U.S. News & World Report recently released its annual law school rankings,
with the standard smug self-congratulations or complaints issuing from the schools
that had either inched up or fallen in the listings. The magazine's system retains
a fig leaf of objectivity, relying as it does on all sorts of numerical criteria
(selectivity, undergraduate GPA's of the students, faculty-student ratio) for
the results. But as always, the biggest factor for U.S. News is each school's
reputation among lawyers and academics -- a self-perpetuating pile of hooey,
since for one thing, a vastly disproportionate number of the academics attended
just a few, so-called "elite" institutions. As a consequence, the
usual East Coast suspects are all crowded at the top, interrupted by the occasional
Californian or Midwestern intruder.
The truth? The rankings are useless. They further entrench existing biases.
They create the ridiculous misimpression that a school that's number sixteen
in the rankings might actually be "better" than the institution that
weighs in at number eighteen (even though they may well switch places next year).
And they give students and alumni one more unnecessary chance to ponder their
precise place in the law school pecking order, as if a neurotic second-year
at Northwestern really needs an ulcer over whether his school (currently number
twelve, for those of you who must know) will crack the top ten next year.
The rankings are founded on a ridiculously narrow idea of what a "good"
law school is. In all honesty, what really determines which institution you
choose as a place of study for three years and an alma mater for the rest of
your life? I'm not sure I can name all the factors, but I know this: the number
of books in the law library (factored in by the U.S. News ranking) did not help
me decide whether to check the "accept" box. How many books can you
read in law school, for crying out loud? In fact, how many law-related
books do you want to read? Four? Two?
So I ask: What about the things we really care about? What about the attractiveness
of our future classmates? What about beach front property? What about sex? People,
it's time for a different ranking. So here's my own list of the Top Ten law
schools. It's arbitrary. Its capricious. And its a lot more accurate and useful
than anything you're going to find in print.
- University of Colorado at Boulder. Are you kidding me? The campus is less
than two hours from Keystone, Breckenridge and Copper Mountain. Vail's only
30 minutes farther. We're talking some of the finest skiing in North America.
Plus, you've got hiking and mountain biking in the fall and spring, and the
finest microbreweries in the country. (If you've never had Fat Tire Ale, don't
whine to me about why NYU isn't in my Top Ten.) And even if you move away
after graduating -- but why would you do that? -- you're sure to have friends
who stick around. What's that mean? Four words: free ski condo forever.
- University of Miami, Florida. If Boulder has your skiing covered, this is
the place to get your sun. Heck, the two schools should have an exchange program.
The Miami campus is only minutes from South Beach: white sand, turquoise waters,
pastel-hued art deco hotels -- and don't forget the jaw-dropping babes in
stamp-size swimsuits and the young Adonises with abs of tungsten. I'm not
saying that all the students at Miami are Eurotrash wannabes with deep
tans who sit around sipping $15 cocktails while the ocean breeze plays with
their perfect hair. But if they're not, that's their fault.
- The University of Minnesota. Don't let that accent you heard in Fargo
fool you. This place spits out tough lawyers. Monsters. Litigators who'll
cut you to ribbons. Actually, I don't know any of this for a fact. But I'm
basing it on good circumstantial evidence. In January, the temperature in
downtown St. Paul, Minnesota is 407 degrees below zero. Without wind chill.
Anyone who can survive three years out on this frozen tundra must be
tough as nails. Oh jah. You betcha.
- Duke and North Carolina (tie, in alphabetical order). Going to either of
these places has the following advantages: a glorious and long fall and spring,
a beautiful campus and the best college basketball in America, period. Duke's
Cameron Indoor Stadium is quite likely the premier place in the world to watch
a hoops game (no, I did not go to Duke), although Chapel Hill has the better
bar scene and college town atmosphere, and it's much easier to get a ticket
to watch the Tar Heels in the cavernous Dean Dome than it is to squeeze your
way in to Cameron, which seats about 237 people.
