Frederick L Shelton
Why The USN&WR Law School Rankings are Complete Bullsh*t
The new US News & World Report Law School Rankings List just came out. On it, you will see two things:
1. Some things have changed
2. Things haven’t really changed at all.
Is this list really reflective of the quality of legal education rendered? Does the ranking of a law school someone attended, indicate the quality of the attorney? I would offer a hard “No”.
Let’s break down the USN&WR methodology, as they describe it:
“U.S. News' Best Law Schools rankings evaluate institutions on their successful placement of graduates, faculty resources, academic achievements of entering students, and opinions by law schools, lawyers and judges on overall program quality.”
1. Successful Placement of Graduates. In other words, since you have gamed the system to give the students at these school an overwhelming edge over other students, who far out-performed them at lower-ranked schools, these schools must be “better”. Also, because all the rich kids end up at the highest paying firms, and then subsequently hire the kids of their rich friends later, the school is better? This is both self-serving and self-perpetuating.
2. Faculty Resources. This means that really rich schools are better because they have the latest and greatest equipment, and are endowed with luxury and excess from alumni benefactors.
3. Academic Achievements of Entering Students. Translation: If your parents could afford to send you to some elitists prep school that was coincidentally ranked higher than other schools, by the same people perpetuating the las school myth, you had better “achievements”. If your parents could afford private tutors for the LSAT and to help you with writing etc. You had better “achievement” than other students who had to cut it on their own.
4. Opinions by Law Schools, Lawyers & Judges. Is it any surprise that Harvard and Yale would rank each other higher than schools mere commoners attend? That alumni of these schools would have a self-serving reason to rank their alma mater highly?
The same schools are always on the list, in roughly the same order. If a school moves more than a few spots, it’s considered “shocking”.
Guess what’s not shocking? Colleges and Universities that have a majority of low-income students are not and have never been ranked highly on the list.
Who else has never been on the list? Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCU’s) are not and have not ever been ranked even moderately high on the list.
An AmLaw partner I quoted in my American Lawyer Media Article “Can Howard Compete with Havard? Yes.” made clear that partners know law school rankings are basically bullshit. His take (and mine)? Most partners know the rankings are tripe. he believes that it's better to look at how they did at school, not which school they went to. I agree with him and would go even further.
Look at the individual, not the school ranking.
One of the most brilliant attorneys I’ve met, graduated from the middle of her class at a law school ranked around 50th. She was injured in a severe car accident as a 1L and finished her classes anyway – thus killing her grades for that semester. During her 2nd and 3rd years, she excelled but the damage was already done. But great attorneys aren’t stopped by a setback. Now she’s the Practice Chair at an AmLaw, a Rainmaker and a Philanthropist. I admire her more than just about any attorney I’ve ever met.
The point is that even if an attorney didn’t do well at a school that’s not highly ranked, there may be mitigating circumstances that make them worth consideration.
On the flip side, one of the most inept and unfocused people I’ve ever had work for me was a graduate of Brown (B.A.), Princeton (MBA) and Harvard Law. Was it a coincidence that her parents were alumni and major donors to all three schools? I’ll let you do the math.
But that was earlier in my career and like so many, I mistakenly assumed that with those schools as her pedigree, she must be brilliant. I couldn’t have been more wrong. She was a truly sweet person. She was kind. She had a great sense of humor. I genuinely liked her. But in a profession that often requires sniper-level focus, she was a shotgun. Just plain scattered.
So look, I’m not saying that people who graduated from Ivy League and other top-ranked schools aren’t highly intelligent or accomplished. I would however, point out that there’s a name for an entitled little shit who barely graduated Harvard, and who only accomplished that, because their parents were so rich and influential:
Harvard Grad Lawyer.
There’s also a name for the attorney who graduated Valedictorian from Howard Law School and who didn’t have rich parents:
Someone Who was Declined for an Interview at Elitist Law Firms.
If you’re a Republican, remember that Clinton, Obama and Biden graduated from Ivy League schools. If you’re a Democrat, remember that Trump, Bush and Bush Jr. graduated from Ivy Leagues. If you’re an Independent like me, look at the names above again and ask yourself “Does School Ranking always equate to the smartest and brightest?”
Again, I have nothing against the schools - it's the rankings that are bullshit. They’re conducted by people with an obvious agenda, who get their insights from other people with an equally obvious agenda. This is akin to polling BigOil Executives as to whether electronic vehicles are better than internal combustion vehicles.
I would invite hiring partners and counsel to step outside the box and stop letting others tell you that law school ranking defines what will make a great lawyer. Think for yourself.
Look at the individual, not the school ranking.
Frederick Shelton is the CEO Shelton & Steele, a national legal consulting and search firm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org