Northwestern Law is Ranked #1, but Does it Matter?

Law School Admissions
By at least one measure, Northwestern University’s School of Law is the best law school in America. But what is that measure? And what does it mean? Should would-be Harvard, Columbia, and Chicago students suddenly reverse course?

You may have already heard the “Northwestern ranked as best law school” sound bite in the last week and scratched your head. “Really?” Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that the National Law Journal is a highly respected publication that put out a legitimate ranking that had Northwestern had the top of the heap. No, in the sense that this ranking measures one thing — and one thing only — and has nothing to do with academic excellence, peer reputation, class profile, or any other metric that we’re used to analyzing. And no in the sense that the one thing it does measure might be a pretty misleading statistic.

The NLJ survey focuses purely on the number of graduates from each school that land jobs at “NLJ top 250” law firms. That’s it. The school with the highest percentage wins and for Northwestern, that percentage (55.9%) is enough to edge out the likes of Columbia (54.4%), Stanford (54.1%), and Chicago (53.1%). Since the NLJ is very good at determining what the top firms are, this is surely a pretty credible finding, right?

Again, yes and no.

Northwestern has rightly taken advantage of this ranking and used the news as a way to advertise the practical, hands-on training provided by their law school model. I’ve visited Northwestern Law, studied there, interacted with students there, worked at a large firm with graduates from the program and I can say that this is absolutely true. Northwestern does indeed do a great job of turning the esoteric study of law into something more practical. It’s a progressive, innovative, interesting law school and all the things they say in their own student newspaper are completely true.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that the data is skewed by certain realities. Such as: if every graduate from U. of Chicago chose to work at a top law firm rather than a prestigious clerkship, then that school would probably beat Northwestern like a drum in this kind of ranking. Such as: If Berkeley students stopped caring about public interest and went “all in” on top 250 firms, they would soar right past Northwestern. If Yale students no longer pursued academia first and foremost, not only would the legal heavyweight get back into the top 10 of this list, it would probably go right to the top. If Harvard Law went back to being the “law firm mill” it was before Elena Kagan became the dean and it students stopped pursuing all of the above (clerkships, public interest, and academia), surely Northwestern would have to take a back seat.

In other words, Northwestern may be placing such a robust percentage of students into top 250 firms in large part because its graduates don’t have the same alternative elite options as some of its more prestigious brethren. If you revised this survey to include graduates who go into: “NLJ top 250 firms, federal clerkships, and academic fellowship programs” (i.e., the three most prestigious paths, probably in reverse order), I promise you the list would look much different.

This isn’t to knock Northwestern. Again, they are doing a fine job of training good lawyers and firms recognize that fact. But this ranking is just as much about the jobs that Northwestern students aren’t getting as the ones they are. And, more importantly for potential law school students, it’s one more reminder that rankings — particularly those that measure just one thing — are never the be-all, end-all scorecard for the quality of a school.

(And yes, I went to U of C, so feel free to start lobbing tomatoes at me in the comments section!)

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