Shouldn't I go to the school with the best reputation?
No, of course not! Suppose the "best" school you can get into is the University of Georgia -- but you don't drive or own a car. Athens, GA has virtually no public transportation, and life without a car would be pretty rough. Suppose the "best" school is Cornell -- but you grew up in New York City and too much quiet makes you nervous.
All other things being equal, a better reputation will mean more job opportunities after you graduate. But first, all other things — what you want from the location, student body, etc. — have to be equal.
Why is UNC's reputation slipping so much? It's not even in the top 25 any more.
UNC's — Case Western's — Wisconsin's — Duke's — reputation is not slipping. It is well regarded by academics and practitioners, according to U.S. News and World Report. Its ranking is slipping, because it has not invested as much money in facilities as many private schools have, or because its graduates are not competing in places like New York, where the high cost of living drives salaries up, or simply because it's not in the highly popular urban Meccas along I-5 or I-95.
The U.S. News ranking is based partly on reputation, but it is not the only criterion. Other organizations rank law schools using different criteria, and get different results. The Gourman Report of Graduate Programs has ranked graduate and professional schools for many years; its rankings reflect a more traditional measure of reputation than do the U. S. News rankings. Chicago-Kent Law Review ranks law school faculties by the extent to which they publish. Each of these will give a different view of a law school's reputation. Judge Thomas Brennan, a retired Michigan Supreme Court Justice, has ranked law schools by 50 different criteria -- and come up with 50 different "#1" schools!
For the most comprehensive list of rankings I've seen anywhere, the web page of grad student and apparent genius John Wehrli was absolutely #1. Unfortunately, he seems to be out of circulation. If any one finds him anywhere, email me!
What's In a Ranking?
One of my students was very interested in NYU because of their top ranking in intellectual property. When he looked at actual courses, however, he found that their specialty is in entertainment and the arts, while his interest is in bioscience. He did some fast rethinking before seat deposits were due. This is yet another example of how a USNWR ranking without further info can be misleading.
Specialty rankings are often influenced by the halo effect. What's that? It's the influence an external or indirect factor has on the quality being measured. Here's a great example:
"A few years ago someone conducted a poll to determine the public’s perception of the quality of law schools in the United States. Survey respondents were asked to name the 10 best law schools in the country. When the answers were compiled, the survey found that the law school at Princeton University always placed near the top. The problem is, Princeton doesn’t have a law school. But Princeton does have one of the best undergraduate programs anywhere, and that fact creates a halo which ultimately enhances the public’s perception of the quality of the university as a whole." (From a speech at USC -- web source no longer active)
Halo effect is part of why universities invest money in sports teams and give honorary degrees. Anything that gets a school's name into the public eye creates a halo effect.
What's the bottom line? No one knows whether reputation correlates to quality in any meaningful way. Look for the program that's right for you, not the one with the best reputation.
Won't a better reputation get me a higher salary?
Not necessarily. Salaries are controlled more by the economy of the market in which you work than by the reputation of the law school. For instance, the University of Iowa Law School is ranked in the top 20, yet its graduates make an average salary far lower than graduates of Southwestern U. Law School, a "bottom tier" school. Southwestern grads tend to live and work in Los Angeles, while Iowa grads tend to live and work in Iowa.
Isn't Penn ranked higher than Duke?
Some years -- by one or two places. They've both wandered from 7th to 12th and back again over the years. You might want to see what I say in the USNews rankings Section.
Where can I learn about a school's reputation?
The USNWR Reputation Ranking is the most accessible source of reputation info, but it still has a number of problems.
So What's an Applicant to Do?
What I did was ask admissions officers.
For areas with a number of law schools, I asked several of the law school about each other. I also asked schools in neighboring job markets -- e.g., Connecticut and upstate New York for Boston and New York City, Minnesota and Ohio for Chicago. You can see my results here.