Bricks on the Brain

UM Law

Sunday, May 15, 2005

My Law School Selection Strategy

This is a follow up to my series addressing the question of whether or not I think Miami's stock is on the rise, immediately preceding this post.

I put a lot of stock in the notion that my LSAT and undergrad GPA would be good predictors of my performance in law school. I was accepted in the top 25 (by USNWR), wait-listed in the top 15. I guessed that at top schools I'd get average or below average grades. In the second tier I figured I'd do better than average, maybe top 10%. I didn't even want to consider third tier possibilities, although some would be very cheap tuition-wise. So I had to decide:

1) Option 1. Get into DEEP debt for a top 25 name, and most likely freeze my ass off in the process. The result would be some resume "prestige" regardless of whatever grades I get. Given the GPA's and LSAT's of the other kids, I wasn't sure how I'd fare there.

2) Option 2. Accept a lower ranked school, but still high enough where excellent grades from that school might achieve the same resume effect as mediocre grades from a school ranked 25-50. Many schools put a little scholarship money on the table, and thus I would only have to take on a MODERATE debt. Possibly be nice and warm all year round.

3) Option 3. Go to very low ranked school for almost nothing, get outstanding grades. I just never felt that top grades could make up for a school's lack of reputation, no I never really put much thought into this one.

Many students think long and hard about these very same choices. The biggest caveat given by those-in-the-know is that you make an ass of u and me when you assume you're going to get the grades. If the grades aren't there, then you only achieved half your plan.

In my case, my grades fell short of making Law Review (I was too lazy to try, but at UM you can write-on and I think somebody does every year), but I picked up an A here and there to make up for the real stink bombs (C's) I dropped. My rank isn't quite in the top 10% range, but good enough to be competive. My summer job offers were competitive with what my friends at other more prestigious schools were getting. My final job prospects remain to be seen, but I'm confident I'll be fine.

So in the end, I think I made out well, taking on a lot less debt than I would have had to in order to pay a prestige premium. But there are students who loose the gamble, and end up with poor grades. They would have been better off getting poor grades at a school where it wouldn't have mattered so much. There are also students who thought they'd get a free lunch by accepting free rides at third tier schools. I know a couple people who are in the top 10 of their class at those schools who wish they could go back and just do mediocre at a 2nd tier school. I got lucky, I figured I'd do just a little better than average grades-wise, and that's how it seems to have worked out. Combine the grades and the school's rank, and I'm right where I'd be at a higher ranked school with below average grades, just less debt.

But gambling on your grades isn't for everyone. If you're risk-averse, then follow the old addage and you'll never go "wrong": "Go to the highest ranked school you can afford." Do that and you'll never have terrible regrets. You won't be making the best decision, but you're certain to make a good one.

So what about faculty, student organizations, Moot Court performance, bar passage rates? Did I look at those things? Nope. I really didn't know much about those things in the first place, and it was all too much to keep track of. It was just much simpler to use USNWR as a guide, mindful of the ranking system's strengths and weaknesses. Even knowing what I know now, I'm not convinced its such a terrible way to do it. Its not perfect, but there aren't many other practical ways of doing it.

So I hope this helped by giving you my thoughts on Miami. Maybe others will post their comments as well. The purpose of this series was to save myself some time by not having to repeat myself over and over to the people that get sent my way. But I'm still happy to talk to anybody thinking about coming to UM Law or law school in general.

P.S. The last thing I'd advise you of is to be aware that most students are going to sound less than thrilled with law school and their law school in particular. Law school is very demanding, and it has a tendency to wear students down. Expect a little bit of an edge to everyone's answers. When I first started asking around, I got the impression that the first law schools I investigated were terrible because the students I talked to seemed pretty indifferent. But later I realized that all law students talk about their schools that way. But I could never shake my initial impressions of those first schools. Keep that in mind. Law school is fun! Really.

P.S.S. 70 degrees in the middle of December. For real.


