THE REAL TEN BEST LAW SCHOOLS

By BRANDT GOLDSTEIN
Tuesday, Jun. 20, 2000
Editorial: This column is a humorous look at how to rank the "Top 10 Law Schools." It is not meant to be taken seriously by potential law students deciding where they should enroll.
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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.

  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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 admissions information. What are you waiting for?

There you have it. Disagree with me? No problemo. Send me a message at writ@findlaw.com. 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.


Brandt Goldstein, is an associate in research at Yale Law School. He is writing a book about the Haitian refugee crisis of the early 1990s.

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