Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Tales of A Fourth Tier Nothing. Coping With Not Getting Accepted into an Ivy League Law School

So you've graduated from college and have decided to pursue a career in law. You've spent hours preparing for the LSAT and have submitted applications to the highest echelons of legal study. Your admission's essay was particularly spectacular. To paraphrase A Christmas Story, rarely had the words poured from your penny pencil with such feverish fluidity.  So what happened?  Why was your application to Harvard Law soundly rejected?  Did they even read your essay about the summer you volunteered teaching archery to underprivileged blind kids?  From the countless applications you submitted, only one school offered you a shot; an accredited fourth tier law school.  Fourth tier?! That's the Hades of law school rankings. The lowest rung on the ladder.  Oh cruelest of fates, could one even get a decent job coming out of a fourth tier school?  What would the future hold?  Would you be subjected to a lifetime of posting sad fliers at the local supermarket soliciting clients alongside Becky's babysitting services? 

The importance of rankings has perplexed mankind since the dawn of the US News & World Report rankings list.  I rank it up there with what is the meaning of life","who shot J.R." and "how many licks does it take to get to the center of a tootsie roll tootsie pop."  (The answers to the latter questions are of course " a Monty Python film,  Kristen Sheppard shot JR, and three.)  So do law school rankings matter?  In my humble opinion, only if you let them. 

Each year, US News surveys 184 accredited law schools across the nation and assigns them a ranking based on twelve "measures of quality".  These measures include a peer assessment score (think of a survey of Red Sox players being asked what they think of the Yankees) and a lawyer/judge assessment (According to US News only about 21% respond. And you know the type of people that respond to surveys, right? Basically the crazy cat ladies of the legal world)  In fairness, the survey does include assessment factors like bar passage rates, teacher/student ratios, and employment after graduation.  There are also rumors that the magazine has  been known to use the predictive prowess of Paul the Octopus.  If you followed world cup soccer this year, you know Paul correctly predicted the winner of all 7 of Germany's match ups as well as the eventual winner of the world cup. But I digress....

I decided to broach this subject after speaking to a dejected college student who failed to get into his dream school.  "What's the point of even going to law school?" he muttered.  The young bright eyed scamp had been accepted to the Western New England School of Law on scholarship and was upset he only got into a school that was labeled fourth tier in US News. I looked at him cockeyed.  "Did you grow up in a house with lots of lead based paint?" There I was staring at this kid with tear filled eyes and a Justin Bieber haircut (it's ok, I'm not really sure if I know who Justin Bieber is either) complaining that he got into an accredited American law school on full scholarship.   I thought of the thousands of applicants that would kill for a spot in an entering law school class.   This guy was willing to forgo a scholarship over a magazine ranking.   If texting didn't take me hours, I would have texted a piece of my mind to his i Phone. 

If you are not familiar with the Western New England School of Law, it is a prime example of why law school rankings only matter if you let them.  The school has a wonderful faculty and has produced some prestigious graduates.   In my own private practice, I run across WNEC graduates every day. Take WNEC grad and fellow CT blogger Ryan McKeen for example.  It was Attorney McKeen's analysis of Connecticut election laws that turned the state's race for Attorney General on it's ear.  Ryan's questioning of the front runner's qualifications caused a ripple effect that led to a national debate and her eventual disqualification. 

Despite having the "albatross"of a fourth tier law school around their neck, somehow these attorneys manage to become judges, chief prosecutors and law partners at some of the state's most sought after firms.   US News be damned.

I attribute the school's low ranking to a variety factors.  Although the school has been around for many years it only went full time in the 1970s.  As a result, I imagine the alumni network and the school's endowment would probably be limited to some capacity.  Another problem is that the school is located in a glut of New England Law Schools. Imagine being the school situated between Harvard and Yale.   I know what that's like. I grew up a Whalers fan in the shadow of the NY Rangers and the Boston Bruins.  So what if our home rink was literally a mall.  We had Gordie Howe on our team.  Granted he was around 83 years old when he played in Hartford, but he was still a legend.  Again, I digress.....

Another example is the Pace University School of Law.  Located in White Plains, New York, I consider Pace among the most underrated legal institutions in the nation. US News &World Report ranks the school as one of the top three environmental programs in the country beating out a host of heavy hitting ivy league institutions.  Despite this, it places the school's overall ranking oddly in the same tier as Appalachian Law School. While I am confident Appalachian Law offers fine academia, it bares noting that the school was founded in 1994 and is located in the small town of Grundy, Virginia (pop. 1105). Pace Law School simply offers more advantages than Appalachian. (More clinical programs, wider choice of classes, location just outside Manhattan, alumni in partnership roles at the nation's leading firms).

If you are going to a lower tiered law school, don't fret about it.  Once admitted, you are on equal footing with every other member of the bar.  You are judged on your skill, not on the ranking of your alma mater.  Most practicing attorneys don't care what law school you attended.  They care more about your skill in the courtroom.  Of course, I am not naive to the fact that a Yale Law diploma will open a door faster than a diploma from Jim's School of Law and Air Conditioner Repair.  And I am sure you will find some law firms that will dismiss your application out right.   Such is life.   But that should never stop you from your pursuit of a rewarding legal career.  (should I break into singing Dream the Impossible Dream?)

Maybe your law school doesn't have a great alumni network and the law library doesn't have "books".  So your career service center is nothing more than want ads available to you only after the Dean is done reading the paper. Maybe your cafeteria is a hotdog cart.  Deal with it.  No one likes a cry baby.  There's no crying in law practice (unless its for the benefit of a jury). Make the most of focusing on the opportunites available to you rather than sulking over the things your school lacks.   To paraphrase Ben Franklin, you are only guaranteed the right to pursue happiness.  You have to catch it yourself.  So buck up camper.  Here are a few suggestions to aide you in your pursuit.

