By Brian Burnsed

Many prospective law students use the rankings to make their decision, but is that a good thing?

Prospective law students put more weight on a school's ranking than any other factor, a survey of 1,383 people who recently took the LSAT finds.

U.S.News & World Report has ranked American law schools since 1987 and the rankings' influence has grown tremendously since then. In a recent survey by Kaplan Test Prep, 30 percent of respondents claimed that a school's rank was the most important factor in their decision-making process. Location (24 percent), the academic programs a school offers (19 percent), and affordability (12 percent) also swayed applicants' minds. "I can say that no matter what I have heard about the specific strengths of a particular program, the regional prestige, or cost of attendance, the national rankings have weighed most heavily on my mind," says Robert David Gallo, who recently received his bachelor's degree from the University of Florida and is in the process of applying to law school. "Only time will tell whether this approach will pay off for me or anyone else. However, in this tough economy, we are all looking for any advantage we can get."

Law school experts aren't sure if students like Gallo should be leaning on the rankings so heavily, claiming that a student's personal preferences may differ from the factors that are used to produce the rankings. Before letting the rankings influence their decision, students should familiarize themselves with the metrics that are used to rank law schools, and then contrast them with what matters most on the individual level, says David Stern, executive director of the nonprofit Equal Justice Works, which helps lawyers find work in underserved communities. "What is it that they evaluate these law schools on? I bet 90 percent of these law students would say 'I have no idea. All I know is that school number 10 is higher than school number 12,'" he says.

Of course, diplomas from top-ranked schools can open doors for students just about anywhere, Stern acknowledges. But for students who plan on staying in a specific region for a long period of time, choosing a regionally known school without a high national ranking can nevertheless provide a strong network that leads to numerous job opportunities.

Kendell Kelly, a Chicago-based attorney and 2004 graduate of the Georgetown University Law Center , currently ranked 14th in U.S. News's rankings of Best Law Schools, leaned on the rankings to help her choose a school. Though she ultimately let the school's location influence her final decision, picking Georgetown over the higher ranked Cornell University Law School , she claims that attending a highly ranked school was of great benefit when she started her career. However, she's seen that students who attended the University of Iowa College of Law (ranked 26th) and Indiana University Maurer School of Law (ranked 27th) have had success finding jobs in Chicago and throughout the Midwest because of the schools' strong regional networks. "If you're staying in a specific region you're almost better off going to a regional school and ignoring the rankings," she says.

Experts agree with Kelly's sentiment. Where someone goes to law school should ultimately be a reflection of what region appeals most to the applicants and what type of job they wish to pursue, they say. "For a student looking to go to a corporate law firm, [rankings are] very important. Many firms disproportionately recruit from certain law schools and are significantly more likely to consider a résumé from a [top-14] school than others," says Steve Schwartz, an LSAT tutor and author of the LSAT Blog. "However, for applicants looking to practice in other areas such as human rights law, become sole practitioners, or use their law degree simply to augment their already-existing business or in conjunction with another graduate degree, the law schools ranking and national reputation may not mean as much."

Many, including Robert Morse, director of data research at U.S. News , argue that students should use rankings as a tool in their search, but not as the sole basis for their decision. Factors like cost, financial aid, and location should also play a major role, admissions consultants say.

Other tools like Equal Justice Works Guide to Law Schools allow students to sort schools based on criteria that may differ from data used to calculate rankings. For instance, students can search for schools with pro-bono programs and loan assistance repayment programs. Stern believes one size doesn't necessarily fit all. "If they ranked all cars based on the same calculation, and they did it from top to bottom, you'd say, 'Well that doesn't fit my needs. [The SUV is ranked highest] and I want an economy car,'" he says.

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