The view from 2B: The Guardian’s law rankings are useless – but that’s not an excuse for law firms to dismiss non-traditional unis

Another crop of university rankings are out and with them we learn that if you want to study law, Brunel and Bangor are better options than Sheffield and Exeter.

That’s the conclusion of The Guardian, anyway. The two Russell Group universities feature in positions 44 and 54 in the newspaper’s league table for law courses released this week, below Bangor (in 33), Brunel (40) and a number of other less famous names.

Further up the table, while Oxbridge, Durham and the London colleges give the top 10 a familiar look, the oft-scorned Oxford Brookes is ranked 16th, above Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham, Warwick, Leeds…

The rankings are, of course, useless. In one year Brighton has jumped 48 places on a list of only 98 universities: short of hiring the entire Supreme Court bench as lecturers it’s hard to imagine how a law school could improve so drastically, so fast. 

The top ten in The Guardian’s law rankings had a familiar feel, with Cambridge on top, but some other famous names slipped down the rankings

At best it gives a broad picture of the ‘best’ courses, but inevitably the league table is a compilation of some arbitrary criteria the The Guardian deems important, including the vague ‘student satisfaction’ and the easily misleading ‘graduates employed after six months’ stat.

The upshot is that you’re a law student who wants to get a top City training contract, you’re still better off choosing Exeter over Brunel.

That’s not a slight on Brunel’s law degree or a particular endorsement of Exeter’s, just acknowledgement of the fact that law firms still pay most attention to the same old favourites. They may boast that their trainee intakes consist of “graduates of 40 different universities” but often if you scratch beneath the surface what that means is a healthy dollop from Oxbridge, Durham and Bristol, a fair smattering from the rest of the Russell Group and top overseas institutions and maybe one or two from the likes of Kent and Sussex. Firms invest more resources on targeting the Russell Group; consequently, Russell Group students are more likely to get spotted in the recruitment process than those from Bangor, Brunel, Brighton and Brookes.

It would be unjust to berate recruiters too much for this. With their limited budgets, it makes sense to go back to universities with the best historic reputation, and where you have longstanding connections. It’s probably also reasonable to assume that more Exeter students want to be big City lawyers than their counterparts from, say, Aston (rank: 55).

Moreover, many grad recruiters are very mindful of less ‘prestigious’ universities and are thinking seriously about how best to attract top talent from these institutions. On occasion, they are not helped by hidebound partners who demand that recruiters splash the cash at their old alma mater time and time again.

So what can The Guardian league table tell us, if anything?

For 17-year-olds deciding where to study, there’s a warning. North-West-based students minded to choose Salford (42) over Liverpool (51) should do so because it’s the best university to suit their individual needs, not because of a league table that might look entirely different a year later.

But the prominence of Oxford Brookes and others in The Guardian rankings should serve as a reminder to recruiters – and partners – that there are 70 or 80 law courses outside the Russell Group. While The Guardian’s judgement of which ones are ‘good’ is open to question, its willingness to accept that some unfashionable universities might have a lot to offer is something firms would do well to take on board.