Ed. note: This post is written by Will Meyerhofer, a Biglaw attorney turned psychotherapist, whom we profiled. A former Sullivan & Cromwell attorney, he holds degrees from Harvard, NYU Law, and The Hunter College School of Social Work. He blogs at The People’s Therapist.

An editor at Above the Law suggested some months back that I do a piece on the U.S. News & World Report law school rankings. For whatever reason, this stodgy old weekly news magazine — which someone must still read — has created a sideline business publishing rankings of schools, including law schools. I’m not sure what the criteria are, but at least in theory, it’s a big deal for lawyers when the list comes out each year.

The list seems designed to make official what everyone knows anyway, i.e., that there are “prestige” schools that are harder to get into. But like any good opinion piece, they throw in a few twists — familiar names in unexpected places. It boils down to dissing one of the big places, or unexpectedly anointing a second-rank outfit. That way everyone can get riled up over the respective rankings of my school versus your school.

It sounded kind of boring, so I filed the idea away.

Then it started to gnaw at me. The U.S. News list seemed like a good example of the amazing lengths lawyers go to in order to distinguish themselves from one another. The entire profession splits hairs like this because the career path is so conservative there isn’t much to distinguish one attorney from another. Every lawyer lines up to take the LSAT, then get processed and distributed to law schools based on hairline distinctions. In class you sit through identical lectures, take identical exams, and head off — for the most part — to identical firms to do nearly identical work.

You end up arguing over the details….

The law school curriculum is pretty much the same thing wherever you go -– it’s standardized. I doubt the property law lecture at a “top” law school is much different, let along superior, to a property law lecture at a less “prestigious” place.

But, of course the students are “better” at the more prestigious school -– because they did better on their LSAT. How much better? Some tiny fraction of a percentage, probably, representing a few questions that they got right and someone else got wrong.

I worked with one lawyer who went to a “second-tier” law school in New York, but rose to the top of his class and made law review. He said he still faces resistance at top firms because of snobbery over where he went to school – even though he’s been out and working for eight years. Those Yale and Harvard lawyers at the big firms, he says, turn their noses up at his top of the class record at a “lesser” school – as well as his federal clerkship and the years of hard work that followed.

I’m currently working with a couple of young people who find themselves in the odd position of trying to decide how to appraise the “value” of a “top school.” One woman was accepted at a “top” place, but offered a full scholarship at a “second-tier” institution. Is it worth $150k to go to the prestige school? The education itself will be nearly identical. Is the snob value worth it? According to one of my clients, half the kids at Columbia Law are struggling to find jobs right now, so it doesn’t sound like the “top “ places are pulling their weight. On the other hand, maybe it’s even worse coming out of a “second tier” joint. Crucially, though – with no debt, she wouldn’t be as desperate as everyone else. I see plenty of young lawyers emerging from “top schools” (and every other kind of school) with shaky job prospects, huge debt and – worst of all – the sense that going to law school was a mistake. The debt reduces them to indentured servitude, making it impossible to do anything else, at least until they’ve paid the piper.

How about the law firms themselves? Surely some are “better” than others?

Read on at The People’s Therapist.


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