What matters more, GPA or rank? I feel like it would be hard for me to drop out of the top ten percent at Miami, but just as possible to drop out of the top half at GW or BU. Being 8 LSAT points above the 75th %ile at UM should be somewhat predictive of success, no? Being smarter than most everyone in the class has always seemed to help earn good grades and leadership in every instance I know of. I know law exams are kind of random, but doesn't that favor the handfull of students the prof is impressed with? (easier to identify the best than to discern preferences amongst the middle of the pack, hence more confident in dominating at a low Tier2 than being considered as above average at a low T25)
Maybe at BU its more moot. What about GW? Do they rank everyone? At that point what does the curve matter? Hypothetically, what would be a stronger credential: top 5% at UM or top 55% at GW? What is the GW curve? I've heard people say its not a cut-throat school but I find it hard to believe. Nearly every student there wanted to go top 14, is in the middle of a huge legal market, and wants to get a top job to pay off big loans. And they are all quite smart. That seems so much tougher to me than competing at UM. I'm putting this all out there so you can school me a bit if I'm wrong but to consider some points I think are valid too.
In addition to the objective case I think there is a personal tendency for me to be much more motivated when I feel like I can be one of the best of my peers (potentially the case at UM), than when I feel in the middle and intimidated by the talent of the top handful of students... then I slide into the jovial role of contented in the middle of the pack - perhaps the phenomena that makes top25 schools less comptitive as you say. At Miami, mediocrity would not be an acceptable option for me. Is that the case for many students there, thus making it competitive as you say? The impression I get from the facebook for UM '10 and posts I've read about UM's ASW was that there were lots of people wanting to work in Miami (do-able with mediocre grades) and a noticable contingent of "kids of lawyers looking to treat LS like extension of UG". ASW impressions included thinking the UGs represented were unimpressive. Plus the numbers are what they are... I've never attended a class regularly and handed papers in by due date then not gotten an A. It seems at top25 I'll be rolling the dice but at UM I wouldn't even have to come off as a gunner, just do the work, to get mostly A's. With a 3.17 curve how many A's are there in a group of 100? This may illuminate things to me and change my mind.
I think a lot of your points are really good, and I definitely believe that the big fish in a small pond factor plays a huge role in how you will do in law school.
But one thing for you to consider is this: I personally studied for the LSAT for many months and managed to swing a decent score. I have friends from undergrad that are MUCH smarter than me that didn't think studying was a big deal. They ended up with much lower scores, and consequently at much worse schools than BU.
I think it's different when you're talking about a 4th tier, but a school like UM is going to have a lot of really smart students who just didn't study that much for the LSAT, or smoked a little too much pot in undergrad and hurt their GPA. Point is, you should expect really stiff competition. You may be right, and chances are you are right, you'll be the big fish in small pond. You will do better than others and that's that.
but here's the catch: if you're wrong (admittedly possible) then you're at a T2, with a number attached to you, constantly reminding you how wrong you were. the thing to realize about law school is that it's very different, especially when you throw the curve in. writing a good paper undergrad is a question of how much time you put in. but law school is way more than that.
contrast: at BU you also have a bunch of really smart kids who all want to do well. but we're not ranked, so you will never really know if you're in the middle of the pack or at the top or at the bottom (unless you're at the very top, then they tell you). it seems like the safer bet...
all that being said, there were many many times that i wished i had gone to a worse school because it would be easier to get top grades. but the big risk and major counterargument is that it's a gamble: worse schools rank, and if you're not at the top then you're ranked low at a T2...