Your lawschool has poor library facilities:   Many law libraries have arrangements that allow visiting law students the use of their facilities.  Don't be shy in using another school's library.  Most law schools also give their students free use of West Law and Nexis.  Make the most out of it. Also consider the library in your local courthouse as an alternative.

Your career services department is horrible:  Complaining that career services doesn't provide jobs is not going to get you a job.  You may have to do it yourself.  Networking can be an effective tool in getting you a shot at that white shoe firm.   As an evening law student, it was difficult for me to attend law school networking functions during the day.  As a result, I started a group with a  fellow evening student named Brendan Murphy.  Brendan was a well liked police officer who spent his days pursuing bad guys and his nights pursuing a law degree.  He didn't have time to go to morning coffee with alumni.  As a result, we formed our own networking student organization. I called it the Barrister's Guild to give it a bit of a lofty air.   We would invite local attorneys out to dinner to pick their brains.  How did they get their job?  How did they become successful?  What tips could you share on daily law practice?   We often relied on the connections of fellow law students.  If Suzie had an uncle who was a judge, we asked Suzie to invite him out to dinner with our members.  We poured over law firm websites looking for alumni.  We cold called famous attorneys. 

The result was some memorable events where small groups of law students met with some of the nation's leading legal minds in informal settings.   We caught a Yankee game with corporate lawyers.  We went skiing with environmental attorneys.  We went for sushi with a vice president in MTV's legal department.  We had maragritas with Leona Helmsely's counsel and steaks with the NYC mayor's chief of staff.  It's easier than you think.  Remember, lawyers love to talk about themselves.  We didn't limit ourselves to the grads of one law school.  If he or she was a successful lawyer, we went after them.  our events gave participants a chance to get their foot in the door at some of New York's most prestigous law firms.  It even garnered Brendan and myself a nice two page article in the NY Law Journal.

Stand Out From the Crowd:  Market yourself.  What makes you a better candidate than the guy from a higher ranked school.  Do you have better grades?  Do you speak another language?  Do you have some real experience on your resume?  No.  Then increase your worth.  Go for the higher grades.  Get some job or clinical experience.  Get a judicial internship or write for a law review.  Put in the hours at that summer internship.  Don't be the last one to work and the first one to leave.  Don't be the intern that gets drunk at law firm functions.   Make an impression and stand out from the crowd..

Attend a Law School with a Great Name.  If you can't get into 6th ranked NYU, try getting into third tier New York Law.  You would be surprised at how many people mistake the New York School of Law for New York University School of Law.  ( I jest of course.)

Don't let the ranking of your law school limit what you can do with your law degree.  Lower tiered schools like Howard University Law School, New York Law and Missouri-Kansas City Law have even produced Supreme Court Justices.   (Heck, lower tiered Cumberland Law produced two) So am I saying rip up that acceptance letter from Yale Law School? Absolutely, yes!  Go for it. 

................Just kidding. What are you nuts? Where do you keep the scotch tape?


Richard said...

As a fellow lawyer and blogger in Augusta, Georgia, I appreciate all the time and effort you put into your informative blogs! Great job!

Ryan McKeen said...

Amen Adrian. Great post.

Jen Simon said...

Attorney Baron,

Rarely have the words poured from your penny pencil with such feverish fluidity.

Loved the post.

Anonymous said...

As a New York Law alumnus, I couldn't stop laughing at your suggestion to attend NY Law because it is mistaken for NYU. It got me my first job. LOL

Cliff Tuttle said...

Back in the day when I applied to law school, there was none of this tier stuff. When US News came out with rankings, it was already too late for me to switch. But why worry? It sounded then, and it sounds now, like a gimmick devised by somebody trying to convince himself that he is better than me. So let him think it, he will anyway. One hundred years from now, my law school will probably be ranked as high as or higher than his law school, but neither of us will be feeling anything about it.

Cliff Tuttle,
Pittsburgh Legal Back Talk

Film Co. Lawyer said...

I use my law degree in a different way from most people (working in the entertainment field + getting opportunities to do creative stuff) but glad to see this post. There's far too much negativity & whining in law land; it's also a reason I don't get along w/most attorneys.

In entertainment, it's ALL about your personality. No one in my field has been snotty to me b/c I didn't go to Harvard or even rejected me for work because I didn't have eons of prior experience. In fact, I've gotten offered things I had zero experience doing just b/c people liked me that much & saw potential. I'm the one who'd have to say "I've never done this before so you might not want me to do it."

It also helps that I have a personality, appearance & creative talents that make the entertainment field a great fit for me. I decided to go w/my strengths instead of trying to be something I'm not.

For my part, I think you have to find your passion & just go with it. You only get 1 life so you have to live it to the fullest, no matter how "hard" it is to get something.

Anonymous said...

It was very refreshing to read something encouraging about going to a TTTT law school. I'm in the process of applying and because of lack of focus in undergrad I'm unable to apply for a higher ranked school. With 4 years of work experience under my belt I know I am ready to attend law school and I have the focus to be successful. Its very draining reading people "crap" (for lack of a better word) all over tier 4 schools. Again, thanks for the refreshing perspective.

Anonymous said...

Western New England Law School has the second largest law library in Massachusetts - only Harvard Law Schoool's is larger.

Anonymous said...

How absolutely refreshing to come across this blog, Adrian, and thank you for your time and effort. After reading the ever so helpful "Top-Law-Schools" forums for a while, (how depressing & informative all at the same time) which TTT or TTTT should I choose, this blog put it all back into perspective. Getting the most out of what you put into it just feels right, no pretensiousness about it.

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