The Real Top Ranked Law Schools (20 National Law Schools)
Good question: you want to get into one of the top ranked law schools in the country as a law school applicant and aspiring lawyer.
But it's not so easy, if you are new to the world of the law, to figure out which are the best. There are different rankings by different publishers, and they change year to year. Also, these rankings often change depending on areas of specialty in the law.
Forget all of those other rankings.
Below, I provide (1) a short list of 20 top ranked law schools that most lawyers will agree are the best; (2) my criteria for this list and (3) some advice on what to do with this list.
Now, by “top ranked law schools,” I mean elite, national law schools--name-brand schools with the most prestige that give their students the most career opportunities.
People may disagree with this list, but any disagreement will be with law schools that I left off. No lawyer can seriously argue that the schools that are on my list of top ranked law schools don't belong on it at all.
The list is simplified because it is not a "linear" list, going from 1 to 20. It makes more sense to organize these top ranked law schools into "clumps" (I'd use the word "groups" but that would make this seemed more organized than it actually is.). And here are my three simple organizing principles:
Between different clumps, a clump higher on the list offer more prestige and opportunities to its students than a clump lower on the list.
Within the same clump, there is no difference worth mentioning between top ranked law schools in terms of prestige and career opportunities, and schools are presented in alphabetical order.
All of the schools on this list of clumps are elite, national schools.
Honorable Mention: George Washington, UCLA, USC, Vanderbilt, Washington University (St. Louis)
2. Explanation of my “clumped” rankings of top ranked law schools
It was US News and World Report that started the mania over making lists and rankings of the top ranked law schools in 1985 when it started its annual ranking of graduate schools, include its ranking of law schools (you can see this years US News rankings for law schools here). The problems with the list are known, and in recent years, others tried to fill the void with alternative lists, such as the career guide publishers Vault, and law professor Brian Leiter with his Leiter Report ranking law schools.
I will go into this more elsewhere, but in short: forget this rankings game.
Their year to year changes don't mean much to you as a law student in the end. The actual list of truly elite, national top ranked law schools is fixed, and it rarely changes. (If you don't get into one of these schools, then your calculation is somewhat different).
Even US News acknowledges the existence of the more-or-less permanent list of the best law schools, a list that changes rarely, and when it does, only slowly. It does so by acknowledging the block of top schools as the Top Fourteen (T-14 or T14); you would think that "top ten law schools" would be nicer, as a round number, but that's just the problem--a cut off at 10 would be artificial and would not recognize the fact that the #9 law school is about as good as the #14 law school.
The reality amongst the truly elite, national law schools, there is "clumping"; a list would suggest that going to a #9 school over a #11 school would be a no-brainer, but really, it just isn’t that clear.
In reality, in terms of prestige and opportunities, there are actually "clumps" or "groups" of law schools. Within these "clumps" or "groups," there are no serious differences in the prestige or opportunities you will have as a student. There are differences between clumps, but within the same clump, law schools are the same.
Now, what are the characteristics of these top ranked law schools? What is it that makes them top ranked and elite? US News measures these criteria only indirectly. Their most useful criteria is prestige as measured by an annual poll of lawyers, judges and law professors; another useful measure is the quality of admitted students (measured by undergraduate GPA and LSAT scores).
Some of the other criteria—faculty resources, job placement rates—are either not of interest practically speaking or can be manipulated by the law schools to boost their rankings. More on that elsewhere.
But to me, the best criteria are the more direct ones, based on actual placements or other practical things. The following are evidence of the relative prestige of the top ranked law schools, and what makes a top-ranked school elite:
Number of students sent to the Supreme Court and other prestigious federal appellate clerkships. The pinnacle of lawyerly prestige is the Supreme Court clerkship. There are usually no more than 36 clerks (four per Justice). This list of former and current Supreme Court law clerksshows that most are dominated by the top three law schools: Yale, Harvard and Stanford, and then after that, the rest of the "top 15." After that, there are a handful from other schools (Boston College, etc.). Surf around and look at federal appellate court clerkship placements, and you’ll find the same to be true as well (with more regional variations).
Number of alumni sent to the most prestigious and high-paying law firms all around the country. There are various ways to measure that, and when I find other methods to measure this, I will link to them here.
Number of alumni in competitive positions with the federal government, e.g., federal prosecutors with the Department of Justice or at certain United States Attorneys Offices (the local arms of the Department of Justice). This is a bit harder to measure systematically, but in my years of practice, I’ve noticed that it is mainly graduates of top ranked law schools that get these jobs.
National "brand" recognition: Again, I am not sure that this is measured systematically, but the question is this: Could you get a job in any state in the U.S. based on your law schools' reputation?
Also, my totally subjective criteria, called “how badly can you do at this school and still basically have it made?” For instance, you could be at the bottom of your class at Yale and still have more opportunities than most students at even Texas or Northwestern, both great schools.
It makes sense to know which are the top ranked law schools because they are different from other law schools. This list of top ranked law schools is almost permanent. They are going to be on this list for the next 25 years, maybe the next 50 or 100.
Lawyers, judges and legal academics are all prestige-whores AND their minds change only very slowly. Their opinion as to which are the top ranked law schools matter; they are the people who will hire you some day--not someone from US News or Vault. But they won't care at all if US News reports that your law school suddenly jumped 20 spots from 78th to 58th. They will always think about hiring a Harvard law grad over a USC grad (even if the USC grad is actually a better lawyer).