  • At 5:46 PM, Anonymous Michael Froomkin said…

    While there's a lot above that I might put differently, there is one thing I think is especially sensible:

    "If you're risk-averse, then follow the old addage and you'll never go "wrong": "Go to the highest ranked school you can afford." Do that and you'll never have terrible regrets. You won't be making the best decision, but you're certain to make a good one."

    I think that's basically right. Or, a slightly different way of putting it is that while small differences in ranking don't matter at all (except maybe in the top 5 or 10), big ones -- say, a 35%+ jump towards the top of the list from the lower-ranked school -- often can matter. For that reason, you should probably go to the (noticably) higher-ranked school unless you can articulate a reason that you feel comforatable with as to why you shouldn't. That could be money, it could be climate, it could be the nature of the two schools, it could the needs of family or a significant other, where you want to settle, or an understanding of the great limitations of the ranking system.

  • At 11:49 AM, Blogger Klio said…

    I remember when I was a younger over-achiever. Grades, class-ranking, and school prestige, I determined, would make or break me. Now, I am a little older than the traditional law student and I just want to be happy and satisfied with the direction in which my life is heading. That doesen't mean I've somehow lost my edge or anything. I'm still just as competive as the next law student - but my priorities have changed for the better. I make better decisions for the whole me, not just the "professional" me. My advice is that a school will not make or break you. You have a gazillion ways to distinguish yourself from your competition in the workforce other than the name of your school on your resume. (i.e.Foreign languages, Business Experiences, Association Memberships, etc.) Also, as I experienced firsthand during the Post-911 recession, no matter how prestigious the name of the school on your resume is, or how hight your grades and class-rank are - you are NOT guaranteed a job or a thriving career in a troubled economy. This insight has influenced my school and career choices more than any other. So if it feels right to brave sub-zero temperatures half of the year and attend a top 25 law school - if that's what makes you happy and you have the opportunity - Then by all means GO!!

    I just want to be nice and warm.

  • At 8:18 PM, Blogger Bricklayer said…

    I agree, its worth putting some thought into but its not worth getting stressed out about.

    It might open a few doors that would otherwise be shut, open wider a few that are just open a crack, or grease a few hinges that would otherwise be sticky.

    I do think that the lower you go in ranking, the better your grades need to be. I know a lot of people at higher ranked schools that are just half-assing it because everybody gets a B no matter what. I suppose that could be a good thing or a bad thing. Maybe one learns more and has a better chance to reflect on the law in such an environment, on the other hand maybe a competetive atmosphere is good too.

    And then there's always the tourtise and the hare....

  • At 10:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    It seems strange, considering that the legal profession, at least ostensibly, purports to stand for the ideals of equality and fairness, that discussions about ranking and prestige should take such a center stage.
    As a statistical matter, the average student from the University of Miami may not stack up quite as well against the average student from Harvard or Yale, but that says nothing about the dozens of individual students here at UM who have the intellect, drive, and skills to out-compete any of those fancy-pants jokers. It is unfortunate truth that many of these deserving UM students will have less of an opportunity to work at prestigious firms or as academics simply because the school from which they have graduated is not as well regarded as another. In this regard, it seems to me that the entire system of American legal education is nothing but a giant Ponzi scheme.

  • At 2:13 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Bottom line - go to the best school that you can get into - period. If you are deciding between NYU and Columbia, perhaps money counts. But if it's between Cornell and Miami, give me a break. Law is nothing more than a prestige game. If you doubt me, check out where each SC Justice went to school. Do you really believe those folks are any smarter than some of the past summa cum laude grads from schools like Miami?

  • At 9:39 PM, Blogger jon said…

    southwestern medical school surfing tonight I saw your blog. I liked it and wondered how you did that? Anyway, its a cool southwestern medical school site...


  • At 11:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Well what can one do when they have had terrible time in college and did not prove that well on the LSAT. Graduated with a 2.6 but due to pass courses from other colleges it rounded out to be a 1.95 what can one do to get to law school


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