Tuesday, December 29, 2009

College vs. Law School: High Powered (Undergrad) Degree Worth it When Shooting for a JD?

Among law students, there appears to be a general understanding that students who attend top tier schools have more opportunities when it comes to prominent law firms, clerkships, and academia. At some point, where you go to law school becomes the dominant question, and where you went to college becomes seemingly less relevant to the point where one wonders whether it even matters.

But while the value of an undergraduate degree for a prospective law student is subject to considerable debate, it is clear that the “prestige” associated with the school ultimately matters to a lot of people--even if they are unwilling to admit it. And, at least to some, it certainly matters in the law school context. Sometimes, you can almost notice the change in how someone looks at you or the way their eyes widen a bit out of a newfound respect for how intelligent they now assume you are simply because you attend a certain school. I say that with a hint of sarcasm, but I do understand the practical implication that attending a higher ranked college implies higher test scores and higher high school GPAs, which are supposed to coincide with a higher level of intelligence. However, once all of these students end up at the same law school, I wonder how their undergraduate institution factors in, if at all.

I don’t claim to know the answer, but I am fairly curious. I attended Johns Hopkins University for college, and I now attend Penn Law with friends who have graduated from schools such as Harvard, Rutgers, Emory, Cornell, and Wesleyan, and I can’t seem to find a real distinction between any of them. Do students who go to “better” colleges come to law school with a “better” education that leads to a “better” legal career? Maybe there is something to be said about the kind of exposure one gains at a highly ranked college to some of the brightest students from across the country who build an environment of ambition and determination.

On the other hand, I ultimately feel undergraduate pedigree would merely factor into personality traits rather than success in law school and beyond. In the midst of Princeton Review and Vault and US News, I think we have been conditioned as a society to automatically assume that better schools mean smarter, more successful people, and to a degree it might very well be true. But in terms of the correlation between college and law school, I’m not quite convinced. Am I mistaken?


  1. Do you notice any differences between students from elite schools and non-elite? I didn't go to law school, so I have no way of knowing, but in undergrad at Penn, I noticed that kids that went to elite high schools (Stuyvesant, Exeter, Andover, etc) didn't seem to be more intelligent per se, but did seem to know how to "do" college better than myself and the unwashed public school masses. They seemed to know how to study right away and seemed to have fewer all nighters... this is all anecdotal of course. It seems to make sense though, law school and undergrad are screening processes, and if they work properly, it shouldn't matter what school/background people come from, they should have the same talent and potential, but perhaps different levels of preparation.

  2. Interesting point. I have wondered if students coming from "less elite" colleges are more used to being able to excel while studying less than others. On the other hand, students who attended more rigorous undergraduate institutions may be better equipped to handle the intensity of law school and the long hours of work. Then again, I think law school was a bit of a reality check for all of us in terms of stamina and concentration, so I'm really not sure.

  3. I don't know if it's preparation as much drive/work ethic/ambition, at least at the college level. I think those kids who went to "elite" colleges, for the most part, worked harder than their peers in high school and that's how they got into the good schools. With law school though, to get into a good law school like Penn, you have to have worked hard in college no matter what college you went to. So by the time someone gets to law school, people are on a more level playing field regardless of their college. That's why, like you said, it's a reality check for everyone. Being good at working hard isn't much of an advantage when everyone is good at it. But I wonder whether those people who went to elite colleges have an advantage from having been surrounded by lots of other people who work hard/are ambitious for a longer period of time. Thoughts?

  4. Of my friends, the top undergrad students have all done the best in law school. I don't think it's a coincidence.

  5. Everyone who goes to law school is equally capable, and the LSAT is the reason for this. It is a far better predictor of success than undergrad prestige or grades. Everyone at a particular school has a similar LSAT, and is therefore on equal footing.

  6. I personally think that an aspiring lawyer should focus on where he or she goes to law school, and not spend a huge amount of money for an "elite" undergraduate education. No one cares where I went undergrad, but I am often asked, even after 13 years of practice, where I graduated from law school. Nor did I notice any correllation between where my fellow law students went undergrad and their performance in law school. Many of our top students went to non-prestigious schools. I did notice that some Ivy League students put on airs during the first year of law school The first round of exams and grades put an end to that.

  7. Scott - Villanova LawJanuary 5, 2010 at 7:14 PM

    "Anonymous said...
    Everyone at a particular school has a similar LSAT, and is therefore on equal footing."


    Everyone of the same race has a similar LSAT, unless they are a legacy student. Especially at the top schools, the hierarchy is usually Asian, White, Latino, Black. The LSAT scores drop (often significantly) with each race. And of course if Mommy and/or Daddy is an alum who donates then the scores don't quite matter at all.

  8. What in the world are you talking about, Scott?

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