Friday, June 14, 2013

The four tiers: T13, Trap, No-Name, and Joke.

It is customary to divide the 200 or so law schools into four tiers, fifty per tier, based on where they placed in US News and World Report’s annual ranking. Beware of classifying law schools in this manner because it gives undeserved status and dignity to some extremely scammy law schools. For instance, US News deemed American University to be a first tier law school until this year, and even now American is situated near the top of the second tier, in 56th place. But look at its calamitous placement results--only 38.4% of the Class of 2012 and 35.3% in the Class of 2011 obtained full-time lawyer jobs within nine months of graduation! [1] One can only hope that American University JDs, however jobless and impoverished, take pride in their semi-elite pedigree, like minor aristocrats after the Russian Revolution.
Here are the tiers as I see them: 1) The T-13.  2) The Traps. 3) The No-Names. 4) Joke Schools. The purpose of this blog post is to encourage those who cannot be dissuaded from law school, and are in the process of choosing where to enroll, to opt for a big scholarship at a No-Name over paying full or nearly full freight at a Trap. But do NOT go to a Joke School, even for free.
A Trap is any school that is not a T13, but that is ranked in the first or upper-second tier of US News, and markets itself as prestigious. [2] Disturbingly, many law school bound college seniors and 1Ls will be able to tell you each Trap’s precise US News rank. By contrast, big law firms and federal judges recognize the Trap School, if at all, as a moderately selective also-ran, and will hire only from the top 10-15 percent. Those Trap JDs who do not graduate in the top 10%-15% will face job prospects as dismal as graduates of a No-Name school, and often much higher student debt.

Take 26th ranked Washington and Lee. It placed 15 grads from its Class of 2012 in NLJ 250 firms, and a half dozen more in federal judicial clerkships, an okay but not outstanding performance relative to other schools. [3] But its overall placement rate is horrible: only 49.2% obtained full-time law jobs within nine months of graduation, well below the national average of 53.1%. And please do not plan your future around being in the top 15% at a Trap such as Washington and Lee. Law school grading is way too capricious.

No-Name schools are those that have no particular prestige, but are not (yet) considered notorious jokes. Students who are intent on going to law school and who didn’t get into a T13, ought to go to a No-Name, if they can get a big scholarship or discount-- which they probably can in light of the dropoff in law school applications and the consequent desperation of many law schools to fill seats. If a student has multiple No-Name acceptances (and he or she probably does), the student can bargain an even larger scholarship than the initial offer. [4] So, even though your law school adventure is likely to come to grief, at least you will not be buried under life-ruining debt.

As you consider No-Name schools, I would strongly advise you to choose a school in a location where you went to undergrad or where you grew up or where you have numerous family members. In these places, you have a true network-- people who care about you, and will make an effort to use their contacts to connect you with a potential employer or mentor. The people you meet at law school networking events-- never. Well, not unless you are very attractive and they see romantic potential in your gratitude for a job opportunity. Ick, but that's how it goes.

A Joke School is a school that has a reputation as a punchline. Do not attend a Joke School even with a full-tuition ride, for its very name is job repellent. And give serious thought as to whether your No-Name is actually a Joke School, or is reasonably likely to become a Joke School. Whatever accomplishments you list on your resume will be offset by the name of that ridiculous joke of a law school, which will adorn your resume like a red rubber clown's nose.  

Which schools are jokes? Look at the bottom 50 or 60 US News schools, the ones that the magazine does not even bother to assign a numerical rank. Look at the schools where the bottom quartile of the class scored 150 or below on the LSAT. The recently opened schools. The least selective school in your state or big city. Tom Cooley (Hang down your head and cry). LaVerne (even after it is fully accredited, everybody will ask you when Lenny and Squiggy are going to open up a law school). Whittier (Shittier). Thomas Jefferson. Appalachian. New England. Barry.

Unfortunately, some schools that are currently No-Names will sink to Joke status, as  law school applications decline, and deans have to choose between maintaining admissions standards on the one hand and ensuring their continuing receipt of sufficient tuition dollars to support the elegant lifestyles of the faculty on the other. For instance, John Marshall of Chicago. Once upon a boomer time, this was a low-cost No-Name school that performed the honorable role of funneling ambitious working class kids into public sector law jobs. But now its main function is providing law students at the many other schools in the same city and state with something to look down upon. Nobody likes to be looked down upon. Paying $250,000 [5] for the experience is a rare category of humiliation.

Oh, a few words about the T13-- i.e. the 14 schools that have traditionally been regarded as elite, minus Georgetown, whose placement stats establish that it does not belong. These schools, and only these, boast full-time law job placement rates above 75%. These schools, and only five others, placed 25% or more of their 2012 graduating class in NLJ 250 firms. Yet, even here, caution is warranted. Yes, you will probably land a prestigious clerkship, or a big firm job. Thus, your law school investment won't be a total wipeout. But the investment is often so huge-- indebtedness to the tune of a couple hundred thousand interest-accruing dollars-- that a well-paying entry-level associateship in a big law firm may not be enough. In order to pay for that T13 law degree, you will have to hang on to that job for a long time, or more likely transition into something almost as lucrative when they give you the boot. [6]

notes and links.