Based on my criteria, I provide below and annotated list of the top ranked law schools:
Clump 1: Yale Law School. Yale is in its own category as by far the most prestigious law school in the U.S. Yale has a (perhaps deserved) reputation for turning out impractical future law professors, but there are more than enough successful trial attorneys who went to Yale. Anything is an option for Yale Law grads--big money at a Wall Street law firm, work as a federal prosecutor, or teaching at a law school. This is one school where you can get terrible grades and, because of the reputation of the school itself, still be fairly secure that you can obtain a high-paying corporate job or some kind of federal clerkship.
Clump 2: Harvard Law School and Stanford Law School. For most practical purposes, these top ranked law schools are as prestigious as Yale, and give you as nearly as many opportunities. Basically, it's law professors who prefer Yale to Harvard and Stanford. Both are more competitive schools than Yale, meaning that you still have to work hard, but otherwise the world is your oyster so long as you are not at the very bottom of your class. Harvard Law is the mother of all law schools; Stanford is a smaller law school but no less prestigious. You still need to do well if you go to these law schools, but being middle of the pack at these law schools won't kill you. Being at the bottom of your class can make it difficult to get a high-paying job or clerkship of any kind.
Clump 3: Columbia, Chicago & NYU Law. These three schools round out the "top five" law schools (and yes, I realize there are six and that I cannot do math). Mostly these places are full of Ivy League grads who did not get in to Yale, Harvard or Stanford. If you are in the top 5% or 10%, most everything is at your disposal. If you graduate in the middle of the pack, you should still be able to get high-paying corporate law jobs (the ones where salaries start at $160,000), but clerkships and law-teaching might be tough. Perhaps the only opportunity you don't have is to become a law professor at Yale, Harvard or Stanford, but other than that, the world is your oyster. These top six law schools make up the totally awkwardly-named "YHSCCN" tier of law schools. Over the last 50 years, there have been only several changes to this list: Stanford was once a "regional" school that jumped in the rankings in the 1960s, and NYU got into the top-five in the 1990s. Sometime during this period Michigan fell out of the top 5 only to land within the top 10. After the top 6 law schools, there is a slight dip in prestige but not much. There are slight variations in prestige amongst these schools, but generally, this does not change.
Clump 4(a): Berkeley, Michigan, Virginia. These three fall into a "clump" of schools immediately under the top 6 and somewhat better. It is hard to actually quantify any differences in prestige or alumni opportunities. Michigan used to be a better law school, one of the top five. Someone who gets into one of these schools along with a school in the Columbia/Chicago/NYU may pause especially if in-state tuition is lower. (Note this is Clump 4(a) because it is quite close to Clump 4(b), and less close to Clump 3, in terms of prestige and alumni opportunities.)
Clump 4(b): Cornell, Duke, Georgetown, Northwestern, Texas, UPenn. Again, all excellent schools, and a shot at the most selective jobs (an occasional Supreme Court clerk, law teaching, the most selective firms, federal government jobs). Doing badly at these law schools can hurt you. Being in the middle of your class can make it tough. There are many under-employed graduates of these schools, towards the bottom of the class.
Clump of Honorable Mentions: UCLA, USC, Vanderbilt, George Washington. These schools are a step down from what I would call the “Top Fifteen.” But these are still "national" or "top" law schools. UCLA is probably the best of this bunch, and may someday ascend to join the Top 15 to create the Top 16.
3. My advice on how to use this list of top ranked law schools
Whatever your purpose in going to law school, and whether or not you think you can afford it, aim to get into a school on this list of top ranked law schools. If you really want to be a lawyer, and you get into one of these schools, it may be worth the risk of going $200,000 into debt (because you have a decent chance of getting a job that pays well enough to allow you to pay off your loans.
There are specialty rankings ("environmental law, entertainment law"), but your first priority should be getting into the highest ranking school in the top 15 that you can; within a “clump,” you might pick the school ranked higher in the specialty you’re interested in. Still, your interests may change, so aim for the highest-ranked clump possible.
If you don't get into one of these elite schools, then the calculation should change radically, and you should think very, very carefully before going to another, lower-ranked law school.
If you go to a lower-ranked school, think very carefully about price. Generally speaking, the lowest-ranked law school still costs about as much as the highest-ranked law school.
If you think you are just in it for the money, think again. Law school is not the easiest, or best, way to riches or a higher salary. Law school is really, really expensive, and if you're not sure that you want to be a lawyer (i.e., if you don't even know what you'll be doing day to day for the next 20-30 years), you could be setting yourself up for a miserable life. Seriously.
"What is the worst that could happen if I just go to law school"? You could be $200,000 in debt with no chance of getting a job to pay off that debt in your life time. Many, many students are now in permanent, non-discharable debt, and unable to get a job.
Do a very careful calculation of whether you can afford to go to law school. Tuition is expensive. If you're dying to become a lawyer, but you only get into lower-tier schools, think hard about getting an online law degree. It’s not an easy way of becoming a lawyer, but it isn’t nearly as expensive (and I think, for reasons that I will provide elsewhere, that online law schools are the future…).
If your stats (GPA + LSAT) only allow you to get into a bottom-tier law school but are dead set on becoming a lawyer, think about getting an online law degree from an online law school. Or wait and try again…