Every year, students considering the study of law and firms who will one day hire them flock to the U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of the best law schools. Unsurprisingly, the top four elite schools for 2012—Yale, Harvard, Stanford, and Colombia—not only remain in identical positions as last year but are also among the nation’s most recognizable names. So it begs the question, do these schools make the grade?
Malcolm Gladwell would answer it’s “really about who is doing the ranking.” In the February edition of The New Yorker, Gladwell criticizes law school rankings and questions the methodology by which institutions come out on top. In his opinion, all-encompassing point systems cannot measure the true success or worth of a university. Undeniably, however, consumers continue to be number conscious. This is why slogans, including “four out of five dentists agree” or “number one in its category,” are frequently used to sell products. Car and Driver, for example, uses a similar methodology to rank sports cars. It places more subjective aspects, such as preference for exterior styling, below the other more objective features of an automobile, like fuel economy. In education, certain facets of a university are measurable, such as faculty-student ratio, LSAT scores at the 75th percentile, or faculty law-review publishing. However, determining whether or not a graduate will become a successful trial lawyer is much more difficult to add up.
In its best attempt, U.S. News & World Report published the 2012 law school rankings on March 15, 2011 as follows:
1. Yale: no change.
2. Harvard: no change.
3. Stanford: no change.
4. Columbia: no change.
5. Chicago: no change.
6. NYU: no change.
7. Michigan: up 2. Penn: no change.
9. Berkeley: down 2. UVA: up 1.
11. Duke: no change.
12. Northwestern: down 1.
13. Cornell: no change.
14. Georgetown: no change.
14. Texas: up 1
Gladwell’s biggest critique of this list is its lack of emphasis on the cost of learning. In a recessed economy, it’s hard to not to consider price when choosing a law school. To attend a top tier school, a law student will spend on average $48,000 per year in tuition alone. This is one reason Gladwell so heavily criticizes these school ranking systems. When reorganized to include the value for the dollar at forty percent, LSAT scores at forty percent, and faculty publishing at the remaining twenty, the top ten list has some surprising additions:
Brigham Young University (2)
University of Texas (5)
University of Virginia (6)
University of Colorado (7)
University of Alabama (8)
So how should hiring partners compare the number one law school graduate from the University of Alabama to a mid-ranked law school graduate from Harvard? The reality is, prestige and high-profile names (see, Corvette v. Civic) do matter. For the simple reason it is impossible to predict who will demonstrate firm loyalty or courtroom prowess, the one criterion a recruitment agent can trust is school reputation. In terms of increased diversity and rising stars among associates, however, placing preference on ivy leaguers would be a mistake. On the contrary, the best lawyers tend to be products of their background and environment more than their institution of choice. Gladwell confirms this in his book Outliers, where he attributes cultural and historical factors to the reasons why Jewish immigrants in the garment district produced so many top-tier New York lawyers, such as Joe Flom of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher and Flom, one of the largest law firms in the world. While school rankings can provide some guidance when it comes to identifying qualified first-years, traditional hiring methods that include phone and in-person interviews, associate hiring weekends and retreats, as well as partner dinners can be considerably more telling than names and numbers.
Is there, then, anything to a name? In the same way that ambition, work quality, or success cannot be quantified, so hiring partners should subscribe to Shakespeare’s adage “that which we call a rose; by any other name would smell as sweet.”
To see the full list of law school rankings, click here.
 Gladwell, Malcolm. “The Order of Things,” The New Yorker: February 14 & 21, 2011, p. 75.