I don’t know how I missed this last week, but a study reported in the WSJ Law Blog claims that law school prestige is overrated. Significantly overrated. The ABA Journal — which picked up the story this morning — summarizes the work of a professor from UCLA and a professor from Brooklyn Law:
[UCLA law professor Richard Sander and Brooklyn Law School visiting professor Jane Yakowitz] studied data from more than 40 public law schools across the country, and found that applicants tend to go to the most elite law school that will have them. But is that a good idea?
Not according to data collected in the American Bar Foundation’s After the JD study of lawyers who entered the bar in 2000, they write. It indicates that the salary boost for achieving high grades more than makes up for the salary depreciation associated with attending a lower‐ranked school. The study also found that lawyers who left law school with the lowest grades felt the least secure about their jobs.
I’m sorry, did anybody’s worldview just get blown up?
Given the differences in grading at various law schools, it’s a little bit surprising to think that an A from just about anywhere is better than a B from just about anywhere. But that’s what the professors are claiming. According to Sander and Yakowitz, as quoted in the Law Blog:
The consistent theme we find throughout this analysis is that performance in law school – as measured by law school grades – is the most important predictor of career success. It is decisively more important than law school “eliteness.” . . . Since the dominant conventional wisdom says that law school prestige is all‐important, and since students who “trade‐up” in school prestige generally take a hit to their school performance, we think prospective students are getting the wrong message.
That’s… interesting. So the best thing you can do for your career is to go to the crappiest law school you can get into and dominate your competition? That sounds vaguely anti-intellectual. Shouldn’t students want to compete against the best, as opposed to dominate the weak? Sander and Yakowitz apparently believe that students shouldn’t “trade-up” and transfer to better law schools if they have the opportunity.
All right, let’s ask the million dollar question that Ashby Jones asks on the WSJ. If this study’s findings are true, why are they true? Jones didn’t receive a satisfactory answer:
On that front, Sander and Yakowitz don’t have a lot of hard answers. “We weren’t looking at that, so we don’t know,” said Sander. “But it could have to do with psychological factors, a level of confidence you gain from doing well that serves you well not only in school but afterward.” Sander and Yakowitz concede, however, that on this front they’re “mostly speculating.”
It’s hard to know what to do with this study, other than demanding more studies! Every day prospective law students are trying to choose between going to a higher-ranked law school while taking on more debt versus going to a lower-ranked law school that offers more scholarship money. If it turns out that going to the lower-ranked law school means that the student will not only save money upfront but also earn more money going forward, that would be a major shift in the way people think about their options.
Meanwhile, something tells me that this study will end up in the recruitment brochures of every third-tier law school in the country.