While it may seem unorthodox, my observations of the top law schools in the country do not conform to and are not directed by the hiring percentages and the annual peer reviews such as those published by U.S. News and National Jurist. My rankings and impressions are practical and based on my extensive experience as a professional legal recruiter and CEO of BCG Attorney Search.
When I am recruiting I only ask two questions: (1) “Will the candidate do well in a law firm environment?” and (2) “Will that candidate stay?” These rankings are not based on whether the graduates from top law schools are going to “change the world,” become famous or seek elected office. Below are my rankings of schools that provide law firms with graduates that offer the best long-term employability and desirability.
- Stanford – Stanford’s graduates are well-suited to practice law because of their overall likeability, their understanding of business, and their proclivity towards hard work. As a result, Stanford graduates are often more accessible, more likely to represent the face of a law firm and more likely to bring in business than the graduates at other top law schools.
- Harvard – Harvard produces graduates who typically excel in practice after graduation. Although Harvard’s student body is, on its face, diverse, the student body is composed primarily of the top achievers in grade point averages and LSAT scores. Therefore, the school’s desire for preeminent academic excellence can overshadow the instruction of practical lawyering skills that are necessary to make their graduates more employable.
- University of Virginia – The University of Virginia is a state school that carries with it a “Virginian sense of pride.” What sets this school apart from many other top law schools is the anti-competitive atmosphere of collaboration and teamwork that permeates the school. At schools like Harvard and Yale, there are more likely to be students with a “dog eat dog” mentality who are more concerned with self-interest and ambition. As a result, Virginia graduates are sought after by employers because of their ability to fit in with others in addition to their intelligence and tendency to work tremendously hard.
- New York University – New York University may not have the cachet of its nearby competitor, Columbia, but the school has turned out very reliable associates in corporate law. It is my belief that, due to NYU’s historical struggles to crack many “Top Ten” lists, the students and faculty operate with “chips on their shoulders” and, as a result, are motivated to work hard and prove to the country that their students produce lawyers that are equivalent to, or better than those produced by the likes of Yale or Harvard. As a result, New York University has and likely will continue to move steadily up the rankings.
- Columbia – In my experience, many Columbia graduates are immediately ready to commit to a career at a big law firm. In addition, many of the students at Columbia were admitted with the same or similar qualifications as those students admitted to Harvard or Yale, but chose Columbia because of its location in New York City. Students at Columbia can take advantage of a bevy of lucrative summer associate and internship opportunities with the biggest and most notable law firms in the world, which all tend to have offices in New York City. Being able to work for large law firms increases the employability of Columbia students. Since they have big firm experience and are familiar with the day-to-day operations of big law firms, they are more employable because they are prepared.
- University of Chicago – Like its New York counterpart, the University of Chicago operates in a heavily urban environment and produces many graduates that succeed at large corporate law firms. Small and selective, the school nevertheless makes an effort to admit a wide variety of students and has admission criteria that are not based solely on academic scores. Although the caliber of students at the University of Chicago tends not to be as strong as those at Harvard, Yale, and Columbia, the students are motivated to work inside law firms and, in my experience, do remarkably well.
- University of Pennsylvania – The University of Pennsylvania maintains its status as a law powerhouse and has a strong reputation comparable to its Ivy League peers. Penn’s smarter than average graduates are well regarded by law firms on the East Coast because of their intellect and scholastic achievements.
- Yale – Yale Law School is perennially listed as the top ranked law school in the country by many publications. Students who attend Yale Law School are generally “off-the-charts” smart and are passionate about ideas, politics, and non-legal disciplines. Despite the fact their students are incredibly bright and are the cream of the crop, my experience as a recruiter has led me to conclude that Yale graduates are sometimes not as employable as graduates from other top law schools. Yale graduates can have a sense of entitlement from being “Yale graduates” and subsequently expect that major law firms will be in a bidding war for their services. Some Yale graduates are hindered by their ego and, despite having extremely astute legal minds, are not as employable as students from other top law schools.
- University of Michigan – Unlike the most elite law schools with their geographical benefits and higher rankings, the University of Michigan is nevertheless an extremely competitive school that often produces great attorneys. Many Michigan graduates have traditional Midwestern values, which help them excel in the employment market. In addition, Michigan graduates also tend to stay close to home as opposed to heading to the coasts for more lucrative career prospects.
- University of California Berkeley – The University of California Berkeley stands out as a progressive institution that attracts socially conscious students with a high degree of academic achievement and extracurricular interests. I have noticed, however, that many Berkeley students struggle in a law firm environment. It is my belief that that the independent streak of Berkeley graduates, who tend to be more liberal and question authority, can lead to friction, particularly in the corporate law context. For instance, Berkeley graduates may be more likely to question the propriety of a corporate client’s motives, which may not be compatible with long-term success in a law firm environment. However, most of Berkeley’s graduates build steady careers within the law firm community.
- Duke University – Duke University is comparable to its neighbor, the University of Virginia, in that it produces intelligent, hard-working attorneys who are employable and highly desirable to regional law firms. However, I have witnessed a significant amount of Duke graduates “burn out” working at large law firms and, without a viable explanation for this phenomenon, I attribute it to the eccentric culture of Duke University. Despite the fact that I have known a few Duke graduates who have ended up in the hospital for stress issues related to working in a law firm, I believe that a similarly situated student (class rank and grades) from Duke is much more employable than students from similarly ranked schools like UC Berkeley and Michigan.