First an important note. There is no universally agreed upon neat chart that outlines each law school and their ‘tier.’ Instead, terms like “tier 1 law schools” or “tier 3 law schools” are general categorizations of law schools. These tiers typically originate from the USNews annual rankings of law schools.
Although law school tiers aren’t a hard and fast rule, the general idea of “tier 1 law schools,” “tier 2 law schools,” “tier 3 law schools,” or “tier 4 law schools” (typically people accept that there are 4 tiers) has caught on, and the idea has created a bit of a reinforcing circle.
So in this article I will try to breakdown the four tiers of law schools and identify some other things you should think about when considering if a law school is a “tier 1 law school.”
It is generally accepted that the Tier 1 Law Schools are the same as the T14 Law schools.
T14 law schools are the schools that are consistently ranked between 1 and 14 by USNews.
Traditionally the T14 schools are:
Special mention: University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) which sometimes pops up to #14.
Some people/sites/reddit will expand the Tier 1 schools to cover any school ranked top-50 by USNews. This is usually a simplification made to simply break the ~200 law schools into equal groups of 50 i.e. Tier 1 Law schools = 1-50, Tier 2 Law Schools = 51-100, Tier 3 Law schools = 101 - 150, Tier 4 law schools = everything left.
Unsolicited recommendation from LSD: take advice from anyone who simplifies law school comparisons this much with a grain of salt.
Going to a T14 school will let you work pretty much anywhere in the US and make BigLaw money, if you want to work BigLaw hours. However, about ⅔ of all law school graduates in ABA accredited law schools in the US end up working in the state where they graduated, so going anywhere in the country might not really matter.
There are schools that are lower ranked by USNews that have great employment outcomes and therefore could be considered Tier 1. However, it's a little harder to get a job anywhere in the country from these schools. This means that you can make BigLaw money, if you want to work BigLaw hours AND you don't mind sticking around in the state or region when you went to school.
Below are the schools that we consider tier 2 law schools because the students are getting top-tier, but typically local jobs. There are quite a few of these law schools and the above the law (ATL) rankings are a good spot to start. Any school that you see on ATL rankings that you don’t see on USNews T14 can safely be called a Tier 2 School.
This means that the tier 2 law schools include:
So a safe understanding of Tier 2 Law schools is the schools with great outcomes that USNews doesn’t recognize as T14.
Tier 3 Law schools are generally all of the other law schools that USNews takes the effort to individually rank. These tend to change year over year quite a bit. The best way to determine an actual list is to look at the USNews rankings for any law school that is ranked better than the bottom mass grouping. In the 2022 law school rankings this tier 3 grouping includes any school not listed by name in tier 1 and tier 2 law schools that was ranked 146 or above by USNews.
So, what are the Tier 3 Law schools? Honestly, there are about 100 so there are too many to list. However, if you look at the LSD rankings you can just look for any school that we haven't mentioned in the previous two tiers that is ranked 146 or better.
Tier 4 Law schools are every school that we haven’t mentioned yet that has been accredited by the ABA. USNews includes some of these schools in their rankings in a big group (147-192) and doesn’t rank others. You could argue that USNews unranked law schools are worse than those that USNews ranks 147-192, but most likely the benefit is marginal. Our belief is that the important distinction comes down to: ABA accredited or not.
In short, yes. Schools that are not ABA accredited do not fall into these 4 tiers of law schools. I would consider any law school that is not ABA accredited below any tier-4 law school. Anyone attending a non-accredited law school should question if they are getting their money’s worth before paying money to go.
We broke down the value of USNews rankings in an article already. Bottom line on USNews ranking helpfulness is “Ehhhhhh.” Therefore, the value of ‘law school tiers’ is the same. Sure it is easy to look at 4 groups instead of all school. But in reality, each school has its own incoming and outgoing class profile, that you should consider before you paying tuition to that law school.
I am the half of LSD that didn't take the LSAT, or go to law school (Sorry about that). But I did go to MIT business school while surrounded by law students and lawyers, so I am somewhat qualified to talk about the intricacies of law school apps and finances.
Windsor (the dog) didn't write this but he WAS a Resident Tutor and career advisor at Harvard College with me, so deserves some credit.