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True or false? Going to the best law school is not the best choice.
Like those tricky LSAT questions, the counter-intuitive choice here is the correct answer. According to Malcolm Gladwell, the famed columnist and author on relative choices, going to the best law school actually hurts your chances of success in the real world.
Writing for the New Yorker, Gladwell said law school rankings do not tell students where they will get the best results. For example, he said, the annual U.S. News & World report is not a guide to the best teachers.
"There's no direct way to measure the quality of an institution -- how well a college manages to inform, inspire, and challenge its students," he said. "So the U.S. News algorithm relies instead on proxies for quality -- and the proxies for educational quality turn out to be flimsy at best."
Gladwell, who has written five bestsellers based on the unexpected implications of research, said that comparing law schools is like comparing cars. It depends entirely on what variables are considered.
He said it can be as difficult as comparing suicide rates by country. While raw data will give you numbers of suicides, the reporting criteria can be skewed and the individuals' intentions cannot be determined post-mortem.
"The U.S. News rankings suffer from a serious case of the suicide problem," he said.
For example, the annual report evaluates "faculty resources" based on factors such as faculty salaries and degrees. "Do professors who get paid more money really take their teaching roles more seriously?" he asks. "And why does it matter whether a professor has the highest degree in his or her field?"
Chances for Success
In other words, some law schools may rank higher than others based on faculty credentials that do not translate to teaching creds.
"Salaries and degree attainment are known to be predictors of research productivity," Gladwell said. "But studies show that being oriented toward research has very little to do with being good at teaching."
The problem with institutes of higher learning goes deeper, however. Gladwell says students -- and society -- suffer from relative deprivation.
Gladwell explained that people want to attend elite institutions when statistically it increases their chances for failure. If you attend Harvard, for example, you decrease your chances of graduating higher than if you go to a lower-ranked school.
"When it comes to confidence and motivation and self-efficacy, the things that really matter when it comes to making your way in the world, relative position matters more than absolute position," he said in a presentation at Google.