Not long ago, going to law school was a safe bet — both for students who planned on practicing law and those who were less certain of their future career path.
But in recent years, a sputtering legal economy has made the choice more difficult.
A recent survey by Kaplan Test Prep found that law school graduates value the job placement rates and tuition costs of law schools above school rankings. Pre-law students, oppositely, cite rankings as their top criterion in choosing a school.
The vast majority of pre-law students — 86 percent — said school rankings are “very important” or “somewhat important” in deciding where to apply. This percentage is identical to the results of a survey Kaplan conducted in 2010.
The results were surprising given the importance of the economy in the current hiring climate, said Glen Stohr, a Kaplan Law School Admission Test expert.
One possible reason for the continued reliance on rankings is the ease it provides.
“Rankings have been really important and popular among undergrads for a long time,” he said. “They present at least the impression that this is a one-stop place, and [students] can just find out number 21 is better than number 27,” Stohr said.
Sam Ketchum, a political science junior who plans to attend law school after graduation, said both the rankings and locations of schools will factor into his choice.
“There’s a pretty stratified ranking of law schools,” he said.
In its 2012 law school rankings, U.S. News and World Report chose Yale University, Stanford University and Harvard University as the top three in the nation. Others in the top 10 included the University of Chicago, the University of California-Berkeley and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.
The University of Minnesota’s law school ranked 19th.
Ketchum said most pre-law students he knows are applying to a variety of schools, as they did during the college application process.
A 2007 study released by the Law School Admission Council found that the U.S. News and World Report ranking system has changed the way law schools function — it found that awareness of how decisions may affect future rankings changes the way decisions are made.
Those interviewed in the study consistently noted that resources were distributed to areas that factored into rankings, “even if they are skeptical that this is a productive use of these resources.”
Rankings also have a psychological effect, the study found. Schools not only have less power over their own reputations but can experience morale decreases when they drop in rank.
“There’s nothing wrong with law school rankings, but they don’t tell the whole story,” Stohr said.
Students may not realize that they can ask schools for additional information when applying. Data on things like how quickly students find work after graduation is always available, Stohr said.
When choosing a school, students should prioritize their own goals and circumstances, he said.
“You want to be someplace that you are comfortable and inspired to be in,” he said, “where you’re not just grinding your teeth, going, ‘God, I can hardly wait to get out of here.’”