No Inferiority Complex in Cambridge: Students Rank HLS First in The Record’s Study

BY KELLY PAO

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Students at Harvard Law like to complain about everything, from living in the Gropius dorms to the lack of skim milk packets for the free morning coffee. They gripe about the ice skating rink and classroom temperatures, about too much reading and too little time. But what do students here think about their institution in relation to other American law schools?

The Record recently conducted a survey of randomly selected HLS students, requesting their participation in an e-mail survey. The survey asked students to “identify and rank what you believe to be the ten best American law schools.” No specific law schools were mentioned, and all students contacted were asked to respond via e-mail. Participants were assured of anonymity unless they volunteered to be interviewed for this story.

Over 100 HLS students completed the survey. Results include only those surveys that listed ten schools. In total, the survey includes the rankings of 103 HLS students: 30 1Ls, 22 2Ls, 29 3Ls, and 22 LLMs.Each time that a student listed a particular law school first, that school received 10 points. Schools ranked second received nine points, third received eight points, fourth received seventh points, and so on, subtracting one point for each rank from the first to the tenth listed school, which received one point. Schools not listed by a participant received zero points. Once all of the results were received, Record staffers tallied the point totals for each school.

Overall, HLS students ranked the top ten law schools in the following order: Harvard University, Yale University, Stanford University, Columbia University, University of Chicago, New York University, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, University of California – Berkeley, and the University of Virginia.

Perhaps the most surprising finding was that HLS came out on top. The Record found that despite their lack of enthusiasm over the first-year legal writing program and their antipathy toward Hark food, the majority of HLS students believe their school to be the best.

“There’s a reason Harvard Law School is considered to be a quintessential American institution and why it, and not some other law school, is mentioned in movies and novels,” said 1L Arvin Abraham, who participated in the survey. “We have it all: the name, and the resources to match.”

Among all law students surveyed, HLS topped the list with 986 points. Yale took second with 941 points. Stanford and Columbia followed, with 800 and 640 points respectively. But the difference in rankings between classes and degree programs was sometimes significant.

As shown in Katie Thomason’s article, Harvard received 44 votes for the top spot from J.D. students, besting Yale’s 35 votes. But LLM students showed a far stronger preference for HLS – 18 ranked HLS first, while only four gave Yale top honors. Perhaps the international resonance of the Harvard name gave it a leg up among LLMs. Or maybe LLMs, with their previous law school experience and distinct educational objectives, used different criteria in selecting the “best” law schools.

“I ranked the Law Schools based on the prestige that they have in my country and the appreciation they receive in the private sector in Chile,” said Chilean LLM Silvana Schenone. “I also think that the biggest competition for Harvard is not within the US but in the UK–Oxford or Cambridge, I would say.”

Equally interesting is the phenomenon of increasing support for Yale at the expense of HLS from the first to the third year. First-year students listed Harvard as number one twice as often as they did Yale, but 2Ls and 3Ls split rather evenly on the Harvard vs. Yale issue. While 2Ls still gave Harvard a slight edge over Yale, more 3Ls ranked Yale over Harvard than Harvard over Yale, by a margin of 15 to 13. Among 3Ls, Harvard barely edged Yale only because four 3Ls placed Yale third and one 3L ranked Yale fourth, while Harvard’s sole hiccup was the fact that two 3Ls listed Harvard third.

In the law school community, the most frequently cited rankings are those published each year by U.S. News and World Report. The criteria used to develop those rankings include the median GPA and LSAT ranges of the incoming 1L class, student/faculty ratio, bar passage rate, percentage employed after graduation, and both peer and professional assessments. Many students acknowledged the influence of the U.S. News rankings.

“I have watched [the U.S. News rankings] rather closely over the last two years,” 2L Tyler Bowen said. [Mine] are probably similar if not identical. I rely heavily on U.S. News.” Bowen’s top nine picks were, in fact, identical to those selected by U.S. News. Ranked highest to lowest, the top ten law schools in the 2005 U.S News rankings were: Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, NYU, University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, University of Virginia, and Northwestern.

All of the aforementioned law schools, except for Northwestern, came out in the Record survey’s top ten. Replacing Northwestern among HLS students was the University of California at Berkeley, known to many as Boalt Hall.

“I think that my rankings conform pretty closely to the U.S. News rankings, with the exception that I feel U.S. News’ methodology is strongly biased in favor of small schools and against large schools,” Abraham said.

Law school rankings can be found across the web. They employ a range of methodologies, from complicated algorithms to raw intuition. The 2004 rankings at the jd2b.com site proclaim that they are “based on qualitative, rather than quantitative, criteria,” and list HLS first among institutions, with Yale and Stanford tied for second.

The infamous xoxohth.com law school website features a message board where individuals can post rankings and solicit responses. Users, mostly prospective and current law students, frequently debate the merits of one law school over another as well as critique the U.S. News rankings, JD2B rankings, and other rankings.

The Record’s survey is unique in that it polls a distinctive community – Harvard Law students. In addition, it is the only survey that traces variations across the 1L, 2L, and 3Ls classes as well as compares the opinions of JD students with those of LLMs.

Although a number of HLS students who responded to the Record’s survey may have been influenced by outside rankings, there was still plenty of variety among individual responses. The set of schools was largely circumscribed, with only 23 schools listed among all participants, but the responses were fairly diverse and reflected unique perspectives.Some participants shared the criteria that they had used in making their determinations. Besides the U.S. News rankings, students cited reputation, GPA and LSAT scores, perceived prestige, diversity, breadth and depth of course offerings, intuited quality, career opportunities, and location.

“Reputation, class size, quality of instruction, academic and professional prestige, [and] the raw numbers” were all factors in 2L Tyler Bowen’s decision to rank Yale first.

“And the campus is beautiful,” he added.

The meaning of rankings is heavily debated. Students are frequently encouraged to choose the “most prestigious”-i.e., highest ranked-law school when evaluating law school acceptances, and there is a sizeable contingent of prospective law students (and relatives of prospective law students) that watches the U.S. News rankings closely. A few also follow the U.S. News rankings from year to year, although there is typically little variation.

Some students said that the rankings are mostly smoke and mirrors, and should not carry the wei
ght that some impart to them.

“Actually, I don’t think there are significant differences in the level of education received at law schools that are regularly regarded as top tier,” said 3L Taylor Dasher. Several students surveyed also objected to the use of rankings.

But rankings will likely remain as long as LSATs and GPAs rule the admissions process and as long as consumers are willing to eagerly purchase U.S. News’s annual America’s Best Graduate Schools. Just as admissions committees at many law schools across the nation assign a numerical value to each applicant, so too do many prospective law students assign each law school a ranking – whether based on commercial rankings, a careful personal calculation, or a gut feeling.

“The quality of education one receives at top institutions is important, but law students rely heavily on reputation,” said survey participant Brett Talley, a 2L. “Having the right name on your diploma can take you a long way.”

(Note: The Record acknowledges that the manner in which the survey was conducted may have skewed the results slightly because of the self-selection involved in the e-mail response process, but no precise sampling error has been calculated.)

Anna Brook, Andrea Saenz, and Sami Zeidan contributed to the reporting of this story.

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