to Above the Law, that all purport to have the best rankings. Yet, they differ widely and often include factors that I, personally, didn’t care about at all. For example, USNWR includes as a fairly significant part of their rankings the “faculty resources” such as “expenditures per student,” “student-faculty ratio” and “library resources.” Apart from financial aid, which plays a very small part in one of those categories, I don’t mind if a school has a slightly worse student-to-faculty ratio or if there are a lot of books in the law library. If a school’s graduates get placed in good jobs, that should matter more.

    At the end of the day, different people have different values when it comes to their education. For me, it was mostly about getting a job at a big firm. For you, it might be public interest or academia, which obviously shifts the scale. No matter what’s important to you, look beyond cookie-cutter rankings that might not give weight to what you find important.

    *All employment statistics taken from Law School Transparency.

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