Attending the “Right” Law School: Does It Really Matter?

First of all, a hard fact: right now, there’s still a glut of lawyers. Most of us have heard the line from Shakespeare: “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” I’m certainly not recommending such a drastic measure, but some judicious pruning probably needs to take place before that freshly minted JD will guarantee your pick of juicy job offers.

That being said, does it really matter if your law degree comes from one of the highly ranked law schools, the so-called Top 14 (T14)? Well, as with many questions in law, the answer is, “It depends.” A number of factors should be considered by anyone considering a career in law, not least of which are the type of law you want to practice and the part of the country you want to practice in.

If you’ve got your eye on making your mark on the national or international stage—maybe you have aspirations of someday being an appellate judge for one of the federal district courts or courts of appeal, or—dare I say it?—being one of the nine justices on the US Supreme Court—then having your degree conferred by a prestigious law school will give you an important leg up in an intensely competitive field. Getting the type of internship, clerkship, or other early experience that gets you noticed on the national legal scene is a crucial first step in establishing a profile as a respected jurist. It’s not impossible to do it without a degree from Harvard, Yale, or Stanford, but you’ll need a couple of extra doses of hustle and perseverance.

On the other hand, if your goal is to practice in a specific area of the country—somewhere in the Midwest or the Pacific Northwest, say—then it may be more important to matriculate law school in the region. Why? Because, as with most things in life, your network is crucial. By going to law school in the general area where you hope to practice, you’ll be meeting not only attorneys who are currently practicing law in the region—and, hopefully, hiring newly graduated associates—but also getting to know fellow classmates who will eventually be your professional peers and contacts. You’ll have ready access to interviews, intern- and externships, and other opportunities that can help you expand and solidify your all-important professional network.

Of course, no matter where you go, your top priority is making good grades and passing the bar exam. Until you do those two things, the rest doesn’t really matter. And also remember that, whether your degree is from a T14 school or somewhere else, your ultimate reputation and career opportunities depend on making the best of those early openings. The longer you practice, the less it matters where you went to school and the more it matters what kinds of results you get in your day-to-day practice of law.

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