The USNWR Rankings Are Out Tomorrow – The Top 14 List

Except it’s not what you think.  🙂

So, it is indeed that time of year again – when pre-law students, law school applicants, current law students, and law school admissions officers and administrators anxiously await the new U.S. News & World Report law school rankings.  As many of you know, there are rarely any seismic shifts in the results as evidenced by the ever-unchanging, more-certain-than-death-and-taxes Top 14 (“T-14” for those who speak the Law School Admissions dialect) list of fourteen schools always landing in the top, year after year.  While subtle movements occur within the Top 14 and elsewhere throughout the rankings list every year – after all, you have to give the readers (and online posters) something to worry/debate/obsess about – I am amazed at how thoroughly predictable the rankings are, by and large.  Well, at least I used to be.  So in honor of the 2012 rankings being published tomorrow – for more precise timing, the USNWR staff has graciously provided a clock, ticking down the days, hours, minutes, (and yes) seconds until their online publication – here is Top 14 List of what you should keep in mind when the clock strikes zero.


1. In response to a great deal of outside pressures, compelling appeals, and legitimate questions about reliability from myriad constituencies, the 2012 USNWR rankings have apparently been modified in how employment rates are calculated.  The details about the specific changes remain nebulous prior to publication, but the issues of transparency and accuracy and the desire to collectively “eliminate some of the gaming that seems to be taking place” all seem to have gained traction.  USNWR even wrote a letter to all law school deans, insisting on more honest reporting:

2. In addition to these improvements in the computations, it seems like USNWR will also make more robust and more detailed career data available than they ever have before to paint a broader, but also more nuanced picture of the current state of the legal market for prospective students.  Stay tuned!

3. USNWR recently surveyed law firm recruiters and hiring partners at the top US law firms and created an alternate “Top 25” list, which adds a slightly different perspective to the rankings game:  However, caveat emptor – according to USNWR, the survey “was sent last fall to 750 hiring partners and recruiters at law firms who made the 2010 Best Law Firms rankings produced jointly by U.S. News and the publication Best Lawyers.”  And also, “the response rate was 14 percent.”

4. In addition to the overall rankings, don’t forget to review the Law School Specialty rankings as well, particularly if you are interested in attending law school with a specific field/area of interest in mind.  Though based solely on votes by legal educators, these are still interesting lists to consider.  The specialties listed are: Clinical Training, Dispute Resolution, Environmental Law, Healthcare Law, Intellectual Property Law, International Law, Legal Writing, Part-Time Law, Tax Law, and Trial Advocacy.  And guess what schools in the 2010 Specialty Rankings weren’t #1 on any of those lists?  I’ll give you a hint, they rhyme with Yale, Harvard, and Stanford.

5. Did you know that 40% of what determines the rankings each year is what USNWR refers to as “Quality Assessment?”  Quality Assessment is determined by sending a survey to a variety of constituencies: Peer Assessment (representing 25% of the total rankings) is comprised of law school deans, law school faculty, and deans of academic affairs, while Assessment by Lawyers/Judges (representing 15% of the total ranking) is comprised by law firm hiring partners, selected judges, and other legal professionals.  And what does the survey ask?  One thing: Please “rate programs on a scale from marginal (1) to outstanding (5).” After that, “a school’s score is the average of all the respondents who rated it,” with “responses of ‘don’t know’ count[ing] neither for nor against a school.”   That’s it.  That’s 40% of the overall rankings.  Even scarier?  Last year, for Peer Assessment, only 65% of those surveyed responded… while only 21% of those surveyed for the Assessment by Lawyers/Judges responded.

6. Bar passage rate only accounts for 2% of the total rankings.  The main (and only) indicator as to whether or not you will be able to practice law in a given state after graduating from law school accounts for 2% of the law school rankings.  And just to reiterate, the one-question survey asking for Peer Assessment accounts for 25%.  Just saying.