[1] Bar-required, full-time, long-term (including one year long judicial clerkships) jobs that are non school-funded and non-solo. Use this calculator, and plug in the formula.  
[2] Paul Campos is credited with the concept of a "trap school," of course. His definition: "A trap school. . .is the kind of place that attracts the kind of highly-qualified, reasonably prudent 0Ls who would never consider attending the vast majority of law schools at anything like sticker price, and yet still ends up generating a very high risk of financial and personal disaster for its students."

[4] Law schools often employ the evil trick of eliminating the scholarships of students who fail to obtain a certain GPA at the end of their first semester or their first year. Therefore, due diligence includes finding out precisely what percentage of scholarship students retain their scholarship throughout their entire three years of law school.

[5] Law School Transparency's estimate of the non-discounted cost of three years at John Marshall.

[6] See Steven J. Harper, The Lawyer Bubble (Basic Books 2013), 60 ("[T]he prevailing big-firm model survives on staggering associate turnover rates").


  1. I like the distinction between No-name schools and Joke schools, but I never go into such detail when my friends ask me what law schools I would recommend.

    I always tell them the only factor they should consider is the debt to employment probability ratio. It's actually pretty easy for most people to get a ballpark figure on how much they will owe at graduation, so most of the legwork is convincing them that they won't get a biglaw job.

    Because of this, I usually end up recommending schools with legitimate LRAP programs and state schools where they have residency (i.e., cost is <$15,000 a year).

  2. "Please do not plan your future around being in the top 15% at a Trap such as Washington and Lee. Law school grading is way too capricious."

    This is something prospective law students must accept, but most will not (I know I didn't).

    I got great grades at a top undergrad school and did very well on the LSAT on my first try. I got excellent evaluations during a 3-year stint with a federal agency (that is now paying for law school). I assumed I would continue to be a top performer in law school.

    I just finished my first year at a school ranked ~30 (USNWR). Everything was based on final exams graded on a strict curve (as with most law schools). My grades on those exams did not reflect how well I knew the material. I got good grades in classes I didn't understand, and I got bad grades in classes I had down cold. Then I learned something every 1L must learn: the professors have to distribute everyone on the curve somehow. You simply cannot know in advance how your final exam will stack up against other students who will write almost the exact same things.

    My grades came out exactly middle of the class (3.3 on a 3.3 median curve), and looking at my fellow students, that is probably what I deserve. We all came here thinking we would be top 15%, but 85% of us will be disappointed. Unfortunately, at this school, only the top 15% (or less) will get jobs that pay enough to service law school debt and only the top 50% will even become lawyers.

    I am extremely lucky to already have a full scholarship and a guaranteed (in writing) job with my former employer (fed gov't). If I didn't have that going for me, I would probably drop out at this point.

    Any school outside the top 13 only benefits the top 5-15% and the rare exceptions with jobs already lined up. And you can't predict your class rank, because you have NO IDEA how you will rank against a group of people with almost identical GPAs and LSATs.

    1. anon @ 7:12
      Amen to your post. The bloom comes off the rose by the end of 1L.

      I remember obsessively reading my cases, taking notes, outlining, taking practice tests, reviewing hornbooks, etc. I looked on happily while the young kids talked about how drunk they got the night before, who they slept with, etc.
      Then I got my grades; B+ average for the first year. Not good enough for interviews or even for clerkships.

      One of my out-of-touch professors used to tout the saying that A students become law professors, B students become judges and C students become rich. It's all horseshit.
      Law school grades are quite literally a crapshoot. Spring semester 2L I did absolutely everything the same way I did before and after and I got straight A's.

      LEMMINGS, pay attention. ONLY go to law school if you get into a top 10 law school, if you can walk directly into a job you have already secured through a close relative, or if your tuition is fully paid and you're happy spending the 3 years to get the degree.
      If your circumstances are different in any way, you are playing craps with your life.

  3. One of the best posts yet. You had me laughing till I cried.

  4. Very funny. I particularly like that part about the red rubber clown nose on the resume.

    I'm not sure that the first tier should have 13 schools in it, though. Most people seem to realize that there's a massive difference in outcomes between HYS vs., say, Northwestern or Cornell.

    1. What is the "massive difference in outcomes between HYS [USNews ## 2,1,3] vs, say Northwestern [US News #12] or Cornel." ?
      It is not so massive when the starting median salary that grads of all of these law school (and a dozen others) earn during their first year is rounded out at $160,000. Check it out.

  5. You can count on one hand what law schools are worth attending, even with having a few fingers missing...the rest are all overpriced shit.

  6. Excellent breakdown of tiers, dybbuk. The reality is that it does not matter if your school is ranked 37th or 48th or 81st best law school in the country, by US "News" & World Report.

