For better or worse, law school and the legal profession are both very receptive to two things: (1) hierarchy, and (2) categories. Law schools and firms alike have been skinned in almost every way imaginable to their various components and characteristics in order to compare and organize them into hierarchies and categories. One of the more prominent categories that pertains to law schools is a group consisting of the top 14 law schools in the U.S., or the “T14 law schools.”
Whether you’re a law student, lawyer, or just generally interested about the language related to law schools, the T14 is a staple term. Recognizing and understanding the T14 becomes even more important if law school intersects with your personal finance journey.
What is the T14?
The T14 conventionally consists of the top 14 law schools listed in the U.S. News and World Report (USNWR) Best Law Schools Rankings. USNWR rankings are updated every year using a methodology that measures various criteria such as LSAT scores (or GRE), undergraduate GPA, acceptance rates, employment rates, and bar passage rates to name a few. See the chart below for the current list of the T14 law schools and some information about each school. For reasons discussed below, Georgetown (#15) is still recognized by many as a T14 law school.
T14 Law Schools (2021)
A list of the T14 law schools, academic credentials needed, tuition, acceptance rate and bar passage rate.
|Ranking||Law School||Median LSAT||Median GPA||Annual Tuition||Acceptance Rate||Bar Pass Rate|
|4 (Tie)||Columbia University||172||3.82||$77,428||16.7%||96.4%|
|4 (Tie)||University of Chicago||171||3.89||$69,900||17.9%||97.9%|
|6 (Tie)||New York University||170||3.82||$74,260||21.6%||98.0%|
|6 (Tie)||University of Pennsylvania||170||3.89||$72,650||14.3%||95.4%|
|8||University of Virginia||170||3.90||$72,330||14.1%||98.4%|
|10 (Tie)||Duke University||169||3.80||$66,240||22.3%||97.5%|
|10 (Tie)||University of Michigan||169||3.76||$67,716||16.4%||93.7%|
Note: Annual tuition numbers show out-of-state tuition prices only. For some schools, the annual tuition may be lower if you qualify for in-state tuition.
Why is there a T14?
The T14 is both a dynamic and settled category at the same time. There are many reasons for why the T14 behaves the way that it does. Both a feature and a bug of the term “T14 law school” is that it can have different meanings and applications for different people. It is important to understand the various reasons why someone may refer to the T14, and that begins with understanding how the category came to be.
First, why is it 14 instead of a nice round number like 10 or 20? If the goal is to recognize the top bracket of law schools, 14 seems a rather arbitrary number. 14 is the magic number because beginning in the early 1990s, law school rankings for those spots began to stabilize and consist of the same schools year after year. For the past three decades, the 14 spots were held by the current schools ranked 1-13 and Georgetown, with the exception of a couple of years where another school edged into that elusive 14th spot temporarily.
From 1990 to 2011, the 14th spot was held by one of the following schools, with all the other perennial T14 schools safely nested above them: Cornell, Northwestern, Virginia, and Georgetown. That was it. For two decades, any shuffling in rankings would occur either from the 14th spot upwards or below it. As a result of having stability in the law school rankings at the very top of the list, the T14 attained a reputation as a tier of elite and national law schools.
However, the University of Texas at Austin was able to enter the 14th spot a few times in the past decade. In addition, with 2022’s ranking placing UCLA at #14, some have begun to question whether the number 14 is still proper for delineating the category of the best law schools in the nation. Some have used the term T13, either seriously or as a joke, while others have called for an expansion to make it T15, and some even think the category should be removed altogether.
The term “T14” may or may not persist from here on out, but it was definitely used to distinguish consistency, exclusivity, and established national reputation among the best law schools in the nation. This was both a cause and an outcome of the term having been created.
The T14 are not treated very differently than other law schools. In general, as a law school’s rank increases, the school’s graduates become more attractive to employers, and schools can look to admit students with better test scores and GPAs. For this reason, law school rankings are more stable as one looks closer to the top, but each year is competitive, and moving up or down a single ranking can be considered significant. In addition, changes in the ranking methodology can affect a school’s placement even if there is no material difference in their program from one year to the next.
The idea is a recurring theme when analyzing the hierarchy and categories of law schools and should be the anchoring concept of T14 rather than the exact names of the schools themselves. There has been the recognition of similar consistency and exclusivity in smaller brackets within the T14, such as the “T3” and the “T6.” Other frequently used terms are “T20” and “T30”, to indicate other fairly nonvolatile trends observed out of law school rankings.
Terms associated with a selection of ranking spots may live, die, or persist, but the idea of hierarchy and categorization will always continue to provide language for the legal world to use. The T14 is simply one of the terms that has become popular enough for most in the legal profession to recognize it.
