ATL’s Top 50 Law Schools (and other things that matter)

I give David Lat at  Above The Law a lot of credit for trying to do the impossible, challenge U.S. News & World Reports list of the best law schools.  The cynical view of his effort is that he’s trolling for eyeballs by catering to the crowd of disaffected law students and young lawyers, but then it’s a topic that lends itself to cynicism.

Harvard Law School’s goodwill ambassador Elie Mystal explains to Lee Pacchia, who went to the same law school I did in 1979.


Any video that shows Elie in a suit, looking so “natural,” is worth watching.  For those who don’t know much about Elie, he’s smart and a fun guy to hang out with, though he talks about 100 miles per hour so you have to listen closely between slurps of beer.

Whether the approach has any scientific validity, or any more validity than the US News flavor, doesn’t really matter. The difference in approach is that US News looks to inputs, whereas ATL looked to outputs. In other words, the question wasn’t how many tenured lawprofs are on staff, or how many books are in the library, but how many students come out of school and get jobs.  The premise of the former is good inputs will produce good outputs, though there is nothing clear about what constitutes good inputs.

But at a time when law schools churn out 45,000 students for a society that can only offer jobs to about half, ATL questions in quasi-Moneyball fashion, whether the pieces of law school that we traditionally believe reflect their quality are anything more than baloney. 


The basic premise underlying the ATL approach to ranking schools: the economics of the legal job market are so out of balance that it is proper to consider some legal jobs as more equal than others. In other words, a position as an associate with a large firm is a “better” employment outcome than becoming a temp doc reviewer or even an associate with a small local firm. That might seem crassly elitist, but then again only the Biglaw associate has a plausible prospect of paying off his student loans.


In addition to placing a higher premium on “quality” (i.e., lucrative) job outcomes, we also acknowledge that “prestige” plays an out-sized role in the legal profession. We can all agree that Supreme Court clerkships and federal judgeships are among the most “prestigious” gigs to be had. Our methodology rewards schools for producing both.

So does the ATL Top 50 supplant US News? Don’t be ridiculous. Of course not.  But it does serve to make a point that’s needed, that the reason students attend law school is to become lawyers. A handful will get that “brass ring,” the Supreme Court clerkship or whatever it is that seems “prestigious” to law students these days (a job, you grey-bearded moron, any job), but most won’t.

The upshot of Elie’s interview by Lee is that he suggests the legal profession is heading toward a two-tier system, the Elite lawyers who attend brand name law schools and hop on the partner track at Biglaw and the rest of us.

The rest of us.  I suspect that Elie’s prediction has always been the case if you look at the legal profession from where he sits.  Bear in mind that ATL’s demographic is largely law students, obsessed with such matters law school ranking and jobs with big paychecks. They described the work I do as ShitLaw because it lacks what they define as prestige, which comes from being accepted at a Peer law firm. 

The benefit of a job at such a firm is a regular, and substantial, paycheck.  They are viewed as successes by the people they chat with at cocktail parties, though if the other guests are in finance, they are still considered the “help,” and any paycheck with fewer than five zeroes is considered rather inconsequential.  It’s tough to be considered successful at the top, a lesson that few law students can appreciate until they’ve been invited to the “right” dinners.

In my 30 years in practice, no client has ever asked me what law school I attended. To this day, the only time it’s mentioned is when some kid, usually a scamblogger, wants to point out that I went to a non-Peer law school, because he thinks he can cut me down to size by a metric that he thinks is critical. Such efforts are laughable from the other side of the legal profession, as beyond irrelevant.

I had a chance to go to Biglaw way back when, and passed it up to become a criminal defense lawyer. It has its drawbacks, not getting a paycheck signed by someone else, not knowing when the next good case will come in, but after 30 years of not knowing what tomorrow would bring, it’s just the way it goes. In the meantime, I’ve had some great times practicing law, done well enough to provide for my family and keep them reasonably happy, been able to structure my time so I was at stripside for my son’s fencing competitions and my daughter’s dance recitals and plays.  It’s been a great life, really, and I wouldn’t change it if I could.

Years ago, I gave testimony to the  Feerick Commission to Promote Public Confidence in Judicial Elections. One of the “big ideas” being promoted was the use of voter guides to provide CVs of judicial candidates. In a jocular moment, I raised the rhetorical question of whether that meant that the candidate who attended Harvard Law School would win over the candidate who attended New York Law School. The whole commission began laughing uproariously, getting my point.

Aside from submitting resumes for that first job, no one will ever care what law school you went to. They will care deeply about whether you’re any good at what you do.  So in contrast to the ATL Top 50 Law Schools, and the US News and World Report ranking, I offer the SJ ranking of law schools. It’s blank. Put your law school at the top of the list if it makes you feel good, because it’s you, not your school, that matters.

If you want to be a partner at a Peer law firm, then there is nothing here for you. If you want to practice ShitLaw, have the opportunity to have as good a practice, as good a life, as you’re willing to work toward, then no list of law school rankings makes any difference at all.* 

But two words of warning: First, while no one will ever care what law school you went to, they will care about the reputation for competence and integrity you earn. Second, even in ShitLaw, there is no guarantee of success or a comfortable middleclass lifestyle, and you still have to work for it every day.  And that goes for lawyers who graduated from Harvard as well as New York Law School.  After all, check out the video with Elie and Lee. Do you get it?

