Canadian law school rankings and your choice of law school

I have just finished my personal “March Madness” in which I have presented law school admission and free LSAT preparation and law school admission seminars on Ontario university campuses.  I always students to take the LSAT in June or in October at the latest. These are the best LSAT test dates to take advantage of  our Toronto LSAT preparation courses. I am amazed at how much pre-law students   think about the rankings of various law schools.  This (IMHO) is a great mistake.

Rankings are  the last thing you should consider when choosing Canadian law schools. Since, this is an opinion and not a statement of fact, let me explain.


Canadian law school rankings – the new kid on the block

Canadian law school rankings are a relatively new phenomenon. For many years:

–        The  Canadian Lawyer law school rankings were the only game in town – they have been replaced with a survey of Canadian law schools;

–        MacLeans started its annual law school rankings a  few years ago

Both rankings attempt to differentiate the 16 common law schools from the civil law schools in Quebec.

Assuming the validity of the rankings (and there is no reason to do so), why would the ranking of a law school, matter potentially to a pre-law student?

Let me suggest two possible answers:

Answer 1: The better the law school, the better my legal education. The better my legal education, the better the lawyer I will become.

Note that this answer focuses on the relationship between the law school and what you will get out of it! Law and legal reasoning is not something that you are taught. They are something you learn – for the most part that learning is on your own.

You will get the most out of a law school environment where you are happy and are the recipient of teaching that will motivate you to work hard, play hard and learn hard. Every law school has its share of outstanding (a small percentage), terrible and “entirely forgettable” professors. (I personally remember only about five of my law professors.) The quality of a law school professor is not related to the professor’s objective qualifications. It is related to the desire of the teacher to motivate you and his/her effectiveness in so doing.

Answer 2: The better the law school, the better my chances of getting a job at a prestigious law firm.

There are three points of entry into law firms.

Point 1 – The primary point is after you have been admitted to the bar and are looking for full time serious employment. It’s pay back law school student loan time. The bottom line is that you will be hired (or not) based on the firms experience of you as an articling student. After ten months of living with you, socializing with you and evaluating you as an articling student, the firms will:

Not remember where you went to law school, may question whether you ever went to law school.

Point 2 – The second point of entry is being hired as an articling student. For Toronto firms, articling interviews take place in the summer after the second year of law school. The hiring and interviewing of articling students is regulated by the Law Society of Upper Canada (the governing body of Ontario lawyers). Therefore, the real question is whether there is a connection between where you went to law school and where you get an articling position. There may well be – that said, the problem is determining whether there are some law schools that are preferred. Your chances of landing an interview are related primarily to your law school grades and personal resume. Without good grades you are unlikely to get an interview. Remember that interviews are often conducted by younger lawyers who have graduated from a variety of law schools. Is it possible that a particular interviewer might have a bias toward his or her law school? Who knows. In any case, if you check the web sites of large Toronto law firms, you will see that they have articling students from most if not all of the Ontario and/or Canadian law schools.

Point 3 – The third point of entry is where law students apply for summer jobs (in the hope that they become articling jobs). Law firms go to law schools and conduct “on campus interviews”. Again, success in landing summer jobs is largely a function of grades. Long time observers of the Canadian law schools may recall (this took place in the early 2000s) that a number of first year University of Toronto law students misstated their grades on their end of semester exams. Because the law school had a policy of not disclosing that particular set of grades, the students believed they would not be caught. (This lack of awareness demonstrates that being a U of T law student does not carry a presumption of common sense.)  This episode demonstrates the extent to which law students view summer jobs as being important to their careers.

Hence, the question becomes: does the ranking of the law school have an impact on getting summer jobs? It is clear that grades are more important than the law school. Once again, the question is who is doing the interviewing – does the interviewer have a bias for or against a particular law school. This is what former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would call a “known unknown.”

If you agree with any of this, then you will agree that law school rankings are at best an interesting distraction that have little bearing on how you should decide on your law school.

So, how might you decide where to attend law school?

An Eastern European immigrant once said to me:

“The only thing somebody can’t take away from you is your education”

This is an astute comment. If the real value of law school is in the education (recognizing that most of you want to become licensed lawyers),then you must choose law schools to maximize their educational value to you. The value should be considered in both objective and subjective terms.

Your choice of law school and objective criteria

The real cost of law school is the three years. Why not earn more than one degree during that three years. There are many joint programs available to you. Examples include: joint U.S. Canada law degrees, joint J.D., and masters degrees, etc. It’s not much harder to earn two degrees during that three year period. Why not do it?

Your choice of law school and subjective criteria

Law school is a lot of work and requires a lot of mental and physical focus. You owe it to yourself to be as happy as you can in the law school environment. Make sure you visit the law schools. Ask yourself: can I really see myself here for the next three years? Can I deal with the traffic in a big city? Can I deal with NOT being in a big city? The list of questions is endless.

Your Choice of Law School and Country

It is possible to attend law school in Canada, the United States, the U.K. or Australia and become a lawyer in Canada. Consider all options.


Law school rankings are of dubious validity. This makes them at best a “known unknown”. But, even if they were valid, it’s hard to see how they will affect your legal career.

Former U.S. Chief Justice Warren Burger attended law school at night in Minnesota. He seems to have done rather well.

Copyright (c) 2011, John Richardson. All Rights Reserved.