How do you get into a T14?
The top law schools wouldn’t be considered the top if anyone could attend. The T14 is considered elite and recognized by any legal employer for the reputation, education, and network each school provides. Somewhere in the ballpark of 10 or 11% of law students each year attend a T14 school. That means that the vast majority of applicants either do not get admitted to a T14 or choose to attend elsewhere, often for financial reasons, which we discuss below.
In order to get into a T14, you will primarily need excellent grades and a high LSAT score. The median LSAT for a T14 is usually above 167, and the median GPA is close to 3.8 or higher. In addition, each school will consider other factors from your law school application such as a personal statement, work experience, and more. These factors are sometimes referred to as “softs”.
Not everyone gets to attend a T14, and not everyone can have a realistic shot at even being considered for a T14. Even those with the “hard stats” to fit in with other T14-level applicants cannot get comfortable and expect certain results because there is so much competition. But that’s all the more reason why the category has been demarcated as elite.
Is it worth going to a T14 law school? What are the risks and rewards?
You are probably already familiar with the high financial pressures and payoffs often associated with a legal education. Student loans are no joke, and they can often be the riskiest gamble an individual has ever made. We already have many articles diving into loans, repayment, and risk on the site that dive into greater detail about financing law school. When it comes to the T14 (or law school admissions in general), applicants will often find themselves playing a game of risk aversion. Once you find yourself playing this game, there is no risk-free option, only different kinds of risks to choose from.
The game often goes like this: you must choose between a higher ranked school that will give you a better chance at your preferred job outcome or a lower ranked school that will cost you less to attend. Let’s break down further how the game is played, because it’s actually a little more complex than that.
First, the cost of attending any given law school will be different for any given individual. Law schools will often offer merit scholarships depending on primarily the applicant’s test score and GPA, but they can include other factors depending on the school. These merit scholarships can be increased by successfully negotiating with the school but can sometimes be conditional on performance for the 2nd and 3rd years of your legal education.
By calculating the tuition, scholarship, and other expected school expenses, in addition to a whole host of variables including cost-of-living, personal savings, full-time vs. part-time programs, and even first-year summer jobs that you have yet to consider, your entire cost of attending law school will be uniquely predictable and unpredictable at the same time.
Each school publishes an ABA Standard 509 Report that lists tuition, expected cost of living, and other information relevant for applicants. Also, don’t ignore the cost of applications themselves, LSAC fees, and deposits!
Second, a higher ranked law school does not automatically mean more or better jobs. A prominent focus in most law school career outcome measurements, and of course here at Biglaw Investor, is the highly-competitive and highly-lucrative Biglaw position. While it is crucial that you consider each school’s specific year-to-year employment data and the markets that they commonly send their graduates to, some overarching conclusions can be made about the T14 and biglaw careers.
The T14’s employment outcomes, while they can be compared to each other, can be thought to cover a range of employment outcomes that is relatively safe compared to the rest of the law schools. Some schools that sit just outside of the T14 share similar or even better outcomes than a T14 school for Biglaw and other elite job outcomes. The T14 should not be viewed as one set of schools all sharing the same job outcomes, but you should start with the notion that overall, upwards in rankings tends to produce better and safer job outcomes. Despite this trend, even T14s can have unemployment numbers that should not be ignored. This is also an incredibly multi-factored consideration, so remember to view job outcomes in light of your preferred geography, desired pay, hopeful practice areas, etc.
While there are a plethora of other possible considerations for law school admissions, isolating the financial consequences of your choice can usually be framed within the boundaries of this game. Take your best attempt at calculating your cost of attendance and your best attempt at calculating how well a school’s employment outcomes cater to your personal career goals. A school’s ranking will have great effects on your chances at working for a Biglaw firm, and the money that comes with it can become a powerful tool in financing your debt or long-term savings.
Unfortunately for law school applicants, there are various concerns you may need to keep in mind about the legal profession and the related job industry. A T14 school may be your best option for keeping as many opportunities open for you down the road. But there is a price to pay for the flexibility.
Some applicants might have to choose between two incredible options, where a T14 and another school offer good and great outcomes. Other applicants may find themselves choosing between risky and riskier, or perhaps not attending law school entirely. The entire application process involves so much more than just finances and job outcomes, but it remains important to understand the role that rankings, and particularly the T14 as a category, can play in your law school and personal finance journey.
Joseph Kim A 2L at Notre Dame Law School, Joseph grew up in California where he developed an interest in working with music, powerlifting, and bowling. He's been a member of the FIRE community since before law school and plans to pursue FatFIRE following graduation.