Sometimes in the flurry of law school admissions, students forget that eventually they will be in law school. What then? We've got tons of advice on what to expect in law school, from the importance of first-year grades to kickstarting a rewarding legal career. And that's just for starters.
Most grisly urban legends revolve around bloody hooks found on car doors, or a phone call with heavy breathing originating from inside the house.
While perhaps not as dramatic, law schools have their own set of urban legends. Like the student who removed every reference treatise in the law library on the Age Discrimination in Employment Act after learning it would be the class appellate brief topic (the horror!). Or the torts study group member who deliberately mischaracterized the holding of a seminal "proximate causation" case in her portion of the outline. Oh, the humanity.
Such scandalous tales may leave prospective law students wondering: Is law school competition really that cut-throat, or are these accounts just the urban legends of the legal set?
It is difficult to know for certain whether law students across the nation are so profoundly affected by competition that they (ironically) resort to criminal conduct, or whether a good game of "operator" is simply more titillating than studying, say, the federal rules governing interpleader. What does seem clear, however, is that when it comes to competition, not all law schools are created equally.
Measuring competitiveness is a qualitative judgment, and it is therefore concededly difficult to compare schools on that basis. We did, however, conduct an informal evaluation by polling students at various law schools to see whether any pattern regarding the degree of competition among students emerged.
The student reports (as well as my own experience at Duke Law School) suggest that a correlation exists between school rank and student competition—with higher ranked schools boasting more collegial atmospheres.
Yale Law School (#1)*, for example, has institutionally minimized competition by abolishing a traditional grading curve and class ranking system. Students at the country's top law school receive only "credit/no credit" or "honors/pass/low pass/fail" evaluations. One student reported that, as a result of Yale's alternative approach, she experienced minimal stress and was enjoying law school more than she had imagined. And while most of my professors at Duke (#10) graded students on the classic curve, my law school experience was nevertheless marked by supportive camaraderie. Students routinely shared outlines and helped each other prepare for exams.
Law students at schools that are traditionally ranked lower, on the other hand, seem more likely to suffer from competitive and, at times, antagonistic academic environments. For instance, a student at the University of San Diego School of Law (#85) has observed "jealously and hard feelings over grades" amongst her classmates. Though she witnessed "no outright sabotage or passing on of misinformation," she noted that "there was always the feeling that you needed to score higher or contribute more intelligently in class than the person sitting next to you, even if it was a close friend."
Though it may seem counterintuitive—after all, you don't make it to a top law school merely by holding hands and dancing in field of daisies—the explanation is rather straightforward. Simply put, more students at prestigious law schools obtain employment upon graduation than their counterparts at less prominent schools, regardless of class ranking.
The statistics prove it. For example, 96.8% of students graduating from UCLA School of Law (#15) were employed by graduation.** By contrast, only 58.6% of students at Whittier Law School, a fourth tier school located just outside Los Angeles, had secured employment by the time they graduated. Other law schools in the third and fourth tiers reported comparable statistics.
When you're competing with your classmates for grades, sometimes it's best to win the race before it's even started.
Students at higher ranked schools don't just enjoy a more favorable rate of employment; they are also more likely to obtain more lucrative and coveted positions. A leading Los Angeles-based law firm, for example, employs in its home office twenty-six associates who received law degrees from UCLA (#15), but just three associates from Loyola Law School (# 66) and none from Southwestern Law School (third tier). Likewise, a major New York law firm boasts sixty-two Columbia Law School (#5) graduates amongst its associates, but only ten from Brooklyn Law School (#60) and two from New York Law School (third tier).
Of course, notoriously type-A law students are well aware of these numbers. One student at Columbia Law School (#5) felt certain that every Columbia student could obtain a position at a top law firm, regardless of grades. Similarly, University of Texas Law School (# 18) students say "you can be ranked 100th and get a good big firm job," but they noted that if "you go to Southern Methodist University Law School (#46, also in Texas) you have to be #1 to get the same job."
Now this isn't to say that, unless you graduate from a top twenty law school, you'll never schmooze Fortune 500 clients over martinis at the Four Seasons or become the world's preeminent scholar on whether nude dancing in a mud pit constitutes "expressive conduct" worthy of First Amendment protection. What attending a higher ranked school does appear to mean is that there's less pressure to distinguish yourself from your fellow classmates, which in turn may translate into less undesirable competition.
So, here's a tip for all you prospective law students: Don't bother stressing about whether a future classmate will swipe your contracts outline or spike your latte with laxatives before the civil procedure exam. Instead, focus your energy on studying hard to ace the LSAT and writing a dazzling personal statement so you can earn admission to the best law school possible. That way, you can save your competitive energy for a more appropriate outlet—like running out of the house when the phone rings and you hear heavy breathing.
*See http://www.usnews.com/usnews/edu/grad/rankings/law/brief/lawrank_brief.php for a full listing of the nation's top 100 law schools (first and second tiers), as well as those in the third and fourth tiers.
** See U.S. News & World Report's 2008 edition of "America's Best Graduate Schools" for more information regarding employment statistics.
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