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Many law deans worry about their latest rankings, and law schools are regularly accused of making questionable decisions to go up in the rankings. But what if most law students -- outside an elite band -- really aren't focused on national prestige?

A new study -- based on in-depth surveys of law students at four law schools -- suggests that those who believe that there is one law school market for students may be wrong. By asking students about their priorities in making choices of law schools, the study finds that there are numerous markets for law schools. And the factors that may make someone pick one top nationally ranked law school over another may have little to do with the priorities of those picking law schools in a less elite market.

The study was based on a survey conducted by Christopher J. Ryan Jr., associate professor of law at Roger Williams University, of students at four law schools (that are described but not named). The results were recently published as a working paper by the Social Science Research Network. The law schools were a private elite law school, a law school at a flagship state university, a regional public university law school and a new private law school.

Students were asked about the top five factors in selecting a law school. Reputation was most important for those at the private law school. Location was not a factor for that law school, but various location-related factors (proximity to home, the local job market) were important in the other categories. Bar-passage rates are presumably important to all law students, but those at the prestigious law school didn't cite that as a factor, possibly because they took it for granted. But bar-passage rates matter more to those at other kinds of law schools.

Top 5 Factors in Picking a Law School

Factor Rank Private Elite Public Flagship Public Regional New Private
1 Reputation (98.9%) Financial aid (79.5%) Bar passage (79.7%) Bar passage (90.9%)
2 Job placement (81.3%) Reputation (77.4%) Local career opportunities (67.2%) Financial aid (84.1%)
3 Financial aid (73.6%) Local career opportunities (55.8%) Job placement (67.2%) Job placement (69.6%)
4 Regional career opportunities (60.7%) Bar passage (56.4%) Financial aid (62.9%) Reputation (61.4%)
5 Alumni network (45.7%) Job placement (50.0%) Proximity to home (55.9%) Proximity to home (56.8%)

The law students were also asked about the factors that had the least impact. Here, across types of law schools, there was very little interest in the religious affiliation or the athletic teams of the universities to which law schools are attached.

The article concludes by noting how different the motivations are for different law students. "[A] national reputation is most important for students at the private elite law school -- but is a lesser factor for all other law student respondents," the paper says.

Adds the paper, "The market for law students should be viewed, henceforth, as a heterogeneous and highly competitive market."

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