* Not for nothing, but when the son of a partner at a Peer law firm gets in a jam with the law, they don’t call their ex-AUSA white collar Biglaw specialist at midnight.  Want to guess who they call when their beloved child has his life on the line?

14 comments on “ATL’s Top 50 Law Schools (and other things that matter)

  1. Catherine Mulcahey

    What happens to the folks who graduate from top-ranked schools and work for some number of years in Biglaw if they don’t get to be a partner? There must be some every year. Are there statistics?

  2. SHG

    I’m sure there are, but I don’t know them. In any event, they have three options in they want to remain lawyers, continue as permanent second-class lawyers in Biglaw, get an in-house job or join us little people in the trenches and find out whether they can cut it in ShitLaw.

  3. SHG

    Years ago, the rule was 7 or out. If you didn’t make partner, you were politely expected to pack your bags and leave. Nowadays, they have all sorts of non-equity partner options, where you can stay and be a grunt in perpetuity.

  4. Mr Wolf

    They call Saul Goodman. Because you don’t want a criminal defense lawyer. You want a CRIMINAL defense lawyer.

  5. Jordan Rushie

    I don’t know, Scott. Maybe I’m crazy, but I don’t think there is a way to “rank” law schools. Personally, I wanted to practice law in Philadelphia, so Temple made the most sense for me.

    Had I gone off to Boston and got admitted to Boston College, a school ranked higher than Temple, would I be any better off than where I’m at now? Doubtful. Were my employment chances killed because all these people out of state went to better law schools and were just beating down the doors of the Philadelphia firms? Nope.

    My observation is most local firms hired local graduates, preferably with ties to the area.

    My two cents? Outside the top 5 schools, people should go to law school around the geographic area where they want to practice. And people should go to law school to become a lawyer, not for a specific job.

  6. Jordan Rushie

    Sorry for the second comment…

    My first associate job was in Delaware County at a two lawyer firm with a support staff. The managing partner said he liked my resume, but his biggest concern was that I am too tied to Fishtown. I had clerked at a large firm downtown, plus I put a lot of time into the Fishtown civic associations. My law school was also based in Philadelphia.

    At the interview, he said he wanted to hire me, but would prefer someone with more ties to Delaware County. I told him this wasn’t an issue because I grew up in Chester County, nearby. I’m a “suburban” guy, not a Philly guy. At the time I meant it.

    His reaction was “You ultimately end up practicing law where you live. It just works like that. I’m going to take the risk, but I see you back in Philly in about 3 years. I think you want to be in this Fishtown place.”

    The commute wore on me, and I felt like it was detracting from time I could spend in my neighborhood trying to build a practice. Committing to the firm meant committing to Delaware County – something I found I didn’t want to do.

    I thought he was wrong at the time of my interview. But it turns out I was wrong.

    When I left, he went back to his traditional practice of hiring people with ties to Delaware County, regardless of where they went to law school, and with reasonably acceptable grades. I think it’s the right decision for him, too.

    ThoughI am forever grateful for his mentorship.

  7. SHG


    I don’t know, Scott. Maybe I’m crazy…

    Heck of a way to start a comment. Whether what follows is right or wrong, first stake out common ground.

  8. Eric L. Mayer

    Back in my hometown, there was a big, old Cottonwood tree. This perfectly symmetrical monster was very tall for a Cottonwood, and served as a point of reference for the entire town. As the official state tree of Kansas, it was especially apropos that we hold this tree in such high esteem.

    The farmer who owned the land and tree eventually tidied the area around it to allow people to picnic in its shade on hot, summer days. A widower, he appreciated the occasional visitors.

    One summer, a thunderstorm swept across the farms of our community. The wind howled. The long branches of the tree swayed and popped. Lightning struck, splintering the once-sturdy trunk of the mighty tree.

    Within days, the farmer cleared the remnants of the tree and discarded the pieces in a ditch, because everyone knows that wood from that species of tree isn’t preferred for burning in wood stoves.

  9. Dr. Sigmund Droid

    .
    Greenfield, once upon a time, I was a partner @ a Big Six Accounting / Consulting firm, structured very much like Biglaw firms back then . . .

    And the funny thing was, though there was a culture of hiring the “fancy lads” from the “best” schools, I was from a pretty run-of-the-mill university myself . . .

    Although all the “fancy lads” weren’t horrible as consultants, many of them were. After one was hired at the firm, either you performed or you didn’t, and all the degrees from Harvard or Oxford didn’t mean jack shit once you were working; either the clients liked and valued your work or they didn’t . . .

    And if clients didn’t value your output often enough to make you worth the firm’s while, you were sacked, as they say in jolly ol’ England . . .

    When I started, the policy was “up or out”; if you plateaued at any position short of partner, the garroting occurred rather quickly, usually after the next scheduled group-wide performance evaluation, which was unaffectionately referred to by those being evaluated as the “Staff BBQ”; towards the end of my career there, it was recast into a “grow or go” system, meaning even if you weren’t cutout for ever being anointed partner, if you were in demand at your level and really good at what you did, you could still hang out, albeit as a bit of a second class citizen . . .
    .

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