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Defining "Tiers" of Reputation


“How is UNC rated?  Isn’t it true that it’s not in the top twenty-five this year?”  Such an apparently simple question has a complicated answer.  USNews rankings involve a half-dozen categories and a complicated weighting calculation; one of those categories is reputation. Michigan, Berkeley and Virginia have excellent reputations but are often ranked lower than schools like Northwestern or Duke, which have slightly lesser reputations. That's because USNews ranking includes cost per student, and these public schools may fall a bit behind in the frills department.

And all that confusion is about the school’s overall rating; what about ratings of particular programs?  For environmental law, Vermont and Lewis and Clark are ranked highest; for trial advocacy, Stetson and Temple.

Moreover, the USNews version is one of several rating services; there are others which evaluate different variables. 

  • Gourman includes the age of the school, giving many older schools higher rankings than they have in USNews. 
  • The ratings in the Princeton Review Guide are based on the evaluations of students, rather than lawyers or academics.  Student ratings may reflect lower expectations or school loyalty more than objective quality. 
  • Brian Leiter's Law School rankings tend to focus on academia, weighing faculty strengths very heavily. This is great if you want to be an academic, but of less certain use in other circumstances.
“Rating” is never a simple calculation: you must know what variables are being rated, and by whom.


People call us wanting to apply to schools in this or that tier.  We really can’t help them because we don’t know what a tier is.  We see that USNews groups schools and calls them things like second tier and fourth tier.  But what factors are used to draw those lines?  We haven’t quite figured that one out yet.

And neither has USNews!

  • In the 1980s they published a top 25
  • Then in 1992 there was a top 25, a second 20 rounding out the top quarter, and three more quarters. Ditto for 1993.
  • In 1994 they went to a top 25, second 25, and third, fourth and fifth tiers; they kept that format through '95 and '96.
  • In 1997, they collapsed five tiers to four, with a top 25, second 25, and third and fourth tiers; thus they stayed through 2001, gradually blurring the line between the top 25 and the second 25 until
  • In 2002 they fell back to a top 50 and third and fourth tiers.
  • In 2006 all hell broke loose -- a top 100!
  • In 2009, they added a ranking of part-time programs.
  • And in 2011, they published a "Top" 135, and a second tier of about 50. Third, fourth and fifth tiers no longer exist.

So USNews may know a lot about law schools, but we can tell you definitively that they don't know what a tier is.

When we look at law schools, we make suggestions based on 6 groups:

National Reputation.  These schools (the top 14 in US News) are well known across the United States as good schools.  These schools will have large numbers of recruiters from all over the United States.  That is why someone from Georgetown may end up with a job in Los Angeles.

Why does the "national" list always end at 14? Because the next several schools select themselves as regional. UCLA, USC and Texas have students who don't want to leave the state until it's time to go to Heaven. (Actually, they don't plan to leave then, either; they think that Heaven is IN their state.) Vanderbilt and Wash. U. tend to draw applicants who want to stay in the midwest; BC and BU draw students who want to stay in the northeast. And so it goes.

Note for 2011: This year Texas tied Georgetown for 14th; but it will be several years before we see whether nomenclature changes.

The schools below the "First Tier" are recognized as top schools, and should a wayward grad have thoughts of leaving, it is theoretically possible. That's why I think of these schools as

Top Regional Reputation with National CrossoverThese are schools generally ranked between 15 and 50 in US News, where the majority of recruiters come from the area, but there are recruiters from other parts of the countryFordham, for example, has about 350 recruiters. One hundred fifty come from the New York area; the remaining 200 come from all over, including forty from California.  
Solid Regional ReputationThese schools, generally ranked between 40 and 100 in the US News, are well known locally and in the adjacent states.  Villanova is such a school.  Its 150 recruiters come from the stretch of I-95 between Boston and DC. So are Brooklyn and Cardozo, Chicago-Kent and Loyola. But why would a recruiter from Chicago come to New York to recruit at this level? You'll tend to be stuck in this region unless you're lucky enough to get a job with a firm that has branches in other cities to which you can transfer. (How do you find those firms? Through NALP and Martindale-Hubbell.)

Local Reputation with some Regional crossoverThese are schools with local recruiters, but due to location some people from outside the area are willing to attend such a school.  DePaul and Southwestern are such schools; although primarily local, the cities are attractive to both applicants and recruiters. Religious schools often fall into this group. a recruiter from a firm with a religious bent may want to recruit at law schools that attract like-minded people. Note that we are not talking about hiring people of a certain religion. That is, generally speaking, illegal. We're talking about the "kind" of person who would attend Mercer, Regent, BYU, or Pepperdine. That person need not be of the school's religion, but they must adhere to its principles.

Truly local schools are basically unknown to anyone who isn’t applying to law school or didn’t grow up next door to the school.  When you graduate you can take the bar exam and be a lawyer.  That is about all there is to say.  Examples are Campbell, Oklahoma City, and Detroit Mercy. People from out of state don't go there, because the locale isn't alluring. No night life, no trendy nouvelle anything. You go because you're there and so is the school.

Boutique Schools are local schools with a specialty that has become known nationally.  An example is Vermont Law School.  Vermont is not known as a top law school unless you are going to specialize in environmental law; its reputation in that program is national. Franklin Pierce (now known as the U. of New Hampshire) for intellectual property, Stetson for trial advocacy, St. Louis for health law, are all good examples. 

There is an almost-comical variation of the Boutique school:  the sports school.  Gonzaga was purely local until its basketball team made the NCAA Final Four; then it had a national reputation in some people’s minds. A few years later it became a local school again. Maryland was rocketed from purely regional to almost national with an NCAA championship. And Notre Dame will always be Notre Dame, even though Georgetown is the flagship Roman Catholic university in the United States.

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