7. Even the USNWR editors themselves declare that “many other factors that cannot be measured also should figure in your decision, including the course offerings and culture of departments that interest you, the advising or mentoring you can expect to receive, and the location and campus life.”  They even explicitly say this: “the rankings can inform your thinking—but they won’t hand you an easy answer. We urge you to use them wisely.”  Something to think about, huh?

8. There are many, many other resources for you to consider when researching law schools, even though none of them might have the ticking-down clock (See #9-12).

9. The Law School Admission Council –

10. The websites (and printed materials) of the individual law schools themselves

11. Our very own Career Services Pre-Law Website –

12. Our very own Career Services pre-law advisors – Anne Reedstom and Yours Truly – available for individual appointments and weekly pre-law walk-in hours

13. Notice that the litany of law school online forums and “boards” is not mentioned here.  With very good reason.  Please try to refrain for spending time on these websites.  They are unregulated, mostly mean-spirited, and often wildly inaccurate and exaggerated.  Again, please refer to #9-12 before you ruin your day.

14. And now with my caveats in tow, here you go and happy (judicious, well-reasoned, and non-obsessive… promise?) clicking (since we’re rapidly approaching the zero hour):

But I’m A Paralegal: Will A Legal Internship Help Get Me Into Law School?

by Todd Rothman

As a pre-law advisor, I probably hear this question from at least one advisee every week.  And at this time of year, with all eyes on what to do over the summer, this concern seems to crop up daily.  The seemingly obvious answer to this question is “Yes, of course it will!  It’s relevant experience!”  However, the more accurate answer is actually “Not necessarily.”  Here’s why.

Since law schools are looking to fill their incoming classes with students who possess diverse interests, expertise, and passions, admissions officers are excited by applicants with experience in a variety of fields and settings.  In the same way that law schools do not have any pre-requisite courses or preferred majors, there is no pre-requisite internship that is valued more highly than others.  Though this may seem counter-intuitive – after all, shouldn’t first-hand exposure to your intended profession be important and well-regarded? – the underlying rationale is rooted in the belief on the part of law schools that it is primarily *their* responsibility to indoctrinate you in the study and practice of law.

If you think about it, other components of the admissions process to law school are actually reflective of that overall belief as well.  Rather than a statement of purpose – in which the applicant is asked to articulate her career goals and describe how her academic background and professional trajectory has specifically qualified her for their intended field – law school applications require an intentionally open-ended personal statement.  This essay is essentially a “Tell me about yourself” exercise and effective law school personal statements can be wholly unrelated to the legal field.  In fact, many of the best personal statements that I’ve read are self-reflective and engaging, but never even come close to mentioning the law whatsoever.

Now, this is not to say that law schools disapprove of law-related internships or paralegal work either.  But here’s the (poorly-kept) secret about the majority of entry-level paralegal positions for undergraduates: they’re almost entirely administrative in nature and a fairly dry and unengaging experience.  The truth is, the most common activity done in legal internships is what is euphemistically referred to as “document production” (read: photocopying and collating).  And law school admissions officers know this all too well.  There are, of course, exceptions to this rule and legal internships at smaller law firms (where the attorneys on staff actually need more help) can often be those exceptions.  Ironically, the largest, most prestigious, and most well-known law firms usually provide the least substantive experiences for interns, simply because the lawyers there are already well-supported by full-time support staff and first- or second-year associates for the more engaging projects.

So, here is the good news for pre-law students!  When you’re thinking about your next internship, the most important consideration should be this: What would I find the most stimulating, challenging, and relevant to my unique interests?  And the even better news is that this is not only from an educational and professional perspective, but also from an admissions perspective.  If the answer is working as a paralegal and seeing how law firms work, then that’s great!  But if your passions, skills, and interests lead you towards apprenticing a curator at an art museum… or teaching English abroad… or contributing to a psychological research study… or working at a biotechnology firm, then that’s great too!

