Law school is an ambitious and costly endeavor. When putting so much time and money into a law degree, law students want to ensure their investment pays off with employment at a reputable law firm. One of the ways students do this is to seek admission at top-tier law schools. But how is this top tier determined, and what does it mean if a school is not in this top tier? The tiers of law schools can help students make admission decisions, but the law-school tier a student chooses does not necessarily seal her employment fate.

Ranking Law Schools

Law schools are ranked based on a number of factors, including faculty, selectivity, quality and post-graduate placement success. Student-to-faculty ratio matters, with higher rankings given to schools with fewer students per teacher and more library resources. Schools that accept students with higher LSAT scores and GPAs are also ranked higher. Impressions of the school from law institutions, practicing lawyers and judges also highly influence a school's rank. Finally, the rate at which a school's students pass the bar exam and subsequently get hired at law firms helps to determine the school ranking.

Top Tier Schools

The top 100 law schools in the nation, ranked based on the factors listed in Section 1, comprise the first tier of law schools, or Tier 1. The tier 1 law schools are ranked each year. The highest-ranked law schools are a list of "usual suspects," including Harvard Law, Yale Law, Stanford Law, and Columbia University. Admission into any of the top 100 schools is said to all but guarantee a positive outcome at graduation.

Second, Third and Fourth Tier Schools

Beyond the top-100 ranked schools, law schools are ranked into second, third and fourth tiers. Opinions differ on whether or not acceptance into any school other than a tier 1 law school will impact your career's success. Although acceptance into the schools ranked in the second, third and fourth tiers may not guarantee employment at the nation's top law firms (acceptance into a tier 1 school doesn't necessarily guarantee this either), it does not rule out a successful career. Many law schools, although ranked in the lower tiers, produce smart lawyers that enjoy local success.

Weighing Your Options

A prospective law student's options depend greatly on his grades and ambitions. However, it is recommended that law students apply to at least two "reach" schools, two "strong possibility" schools and three "safety" schools. In general, "reach" schools will likely be tier 1 schools, but not necessarily. Some students may be bound by geographical location. Law students can decide how to classify their law-school choices based upon the tiers.