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October 21, 2004

Choosing A School: Rank and Specialization

A reader writes:
How much does it matter which school I graduate from if I know with absolute certainty that I want to focus on, for example, "soft" Intellectual Property law (trademarks, copyrights, trade secrets, etc.)? So, for instance, George Washington University is ranked #2 in IP law. Would I be silly to turn down a technically higher ranked school like Northwestern or Duke in order to go to GW for its strong IP law program, assuming all things are more or less equal -- e.g., same overall costs, no preference in going to school or living or working in any particular part of the country, no strong desire to be associated to (or to be disassociated from) an undergraduate campus, etc.? Or for any lower ranked school with a strong program in X for any higher ranked school with a weak program in X? Where do you draw the line?
Excellent questions! Any thoughts out there?

Posted by mowabb at October 21, 2004 09:47 AM

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Keep in mind, I'm not hiring. :) However, my wife is a practicing attorney, and her colleagues universally agree that it would be better to go to a higher ranked/well regarded *general* school over the specialty program.

And, as a hiring partner (in IP) I chatted with about the very topic the other day said, "Kids out of law school are pretty worthless as lawyers... we're interested in young minds for their technical skills... you learn the legal skills over course of your first few years as an associate. So right about the time your technical skills are getting out of date, you're finally starting to be worth something as a lawyer." He said he could personally care less about the reputation of a school in a particular area.

Of course, I chose my school specifically because of their IP program... heh. :)

Posted by: Dave! at October 21, 2004 01:36 PM

I had the exact same dilemma, and ended up picking a top ten school over GW even though my interest is patent litigation. I stand by my choice, because in the end, grades and school matter more than interest. Even having mediocre grades at Duke, I was able to secure a job at a large law firm as a 2L, and a top IP litigation firm as a 3L. At GW, unless I am misinformed, you can pretty much forget about getting a job at a big firm unless you are in the top 50% of the class. Take it from me, someone who graduated magna cum laude in engineering undergrad, law school grades are going to be unpredictable. Some people get it immediately, and do great, others don't, and have medicore grades first year. You're job for second summer is based almost exclusively on your grades from first year, and your school. Going to a lower school is basically gambling that your grades will be in the envelope that gets a job at that school. I'm glad I went to a school whose envelope is above 90%, because as it turned out, I needed a semester to adjust, and my first year grades weren't great. This is just my experience at one school though, so take it FWIW.


Posted by: red at October 21, 2004 03:04 PM

Hi, this is the reader that asked the above question. Thanks so much for the kind responses so far!

I'd like to please follow-up and ask, would you still recommend going to the higher ranked school if I don't have a technical background? I have a liberal arts degree, and thus don't think I'd qualify for the "hard" IP route, so my thinking (perhaps wrong) is that going to a school with a strong IP background would give me the skills I currently lack?

Or perhaps another way to ask the same question, what do law firms base their hiring criteria on? Is it pretty much only grades, or is it more like a combination of grades and knowledge of IP law?

Thanks again everyone! This is super helpful! :)

Posted by: at October 21, 2004 05:24 PM

I can't say that I agree with the argument that studying IP law is akin to engineering 101. I haven't learned much in way of physics from torts. At the same time you only need to know how to legally explain/distinguish tech products...which really can be learned.

Posted by: Armen at October 21, 2004 06:49 PM

From your follow-up, I guess I would ask "Why is it exactly that you want to go into IP?" I ask because it seems odd if you have _no_ technical background. Not that you can't develop the interest, certainly, but I find there are a mix of people interested in IP, and that (broadly speaking) they fall into two categories: geeks and greeds.

The geeks are the computer scientists, engineers, pharmacists, etc. who have B.S. or even M.S. degrees in a field and so are naturally drawn to IP law out of some interest in their field. These are my people.

The greeds are the people who are smart, they realize we are no longer a manufacturing economy, and they have heard all about how IP law is "the next big thing" and are chasing the money. Nothing wrong with that, honestly.

However, I have two friends who both studied IP law: one with a tech background and one who thought it was "where the money is". One now practices patent litigation for a very large and respected firm. The other practices insurance defense. Guess who practices which.

I think what I'm really trying to say is that you should look at why you really want to study IP. You are *not* going to get any increase in technical background from a program well ranked in IP. If anything, there will be more people there who have strong technical backgrounds and you could end up at a disadvantage to them. Or not. You could end up learning from them. But you won't learn it from the school. Law schools don't have programming courses. They don't have marketing courses. They don't have biology courses. They have law courses. They rest, you'd still have to learn on your own.

