You've surely heard of the famous U.S. News & World Report law school rankings, and you may have even studied up on the methodology for determining who ranks where. But how much do these law school rankings really matter in the real world?
The answer is both "a whole lot" and "very little" -- yes, both.
Finding a Job
The hard truth is that the legal job market is a tough place right now; it has been for a few years, and predictions say it will continue to be so for at least a few more. In this tough economy, law graduates need to harness every edge they can before heading out into the job market; one of the best ways to make employers look at you is by earning a law degree from a highly ranked law school.
It has always been the case that law graduates from top law schools, especially the T14, have the most doors opened to them right out of law school. For instance, large firm positions and prestigious judicial clerkships have always disproportionately gone to graduates of institutions high in the law school rankings; this is even more exaggerated now that there are fewer jobs available.
Does that mean you can't get one of those large firm positions or clerkships if you go to a lower ranked school? No, but you will have to work harder to even get your foot in those doors. For this reason, you should try to attend to the highest rank school possible and where you have the best chance of exceeding academically.
There are lots of other factors to consider though, including scholarship money, where you want to practice, the lesser-ranked school's reputation in the area you want to practice, the school's bar passage rate, the quality of the faculty, and other criteria. So while ranking is very important, it shouldn't be your only consideration.
Moving Up the Ladder
All of that said, once you do have your foot in the proverbial door in your legal career, it's up to you to make the most of your opportunity. You will begin making a name for yourself in the work force and little by little, your law school name will get less and less important; it will be your reputation as a lawyer that matters the most.
So do keep in mind that as you maneuver through your legal career, those law school rankings will become less and less important to you and your personal career trajectory.
Many students go to lower ranked law schools with the idea that they will be in the top 10 or 20 percent of the class, so going to a lesser ranked law school won't be a problem. There are two important flaws in this logic, however: (1) not everyone can be in the top 10 or 20 percent of the class -- and it's not an easy achievement; and (2) the jobs just aren't there right now for even those top 10 or 20 percent at schools ranked in the third and fourth tiers.
Make no mistake: the schools at the top of the rankings tend to be very expensive to attend, but so are a lot of other schools who aren't as well-respected nationally or even regionally. You need to look long and hard at your decision to go to law school, including why you're going in the first place and whether it is reasonable to expect that you will secure a job that would allow you to pay back any loans in a reasonable amount of time.
Unfortunately, in this economy, a school that finds itself low in the law school rankings just may not have a lot to offer you in the long run, and you need to consider that when deciding where to attend, if at all.