    If applicants and even the general public recognize the laughingstocks and no-name commodes, then law firms and government agencies are clearly aware of the filthy toilets. At this point, not even your friends or family members will be impressed with a TT, TTT or TTTT law degree.

    1. So true, there is absolutely no difference between a school ranked #15 vs. #81 vs. 200, only about the top 5% to 10% have a change at schools in ranges 15-100, and only the #1 student at a school ranked below 100 has any change of getting biglaw.

    2. "I will be the #1 student at Touro. After law school, I will argue cases at the Supreme Court." -many TTT enrollees w/ 152 LSATs

    3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. Beware any law school.

    Even T13 have large numbers of unemployed down the road from law school graduation. There is too much emphasis on first year employment statistics and not enough emphasis on whether law grads can have a career and whether it will last until they want to retire or lawyers would normally retire.

    My observation is that the longer term results are bad from even the top schools. You cannot work as long as you want. You are likely to have your career cut very short and to be fired. It is very hard to get a job once you are fired and almost impossible to get a job if you are unemployed.

  8. So we're back to playing the Game of Thrones ... the type of porcelain 'throne' you sit upon, that is. And pondering whether a prince outranks a duke, or whether a count trumps a baron.

    Remember, even if you land top third at a T-8, short-term employment at a law firm is a very good, luck-involved outcome, and a long-term career in a stable employment situation is not now in the cards.

    ONLY go to law school if, AND ONLY IF

    you get into a Top 10 law school (8 .. not 10 or 14), AND

    you can walk directly into a job that you have already secured through a close relative, family member, or contract, AND

    your tuition is fully or substantially paid, AND

    you're happy spending the 3 years to get the degree, AND

    you understand that it's like playing in the NFL: you're a commodity for several seasons ... but it ain't a 10-year gig and certainly not a 15-year one.

  9. Don't forget folks, if your goal is to have a law degree to practice law, any accredited law school will do, so long as you are willing to go solo or into practice with your friends.

    1. A great reason for six figure debt.

    2. And dont forget, you can argue cases at the Supreme Court, even out of Cooley.

  10. This beat goes on....

    Belmont University College of Law has won provisional accreditation by the ABA. The Nashville law school opened in 2011 and reached that milestone at the earliest opportunity, meaning its inaugural graduating class in 2014 will be able to take the bar examination in any state.

    Too many lawyers chasing way, way too few jobs/clients. There's the rub.

    1. Or I like to say, there are too many lawyers chasing too few ambulances!

  11. Save yourselves! Steer clear of the vile rotten Setttton Hall Law toilet!

    1. Seton Haul affords students the opportunity to live and play in Newark, right nextdoor. After law school you can even settle down there.

  12. Excellent post.

    Why do you guys screen comments? The discussions would be a lot more interesting if comments appeared instantly. You can always block a commenter who's consistently offensive.

    Just a thought.

    1. Long story.

    2. Got it. Thanks for the link. I'm all too familiar with his antics from ITLSS.

    3. Yah. It's difficult to just ban one bad apple so we moderate. Having said that, stuff still slips in occasionally because you don't see the entire comment before accepting it. Overall, people are playing nicely in the sandbox though. Welcome from ITLSS and feel free to comment.

  13. i wpuld recommend all law students who are not in the top quarter of their class just to quit, it sounds ridiculous but here the thing get a degree will NOT help you get a job period, you will be over educated for non law jobs and for law jobs no selective good firm will hire and train you. you simply have no job prospects abnd i mean that sincerely - there are many better and easier careers just do that and dont end up broke and depressed - dont waste years chasing a dreamthat does not exist- i have practice law for 25 years and know the reality well

  14. is there a reason you say T13 and not T14?

  15. Yes, Georgetown. Although Georgetown is in the T14, it's employment stats are still risky. Therefore, it is eliminated

  16. The flaw with this reasoning is your assumption that everyone who goes to law school has wet dreams of the top firms. There are plenty of people who became lawyers to work in public interest or government.

    The fact that usnwr is the gold standard in rankings is such bullshit when rankings should look at overall cost for students on average (how much the average student pays for their jd after scholarships) and fultime employment using their JD within a year of graduating.
    My husband goes to brooklyn which was ranked mid "no name" when he enrolled. He was awarded at 85% scholarship, but was guaranteed that his tuition would not increase and that his scholarship would not decrease unless he fell to the bottom 20th% of his class.
    He turned down a full ride to now 74 ranked st Johns to attend his now 98 ranked BLS because he knew then that BLS had the better resources to get him into the kinds of internships he wanted like legal aid and the brooklyn defenders. He even had a federal judge approach him to offer an internship.
    He also knew that his scholarship was in greater jeopardy at st johns.

    My point is a school like BLS that fell 19 pts in USNWR this year should not be becoming a joke because their alumni have a higher than average employment rate at any law related job and while expensive, almost all student get guaranteed aid and most get more than 50%. So the value is far greater than even T14s.

    If you were gonna graduate in the bottom of your class at a T14 you could have graduated at the top with a full ride at BLS and definitely had a job at graduation