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Dissecting the Rankings: The “Top 14”

Published April 2010

After taking a mere cursory glance around the TLS forums, many new (and veteran) users are often confused by the significance of the so-called “T-14” – the top-ranked fourteen law schools, according to US News and World Report rankings. To the inexperienced or cynical eye, such a distinction can seem quite arbitrary: the top fourteen? Why not fifteen, or twenty...? Is there really that big of a difference between the 14th ranked school (Georgetown, as of 2009) and the 15th (UCLA and Texas – Austin)? Despite the apparent randomness, there are several reasons why the top fourteen schools are considered a distinct bloc.

Since USNWR first began publishing their rankings annually in 1989, the same schools have been ranked the top fourteen each and every year. Though there has been a great deal of jockeying for position elsewhere in the rankings, and certain schools have risen and fallen dramatically in the past 20 years, the T14 has remained a homogenous group. Though the rankings of individual schools have shifted sometimes dramatically (with the exception of Yale, which has always held the coveted number-one spot), no new schools have been inducted into the exclusive club that is the T14. To give an idea of the how the rankings have changed over time (* represents a tie):

1990

1995

2000

2005

2010 (Current)

Yale

Yale

Yale

Yale

Yale

Chicago

Harvard*

Stanford

Harvard

Harvard

Stanford

Stanford*

Harvard

Stanford

Stanford

Columbia

Chicago

NYU

Columbia

Columbia

Harvard

Columbia

Columbia

NYU

Chicago

NYU

NYU

Chicago

Chicago

NYU

Michigan

UVA

Michigan

Penn

Berkeley*

Duke

*Berkeley

Berkeley*

Michigan*

Penn*

Penn

*Duke

UVA*

UVA*

Michigan

UVA

*Michigan

*Cornell

Northwestern

UVA

Northwestern

Northwestern*

*Duke

Berkeley*

Duke*

Georgetown

Penn*

Northwestern*

Cornell*

Northwestern*

Berkeley

Georgetown

Penn*

Duke*

Cornell

Cornell

Cornell

Georgetown

Georgetown

Georgetown

The main feature that distinguishes the Top 14 from other schools is the ability of their graduates to find employment all over the country. In an interview with the Washington Post, notable admissions guru Anna Ivey says, “a degree from a top 14 school will be portable nationally.” Even at highly ranked schools on the cusp T14-dom (UCLA, Texas – Austin, USC, Vanderbilt, etc.), the option to leave the primary market is greatly diminished – and the further down the rankings one moves, the greater the difficulty. Because of their prestige and name-recognition, the top fourteen schools provide a multitude of benefits simply unavailable at schools of a lower rank. Indeed, long before any institution devised a system for ranking law schools, these fourteen were recognized nationally as fine law schools which produced high-quality lawyers; this long-standing tradition of excellence is what informed the de-facto distinction of this elite tier.

Of course, there are several caveats to the mere assumption that the Top 14 schools lead to markedly better job prospects (or, for that matter, create better lawyers). Obviously, one’s school can determine only so much – the number-one student at, say, UCLA will almost certainly have better job prospects than a middle-of-the-pack student at Cornell. Also, it has yet to be seen how the recent economic difficulties will affect the status of the T14 – can schools in the lower portion of the group continue to place graduates nationally and internationally, considering the size and scope of cutbacks in the legal market? Only time will tell. However, as of this writing, the traditional T14 schools continue to be the top dogs in the legal world.







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