Friday, April 06, 2012

When the Rankings are Rank

Spring is here, faithful reader, and that means lots of different things to different people. If you're a new law student just wrapping up a hectic first year, it means bring able to see some light at the end of the tunnel. If you're a graduating law student, it means finals and bar applications, and being in a pretty foul mood all of the time. But there is another breed out there--the applicant. I want to turn my attention now to people who may be thinking about law school, or who have already put in some applications because times are different now than they were just 5 years ago when I applied.

You may have heard that we had some economic problems recently (they may or may not be over, depending on who you talk to). The economy had such a far-reaching impact on the legal field, I don't think anyone could have seen it coming. Law firms slashed the number of available jobs, while cutting thousands of already established associates, creating a simultaneous job deficit and a glut of supply. It went far beyond belt-tightening; more like they all started wearing whalebone corsets. Anxious students across the country waited for things to get better. They didn't, and they won't.  I'm not trying to be a negative nelly, it's a fact. Firms (and not just law firms--I'm using the word "firms" as short-hand. This goes for government, non-profit, private sector, and even contract work as well) condensed and merged to save on overhead, and the life-blood of the law firm (the "billable hour") was killed at many firms. Clients started speaking up and demanding more experienced attorneys on their cases, so firms became much more reluctant to hire new blood. There are jobs out there, and things have picked up, but the golden age of ample internships and guaranteed placement is over.

Which brings me back to the title and topic of this post: Rankings. Applicants need to care about this, because whether we like it or not, rankings matter. They matter even more now since firms are being more selective about hiring recent graduates. Going to a "top" school matters, even though we all know the ranks are a systemic pile of steaming subjective and false crap. Not that I'm bitter.

But, most evening students don't really have much choice when it comes to being selective. They go to law school at night because they have certain responsibilities -- whatever they may be -- that usually tie them to a geographic area. Pickins' are slim. So, people considering an evening program are basically stuck with whatever schools are closest to them that happen to have an evening program. (I know US News is ranking evening programs separately, and that's great -- but no one really cares. When someone asks where you went to law school, they don't follow-up with "Was that the crummy day program or the stellar evening program?" Doesn't happen. Your legal reputation is inextricably linked to the "overall" school ranking.) So, how does one cope and mitigate the need to rely on a school with a "poor" ranking? There are a few things you can do:
  1. Prep your network. I've talked about networking before, because I can't stress it enough. Find out who you know that is an attorney. See if you can get in at a firm or do some legal work before you start law school. Experience and contacts are going to matter so much when you change careers. You don't want to be in a position of coming to graduation, needing a job, and then reaching out to people for the first time in 7 years. It's tacky and transparent. If you develop and sustain long-lasting relationships with people you will be better off in the job search--and thus less dependent on your school's reputation to get you that interview or job. 
  2. Focus. I blogged about this before, too, but the advice still applies. The more focused you are in school, the more that will come through on your resume. If you can find a niche in the market that you are wild about, where there may not be as much competition, go for it. Develop that interest and skill through coursework, legal writing projects, and even independent research. Again, by focusing more on your unique skills, your resume will "pop" and you will be less beholden to those rankings. 
  3. Aim High. Bu this, I mean go to the "best" ranked school with an evening program that you possibly can. Yes, I know I'm a hypocrite and after writing this bog I'm going to have to take a shower. I bemoan the ranking system, I talk about their patent unfairness and how they disproportionately impact evening student--then I go and tell you to succumb to the pressure and review the rankings. It's not a perfect world, what can I say? Even if you get a better financial aid offer from another school; even if you have to travel out a little farther, I would advise going to the more esteemed school (I won't say "better"), only because this is a huge investment and you need to ensure that your investment is protected long-term. No guarantee that your highly ranked school will always be at that rank, but it's a decent bet that it will hover in that area for a long time (at least long enough for you to get your first job). 
Despite all that has happened over the last few years, I'd still always advise people to go to law school if they have a real interest in the law. It's a great learning experience, and it gives you a much deeper understanding of the technicalities of our civil society. But, it would be a perfect world if all J.D.s were created equal. U.S. News has ensured that there will always be an elite hierarchy, so do your best to not fall victim to it!

1 comment:

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