Believe me, no law school admissions officer will ever review a strong application from a bright, engaged student and think, “Well, he’s a great candidate… but if only he was a paralegal.”

Tis The Season (To Be Panicked)… An Observation, Not A Recommendation

by Todd Rothman

As any law school applicant knows (or should know!), the law school admissions process is a rolling admissions process.  Put simply, this means that law schools read, review, and evaluate the applications they receive in the order in which they were completed – not necessarily when they were initially submitted, but completed.  Not mostly completed, but completed.  Not everything-except-my-[Dean’s Letter/second letter of recommendation/December LSAT score], but completed.

The rolling admissions process can either work to an applicant’s advantage, if he/she has been steadfast and systematic in his/her planning and executing, and lead to a stress-free Thanksgiving (family members asking you about your law school/career plans, notwithstanding) and even to some early-than-expected decisions.  Alternately, it can make an already stressful process that much more stressful, complete with the ticking-clock feeling that the likelihood of attending your dream law school is slipping away.  Combine that feeling with the logistical realities of this time of year – final exams and papers for seniors and graduate students, end-of-year professional deadlines and obligations for those in the work force, and a seemingly-endless stream of holiday/family events – and the panic to complete law school applications seems justified, if not appropriate, right?  Wrong.  Here’s why.

For anyone who has ever met with me for a pre-law advising appointment, you will probably recall that I encourage having the end of October (or Halloween) be your target date for completion.  But it’s a target date – a goal to shoot for in an ideal world – not a hard-and-fast deadline after which your law school hopes and dreams will be incontrovertibly squelched.  The truth is, my advice in this context builds in some time for the unexpected and undesirable to happen, as it inevitably can despite the best and earliest of intentions.

While completing your law school applications sometime in September and October is ideal, a November or December completion is certainly not late by any stretch of the imagination.  Let me repeat that for the cheap seats: a November or December completion is certainly not late by any stretch of the imagination. The fact is that it can be rather difficult – especially for October LSAT takers, which is the most popular test date historically – to complete by Halloween, especially since completion involves both components in your control (individual applications, personal statements, resumes, assorted addenda and supplemental essays) and outside of your direct control (letters of recommendation from busy professors and supervisors can often betray even the best-laid plans).  If I cited Thanksgiving as a target date – or even, Winter Break/Holidays as a target date – then the unexpected and undesirable could translate into completion over the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday or, even worse, Valentine’s Day.  And there’s already enough stress and pressure around Valentine’s Day.

So for those of you who are still working on your law school applications for this cycle, take a deep breath and keep the following in mind:

  • While timing is certainly a factor to take seriously, strong applicants are strong applicants, period.  Admissions Committees will prefer a solid, thoughtful, carefully-proofread application completed on December 15 over an application clearly completed in a state of frazzled panic and duress before Thanksgiving… or even Halloween.
  • Do not neglect your current academic and professional responsibilities.  Especially for college seniors and graduate students in the application process, your Fall semester grades will almost certainly come into play in the admissions process at this point.  You don’t want your laser-beam focus on completing your law school applications to translate into a poor performance on your final exams and term papers.
  • Your pre-law advisors are here to help, so feel free to check in with us – via email, by telephone, or in person – as you work to put the last touches on your applications.

Happy completing (and proof-reading)!

It’s Only One Number… I Promise (And I Know That You Don’t Believe Me)

by Todd Rothman

Since the results from the October 2010 LSAT exam were released this past weekend – just in time for celebrating and/or self-medicating through Halloween candy – I thought this would be a good time to put this into some perspective.  The LSAT exam is one of the most anxiety-inducing aspects of the law school admissions process, sending even the most calm and reasonable applicants into a tailspin of self-doubt and irrationality.  In fact, if I had a dollar for every time I heard one of the following statements uttered in my office – “I know that the LSAT is the only thing Admissions Committees care about” or “If I don’t get a [insert absurdly high LSAT score here], I know I don’t have a chance at being admitted to any “good” law schools” – well, let’s just say that I could be writing this blog entry from a café in Paris.