- Michigan. Ann Arbor is the quintessential college town, with more bars,
cafes and bookstores than you can count (the city at one point claimed that
more books were bought and owned per capita there than in any other community
in America). The law school is housed in a spacious gothic quadrangle, and,
if you must study, it boasts two of the most spectacular reading rooms in
the country -- the old gothic one, with soaring arches, stained glass and
chandeliers; and an ultramodern one below ground, flooded with sunlight thanks
to a sheer glass wall that cuts deep into the earth at a steep angle. Plus,
the school is only a mile from that college football Valhalla known as Michigan Stadium
(which last year averaged over 111,000 people per game). ABC's Keith Jackson
considers it the finest place in America to watch football, and on a brilliant
October Saturday when you should be learning about joint tenancy or the commerce
clause, you'll most certainly agree.
- Harvard. I'm putting Harvard here for one reason. I don't want my mailbox
full of incensed Harvard Law grads telling me that the school belongs in any
ranking of the best law schools in the country, regardless of what factors
are being taken into account. The bad news: many Harvard students end up living
in a Gropius-designed dormitory that looks remarkably like my junior high
school, and the place is overflowing with very clever but weirdly insecure
people stuck in a butt-cold city that harbors a deep suspicion of anybody
not born in New England. But after graduation, when you find yourself in an
Upper West Side bar at 11:49 p.m. following yet another brutal day at Sullivan
& Cromwell, and you're trying to hit on some carefully put-together junior
buyer for Saks, you have the following card up your sleeve: When the poor
target makes the ill-advised decision to ask where you went to law school,
you get to say "Harvard." For some people, frighteningly enough,
that seems to be better than sex itself -- in which case you've just climaxed
right there in the bar, in front of a total stranger, and can now simply walk
home, wash up and go to sleep.
- Stanford. Some cynics maintain the architecture is nouveau Taco Bell,
but if you've ever cruised onto the campus via Palm Drive on a warm April
day, you can't help but be blown away: a long, stately avenue lined by palm
trees gives way to a sandstone-arched quadrangle fronted by an oval of perfect
grass and a collection of Rodin sculpture. The gold mosaic on the university
church gleams from within the courtyard, flowerbeds overflow with tulips,
and the California hills rise above it all in the background. On top of that,
if you play your cards properly and marry the right classmate, she or he will
turn out to be a Silicon Valley zillionaire. Which means that you, pal, can
wile away the days on the French Riviera, drinking yourself silly and prattling
on about the novel you're supposedly writing.
- Concord Law School. Torts and contracts, Internet-style. The only law school
that exists purely on the web as far as I can tell, but that was after three
minutes of checking. If there's some geek out there who knows otherwise, feel
free to e-mail me that I'm wrong. Since you can set up shop just about anywhere
and be a law student at Concord, the school combines all the geographic advantages
of the other schools I've mentioned -- the mountains of Colorado, the beaches
of Miami, the perfect fall days of Ann Arbor. But with a whole lot more perks.
As far as I can tell, you never have to meet a professor or another student
face-to-face, so you don't have to put up with some greasy-haired jerk in
the front row brown-nosing your dictatorial con law prof. You can attend [sic]
class in your underwear (also possible, though not advisable, at a "bricks
and mortar" law school). And after you graduate, you can get written
up in the newspaper as a pioneer in Internet education, able to ace an online
property exam but entirely unsure of how to shake hands with a real client.
Step away from the keyboard.
- Pepperdine. Oooh yeaaaaaaaahhhh. The school's web site says it all: "Pepperdine
University is located in Malibu, California -- just 30 miles from downtown
Los Angeles -- making it a conducive environment for the intense study of
law." You bet it's a conducive environment -- for something, anyway.
The Pacific Ocean is across the street. You get out of class and you're
a couple hundred yards from some tasty waves. And while Ken Starr won't be
assuming the position of dean as had once been announced, the place is loaded
with superstar visiting scholars and professors, thanks to an ambitious administration
that knows how to leverage its neat-o location to get some big name folks
to drop by. Chief Justice Rehnquist, Justice Antonin Scalia, all-around smart
guy/game show host Ben Stein (a speech writer for Nixon) and a host of other
luminaries have graced this place. No doubt about it: if you want to go to
law school, Pepperdine is the place to do it. So here's the link for
information. What are you waiting for?
There you have it. Disagree with me? No problemo. Send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I'll take your votes into account next time around and maybe even post the best
reports. But please: spare me the size of your law school's bookstore and the number of Yale
grads on the faculty. Remember, we're trying to do something useful here.