Law: Why the Best Are The Best

September 1, 2007

In my last post I said I was going to discuss three issues in separate posts starting with a discussion of how the top schools came to be the top schools.  Let me start by saying I honestly do not know, and I don’t really have any concept of how a historian really interested in the subject would find out, so I am merely offering my view on one possible (although I feel likely) possibility.


So a look at the top schools reveals a few things that I find telling.  First, all of the Ivy League schools are among the top chunk of schools.  A lot has already been written about how the Ivy’s became the standard of “elite” schooling in the United States, so I will not attempt to rehash this, only to say that the success of their undergraduate schools likely led to similar success at the law school level.  These top undergraduates either chose to stay at their school or go to another school that they had been highly exposed to.  So to start, insert all of the reasons that have been documented for the Ivy’s success at attracting the top students, and extrapolate them to their law schools.  This same method could really be used for all of the schools in the top part of the rankings (well known undergraduate schools becoming the top ranked law schools) but to stop here would be a complete cop out.


I think the next major factor was industry between World War 2 and the release of the first law school rankings.  American industry was powerful and a manufacturing economy still thrived domestically.  Predictably the flagship institution in a state with several of the nations top companies (Michigan) would be near the top of the rankings (interestingly, Michigan has fallen slightly over time, a fall that correlates with the fall of the auto industry).  This same logic can be expanded to explain why top law schools popped up near other major cities (Stanford, Chicago, Northwestern, GULC, and NYU).  Simply put, big business means lots of legal jobs which means better job prospects for local schools which means more students wanting to attend. 


The true oddballs in the top group in terms of explaining popularity are Duke and Virginia.  Sure both have excellent undergraduate schools, but why did these two institutions succeed to begin with?  In the case of Duke, I have no answer and have really found no answer that explains the schools rise, so I will punt.  Suffice to say, it is an excellent school today and will continue to be a destination for some of the nations best and brightest and I would be shocked if it fell out of law students good graces.  With Virginia, I believe a combination of DC, history, and a lack of other options to the south (which may also explain Duke’s success) led to the school’s ability to attract top students and thus appear near the top of the original law school rankings.


Essentially, undergraduate name equals law school name, and in many cases it was likely the pure success of the undergraduate school that led to the success of the law school, but when it comes to slicing between talented undergraduates that are and are not at the top of the rankings (for example Notre Dame or Wash U) it is really an issue of access to legal markets as far back as 50 years ago.  I could be way off, but I said I would try to offer an explanation and this seems like a plausible one to me.


One Response to “Law: Why the Best Are The Best”

  1. EM422 said

    As you know Clegal, I am a Duke fanatic, however not a Duke historian. But to bring some light to the subject of Duke’s success, it has to do with the tobacco industry. As you pointed out the major law schools were founded around large cities with large industry. Although Durham is not as big as NY or Chicago, it did have a huge tobacco industry when the school was founded. The school was founded by the Duke family, who was at the time the largest manufacture of tobacco in the nation. If you theses about large industry creating good law schools is true, this may lead to the conclusion that Duke became a good law school because of the large tobacco industry in Durham, similar to Caterpillar driving engineering and business at Bradley. Although the tobacco industry has left Durham, the reputation of Duke still lives attracting good students. Hope this helps!

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