(c) King Features Syndicate

As a former law school admissions officer, and one of Penn’s pre-law advisors, I have more than six years of experience witnessing the range of reactions associated with “getting back the score.”  Usually though, these reactions fall into three distinct categories: (1) unqualified joy and relief, (2) utter devastation and panic, or (3) frustration and bewilderment.  Let me try to explain why all of these reactions are at least somewhat (to very) misguided.

1. Unqualified joy and relief…. or the “Now I Have Nothing To Worry About” Misconception. While nobody, myself included, is going to tell you that your LSAT score is unimportant or a non-issue, it is almost never the deal-breaker… or, in this case, deal-maker… that applicants believe it to be.  The fact is, an LSAT score is the single-best predictor of first-year law school performance.  Let me repeat that: An LSAT score is the single-best predictor of first-year law school performance, according to annual LSAC correlation studies on first-year grades in ABA-accredited law schools.  However, it is widely known (and widely accepted) that LSAT scores have little definable correlation with second-year or third-year law school performance, selection to Law Review, bar passage rates, post-graduation job offers… and the list goes on.  With that in mind, law school admissions officers view LSAT scores as a useful, but limited tool in evaluating their candidates for admission.  Sure, if you have a strong LSAT score, coupled with an otherwise strong and attractive application – a rigorous academic curriculum, consistently strong academic performance, a well-crafted and effective personal statement, compelling and detailed letters of recommendation, a history of unfailing extracurricular involvement and leadership, not to mention a host of other factors – then that LSAT score will speak to a candidate with a great deal of potential.  If some or most of those other factors are not present though, a high LSAT score in a vacuum will not move mountains.  Even worse, Admissions Committees might wonder (and rightly so) why a student with clear intellectual potential based on that high LSAT score was so underwhelming in other areas of life.

2.       Utter devastation and panic… or the “Now I Need To Find Another Career” Misconception. If your results of this exam for which you (hopefully) spent a lot of time preparing did not pan out as you had hoped, there is certainly cause for some degree of disappointment.  However, in light of what was just discussed, you need to have faith in the fact that law school admissions officers will still read and carefully evaluate your application with equal attention.  The truth is, the LSAT is a snapshot of who you are as an applicant – on one day (maybe two days… hopefully, not three days) – and Admissions Committees always review applications in their relative context and in light of every other aspect of your application.  I know of no law schools who employ cut-off scores for LSAT performance and, while 25th percentile, median, and 75th percentile information is readily available for any ABA-accredited law school, they are not indicative of the full range of scores of successfully matriculated students.  In fact, those numbers speak to the middle 50% of a law school’s incoming class – nothing more, nothing less.  Though a lower-than-expected score might result in refining your current list of schools, you do not need to find another career.

3.       Frustration and bewilderment… or the “But I Scored A 172 On One Practice Exam Back In August” Misconception. As I have previously stated, taking the LSAT is an anxiety-producing experience.  With that in mind, very few students have their best day, score-wise, on the day of the actual exam.  The truth is, most students score between 1-3 points lower when they take the LSAT than on their earlier practice tests.  While sitting for full practice LSAT exams under “simulated test conditions” is strongly advisable in your preparation, it would be impossible to simulate the actual real-world stress of that particular day.  Whether it’s the heightened communal angst of your fellow test-takers… or getting finger-printed for identification… or experiencing a last-minute room change… the pressure of that particular experience is unique and almost always affects your score.  And more than likely, it affects your score negatively… usually to the tune of 1-3 points lower than your typical practice exams.  The good news?  This is a shared experience of anxiety for the majority of test-takers on a curved exam, which in some way actually corrects for this.

To reiterate, it’s only one number… I promise.  And yes, I know that you still don’t believe me.