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Commentary: Law school rankings a dangerous game

Some of the biggest law firms in the country have canceled or drastically cut back their law school recruiting, leaving students wondering why they have gone $200,000 or more into debt for a J.D. degree that suddenly appears to be less valuable.

There are more than 1.1 million lawyers licensed to practice in the United States. According to the ABA, in the 2008-09 academic year there were more than 150,000 students enrolled in the country’s 200 accredited law schools, and those schools handed out more than 40,000 J.D. degrees — at a time when both law firms and their corporate clients want fewer lawyers.

Yet law schools are trying harder than ever to get high rankings in the annual surveys conducted by several national publications. They want high rankings, of course, to attract more law school students!

And what do these students get for their money? Earlier this year my company co-hosted an online seminar with West LegalEdcenter, focusing on whether law school offers preparation for real life. Three recent law school graduates spoke during the Webinar, and their comments about their lack of real world preparation could only be called poignant. Longtime readers of this column know that such responses validate my own feelings about how inadequately law schools address “The Business of Law.®”

There are a few law schools — Harvard, Yale, Stanford, perhaps several others — that have long-term career impact over and above any particular ranking. Beyond these, just what really does it matter if you got your law degree from number 17 or number 29 on the list? What matters most for young lawyers is the first job, not where they went to law school. If that first job is spent doing grunt work that imparts little career skills, even a Harvard graduate will have no marketable skills to impress either an employer or a client. If a graduate of a “lesser” school is fortunate enough in the first job to have a mentor who effectively teaches by example what a good lawyer should be, the resulting lessons will pay dividends for many more years after law school’s lessons are forgotten. Lawyers succeed because someone sparked their success.

Ultimately, the choice of a law school will depend on factors much more practical than a magazine ranking. These include the availability of scholarships, family support, the location of the school (if you prefer a small town setting, don’t go to Columbia in New York City or UCLA in Los Angeles), whether you want to be close to home or far away, your spouse’s or significant other’s opinion if you are in a committed relationship, the school’s national reputation in sports and general academics, and the law school curriculum (offering practice management as well as legal theory). These criteria matter because of the personal impact they have.

When demand for lawyers is down and law schools are focusing on rankings to lure more students, there is a real danger that the schools will “game” the numbers for a higher ranking. Potential students have no advocate to assess the data submitted by the law school so that an appropriate evaluation of the ranking statistics can be made. That’s the best argument for the law school students to put most weight on personal evaluation — not the evaluation of something that cost a few dollars at the newsstand.

Ed Poll J.D., M.B.A., CMC is the principal of LawBiz® Management, a national law firm practice management consultancy based in Venice, California. For more information, visit his Web site www.LawBiz.com or email him at EdPoll@LawBiz.com.

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