Here is a statement that I suspect most people have not considered, or that even may seem contrary to what we are conditioned to believe:
The vast majority of law school applicants don't get admitted to their dream school.
It even sounds odd for me to say out loud, because I have the wonderful privilege of talking to, working with, and meeting a number of people every year who indeed get to go to their first choice. But from a 30,000 foot level, almost all applicants are below at least one median. Put another way, over 99% of applicants are splitters or reverse splitters for at the very least one or two schools. That includes, as a practical matter, not only applicants saying "in at [Super Awesome School]!” on a daily basis, but also BigLaw partners and law faculty who were all once law school applicants too. For this cycle, the 2017/2018 admissions cycle, it will be even more true. Applications for LSAT scores 165+ are up 25%.
There's nothing wrong with getting admitted to said Super Awesome School, of course; indeed it's what we do for a living at our firm. My doctoral work was in goal setting, and we want all of our clients to very much have stretch and goal outcomes. But where applicants go wrong is when they want to go to a school simply because of its arbitrary position in the rankings, and defining their identity around that. It can be especially damaging if this happens and you don't get admitted to that school. We, as former admissions officers from schools like Harvard, Chicago, Yale, Penn, etc., have seen this phenomenon far too often. And it isn't anyone's fault — the legal world is caught up in elitism more than just about any other profession.
What defines elitism rather than prestige? Elitism is the simple state of preferring one school over another simply and only because it is ranked higher and therefore viewed as "better," whereas prestige is preferring a school because it can help you get to your career goals with greater efficiency and results. Elitism is irrelevant. It has no impact on your career; it is simply a psychological state. Even the prestige of a school cannot come close to predicting individual outcomes, though. See this blog/individual story, for example.
My message is simply that of the above story. I will tell another, from the opposite side of things. I haven't just done admissions; I was also a dean of career services. I used to make a living out of visiting firms and employers that only recruited from top 10 or top 14 schools and letting them know that our students at a top 20 school were no different. That pitch was difficult at times, but the key, I learned, was getting a student in front of the employer very quickly after my visit. Because, indeed, the students at Harvard are no different than the students at Vanderbilt (my former boss from Harvard told me that when he came to Vanderbilt), and the students at Vanderbilt were very much like the students I saw at Wash U, and Colorado, and so forth. The name of the school may have opened a few more early doors, but it was always the students themselves who were in control of their ultimate destiny.
I was a dean of career services during the depths of the great recession. I learned a lesson from that experience that I would love to share. Within minutes of meeting a law student (and it was such a tough time that I had law students from Stanford, Chicago, and numerous other schools actually call me from extended contacts to try to help them with their job search), I learned that I could tell who would land a job sooner rather than later. It wasn't their school or their resume, and it certainly wasn't the depth at which they could talk about torts or land rights. It wasn't how smooth talking they were. It was always simply how upbeat and ebullient they were in the face of the adversity that confronted them. The upbeat students I never had to worry about.
If you are going to law school this year, I hope you are excited to be going to wherever you have decided to attend. You will meet amazing faculty who care deeply about the subjects and students they teach. You will meet alumni with deep connections who want to help jumpstart your career if you show them that positive side. I can assure you of this — no door is closed right now. This cycle was a challenging one, for sure, but that challenge will soon be a distant memory. What rests in front of you is an incredibly promising and fulfilling career where you can truly make a difference in the lives of others. That difference depends not at all on whether you got into a school ranked a few places ahead of where you are. Trust me. I didn't go to a top 10 undergraduate school. I didn't go to a top 20 business school. The difference will always be up to you. Or as Emerson so accurately said, "What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us."