Ranking the rankings: The best school for you

By Chad Flanders:  When I was deciding where to go to college, my Dad — a dean at my high school — told me that every college was good for somebody otherwise it wouldn’t be there. I wasn’t sure, and I’m still not sure, that this advice was universally true. Perhaps there are some colleges that are really good for nobody and that don’t have any business being around (many colleges that have gaudy advertisements on TV may fit into this category). 

Still, my Dad’s advice proved salutary, as I think it was intended to be. The challenge for me wasn’t just to find the best school for anybody, but the best school for me. 

And it turned out that the best college for me wasn’t ranked high in the U.S. News & World Report rankings. As it turns out, the factors that went into my decision weren’t easily measured by U.S. News. I had a preference to stay in the Midwest, and I wanted a much smaller school (having come from a very large high school). I leaned politically conservative then, and I sought out a faculty that would share, or at least be sympathetic to those values. Plus, when I visited, I got a nice vibe from the faculty, students and administrators I met. It felt like someplace I could call home for four years. 

I try to keep my high-school self’s reasoning in mind when the U.S. News law school rankings come along every year, and when yet another story (they seem to be endless) despairs of law students who don’t go to the top schools of getting good jobs. These rankings and stories push a certain narrative — that the best law school for you is the “objectively” best one, as measured by a number of factors, and that success in law school is getting a high-paying job, preferably at a big firm in New York, D.C. or Chicago. Your decision about where to go to school needs to be hard-headed and driven by the numbers.

I’ll stipulate that the U.S. News rankings measure things that are pretty important, although I suspect that U.S. News has had a distorting factor on what people think is truly important and that this is causing a lot of law schools to do things that are at best counterproductive and worst deceptive. 

Put these controversies to one side. The point I want to make is rather more modest and should be obvious: The U.S. News rankings can’t measure everything. They can’t capture many, perhaps all, of the factors that went into my decision to go to the college I went to.  They don’t speak to the student who wants to stay close to his family or who wants a smaller school that will be challenging without being overwhelming. 

And the overall rankings aren’t much help for the student who wants a school that has faculty that are known around town (or in the nation) as tops in one field or practice area.  Incidentally, this is why the specialty rankings, easily skimmed over on the way to the overall rankings, or scoffed at as bones thrown to lower ranked schools, really are important. Sometimes an OK school overall will be especially strong in the area you want to practice in.    

Finally, as I learned in college, finding the right teacher or the right mentor to guide you can make all the difference between a good education and a bad education. You can’t tell whether you’ll find that person by staring at statistics. You have to visit the school, talk to people, do some research beyond the pages of a newsmagazine. 

But surely it’s important to get a good job after law school, and isn’t that an important measurement of the quality of a school? Of course, but even here we have to be careful.  Not every student is in law school for the big six-figure payoff and the vacation home, something misleadingly suggested by many of news stories. I would hope that most of my students are not working under that assumption. They know good jobs are hard to get even for the best students at the best schools and especially in this economy. 

Indeed, just as there is no one perfect school for you, there is no one perfect job for you.  The truth is that most students are not gambling for the type of job people are struggling (and failing) to get in the news stories about how law schools are a poor investment.  Many are gambling that they can get a decent-paying job in a geographical location they’re happy with and with hours that are livable. They are, like most people, looking to make a living in a job they enjoy. 

And here we come back to finding the right school for you. Finding that right school will mean finding the school that will put you in a position to get the type of job that’s best for you, which isn’t the same as finding the school that will guarantee you the high-powered job in some big city firm. Not everybody wants that, and not everybody should want that.

As a professor in a school that’s not at the top of the rankings, I wrestle with the question of whether law school is “worth it” for my students. For some, it may not be. But that’s going to be the case at every school, even at the top five and even at Yale or Harvard.  Law school just isn’t for some people. 

But I hope that most students at my school really do think they’ve chosen the school that’s best for them. For those who aren’t yet persuaded, it’s my job to make my school better. Not better for everybody — that’s an impossible dream — but better for those who are here.

By Chad Flanders, professor of law at Saint Louis University School of Law