Now, you said you were interested in "soft" IP law, which isn't going to require nearly the technical background as say, patents. However, I'd still be *damn* sure that you want to go into IP before choosing a school just because of it's IP program ranking. God forbid you get there, decide that IP isn't for you and end up with mediocre grades from a mediocre school. Welcome to the world of bankruptcy and divorce practice. :)

(Not to say that GWU isn't a good school, in fact, it is... you could do far worse.)

Posted by: -Dave! at October 22, 2004 01:46 PM

Thanks again guys! And thanks for the good response Dave! I do appreciate it all. :)

And sorry for not having been clearer, though; yeah, my last response was pretty muddled. Oops. ;) I hope this one clears things up, although I am a little rushed for time, so please excuse any grammatical mistakes, etc.

What I mean is that I am really interested in trademarks and copyrights, and not so much in computers or biotech. I've been working for a couple of years now in publishing, so I'm really interested in things like books, magazines, other written material. And you're right, I don't precisely know if this is the right path for me, since of course I haven't seen the full spectrum of what law school offers, but at this point I "think" I would absolutely love to work in "soft" IP.

Now my thinking is, since I don't have any experience working directly with trademarks and copyrights and so forth -- except from the perspective of someone more or less out of college a couple of years and just working "in the industry" (I'm close but I don't really know what goes on) -- I feel like maybe I should go to a lower-ranked specialty school over a more higher-ranked one without a strong program in IP to learn as much as I can. As far as law firms are concerned, I figure that this will show them my commitment to IP. I suppose I feel like it doesn't matter which school I go to, but what's really important is that I show law firms that I'm serious about the field.

Although you're right, if it turns out I absolutely hate IP, then I'll be in big trouble. But at this point I can't see that happening. I really, honestly do think I'd love to work with copyright issues, and so on.

I dunno. Maybe I am just confused! :)

Posted by: at October 22, 2004 04:08 PM

"As far as law firms are concerned, I figure that this will show them my commitment to IP."

Actually, this is where I think you're on the wrong track. I've spoken with a number of attorney's at firms large and small and the bottom line seems to be that they could care less; a candidate with no experience whatsoever in IP with a JD from Chicago is going to get the job over someone from GWU. (GPA and all other things being equal.) As I mentioned before, the firms assume they will be teaching you how to practice law the way they want it. (Read: they want to teach you to do things their way anyway.)

The single most important thing you can do to show your "commitment" to them, regardless of your chosen area is to do well. Rank and GPA matter more than anything. Much more than area specialties. You want to show your commitment to a firm? Make Law Review.

Just what I've been experiencing so far...

Posted by: -Dave! at October 23, 2004 07:44 PM

Oooh, I see! Thanks Dave. One last question, if it's alright: are rank and GPA pretty much the only criteria for hiring even at IP boutique firms? Thanks again!

Posted by: at October 24, 2004 07:00 PM

Hey everyone, thanks so much for your VERY helpful comments on this post. I'm very much in the same boat with respect to deciding between a renowned IP school and one that's stronger overall. Ironically enough, I'm really trying to decide between Chicago and GW. I did Computer Science undergrad, so I'd say I fall into the geeks category. I just got back my LSAT score (170) which is lower than I'd hoped, but good enough I think. So, two quick questions... 1)Any guesses on my chances at Chicago (3.67 GPA from BYU) and 2)Could anyone elaborate a little more as to why it's usually better to attend the more generally acclaimed school (Chicago in my case) over one with an excellent IP program (GW)? Thanks so much in advance.

Posted by: CJ at October 25, 2004 12:36 PM


1) With a 3.67/170 from BYU you have a solid shot at Chicago. Apply ASAP though, if you haven't already.

2) The better the rep of the school you attend, the bigger the cushion you have to perform poorly academically and still end up at a large law firm. For example, at Chicago you may only need to be at the top 1/3rd of your class to interview at a prestigious law firm as opposed to the top 10-15% at GW. In other words, if you want to work in a law firm, it's essentially decided by where you rank in your class, which is of course decided by your grades. Grades are what matter most. That said, from what I understand Chicago has one of the toughest curves or perhaps grading systems out of any of the ABA accredited law schools.

Posted by: at October 28, 2004 12:22 AM

Thanks for your helpful remarks. I'm concerned at theis point with my personal statement, which after repeated iterative attempts on my part, has failed to turn out as I've been hoping. Would speaking about some humanitarian service projects I organized a couple of years ago be too self-promoting a topic?

Posted by: CJ at October 31, 2004 01:37 AM


You definitely want to highlight your accomplishments, and obviously these humanitarian service projects would fit the bill. Now, whether or not these projects come across as self-promoting primarily depends on how you present them in your personal statement, and not on the projects themselves.

Posted by: at November 1, 2004 12:33 AM