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Should Applicants Always Go to the Best Law School They Get Into?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that you should always go to the best, most elite law school you get into. Or is it?

In a recent study, law school professors Richard Sander and Jane Yakowitz discovered that the salary boost from earning stellar grades outweighs the boost from attending an elite law school. Moreover, if you graduate with a low-low GPA, turns out you’ll “feel the least secure about your jobs.” (Read more about the summary on the WSJ Law Blog, which links to the PDF of the reported study.)

In the words of Above the Law’s Elie Mystal, “I’m sorry, did anybody’s worldview just get blown up?”

“Higher performance produces a much larger dividend than eliteness does,” says Sander and Yakowitz’s paper. And they suggest that you choose the school where you will perform the best, regardless of rank. They write:

As an illustrative hypothetical, imagine an average student (GPA 3.25‐3.5) at 47th ranked University of Florida. Using the fifth column from Table 11 (AJD regressions on salary), we can predict how her earnings would be affected under various counterfactuals. If she had attended 20th ranked George Washington University, her grades likely would have slipped to the 2.75‐3.0 range, and her salary would drop considerably (by 22%, all other factors held constant.) Even if she had managed to get a spot at 7th ranked UC Berkeley, where the tier premiums are highest, her grades likely would have fallen into the 2.5‐2.75 range, and her salary would be 7% lower. On the other hand, if she had attended 80th ranked Rutgers, she probably could have improved her grades to land in the 3.5‐3.75 range, and earned a 13% higher salary.

But what happens when you get below the top 100? Does their argument still hold true? I suspect not. Moreover, since law firms are dealing with smaller recruiting budgets, many have had to limit the number of campuses they visit and they have not been visiting second or third tier schools at which they recruited in the past. On-campus recruiting is one of the most common ways JDs get jobs, and without a recruiter from Firm A on campus, it gets much harder to secure a job at Firm A, regardless of your GPA.

That said, Sander and Yakowitz’s argument almost definitely holds true when it comes to location. If you want to practice law in Alabama, for example, the absolute best way to do so is to attend the University of Alabama School of Law. As our 2010 Law Firm Associate Survey showed, attending a lower-ranked school near where you want to practice is often a better choice than attending a more elite school across the country. And if you get a 4.0 GPA at that local school, you are a shoo-in for a high-paying law firm associate position–as long as you don’t screw up the interview. To find out which schools are the best for getting a job in major U.S. cities and regions, check out this blog post from Vault, Top 5 Law Schools by Employment: The Best Program for Where You Live.

This post is authored by Carolyn C. Wise, Vault.com Education.  The education section of Vault.com provides content on law school, the admissions process, internships and industry trends.

Stay tuned for our upcoming podcast on this topic.

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