US News Top 200 Law Schools: Do Rankings Even Matter?

Summary: What do you know about millennials? If nothing, you better learn quickly; they’re your next workforce.

It’s the list all law schools wish never was. Administrations and faculties of even the topmost ranked schools tend to view them as unfair, counterproductive, and, at best, flawed. Eighty-seven percent of school admissions officers would rather a list of law school rankings were about whether or not the school could get graduates a job—one thing the US News’ list doesn’t do.

The problem as many see it is that law school administrations don’t appreciate the scrutiny. And the methodology could be better, they argue—as well as the integrity of information provided (see below). What the rankings do is cause schools to focus on their rankings rather than on improving education standards or student experience. The popular legal website Above the Law agrees and compiles a Top Law School list of its own. Its version is shorter--only 50 schools--but more oriented toward job placement. For both ATL and US News, the schools in their top 14 or so are mostly the same. It’d seem, at least in regards to the cream of law schools, their methodologies do seem to agree.

Despite the list’s perceived shortcomings, since it was first published in 1990 the US News list has generally come to be accepted as the gold standard for both law students and the legal profession. Because of this, the list has become crucial to how law schools attract students. As a result, schools have been charged with orienting their business and offerings toward preserving or boosting their rankings. Of all of the consequences brought on by the list, few have had much to offer the student’s actual experience.

One of the most glaring consequences has been the cutting of class sizes to boost ratings. This has also required raising tuitions and lowering acceptance rates to compensate. The rankings haven’t been responsive to new trends in hiring in the profession either. Many have argued that the list hasn’t responded well to changes in social dynamics or cultural changes.

How the ranking works

According to The Journal of Legal Education, the US News ranking methodology goes like this:
 
  • 40% of the overall score is based on the school’s reputation. This reputation, or quality assessment, is based on surveys given to “law school deans, deans of academic affairs, chairs of faculty appointments and the most recently tenured faculty members” who were asked to rate programs on a scale from marginal (1) to outstanding (5).”
  • 25% is based on the school’s selectivity.
  • 20% is based on the placement success of its graduates.
  • 15% is based faculty resources compiled from survey responses from hiring partners, other lawyers, and senior judges.

Gaming the ranks?

With pressures to rank higher, many schools have been discovered "gaming the rankings." Some of these shenanigans have included:
 
  • Schools have been reported to practice rejecting high performing applicants in order to appear more selective.
  • Pedagogy have been affected as well: Many schools “teach to the test” by devoting extra resources to the metrics with the highest weights for rankings.
  • Some schools have been forced to drive up tuition costs in order to target scholarships for prospects with high LSATs and GPAs – measures that account for nearly a quarter of a school’s ranking̶—not necessarily the students with the most need.

In an article published in 1990, US News lamented how unforthcoming schools could be about sharing information about themselves: One law school administrator observed, “The sad truth is that it is easier to learn about the relative merits of compact-disk [sic] players than it is to compare and contrast America’s professional schools. And some educators prefer to keep it that way.” Despite the hoary pop cultural reference, the comment makes clear that without good data, the rankings themselves may not what the pretend to be.

In 2006, Law & Society Review published the article Do Rankings Matter? which described some of the consequences of the ranking system:
 
  • Administrators complain that decisions are made with an eye toward rankings and not what’s best for quality of education, such as more resources are allocated for marketing and advertising.
  • Schools are putting greater emphasis on LSAT scores and will favor those with applicants with higher scores who may otherwise be less qualified for admission.
  • Schools are directing more resources into merit-based scholarships rather than need-based ones to court students with higher LSAT scores.
  • To raise their school’s selectivity ratio, schools will “skim” top students from other schools to keep the numbers of their first-year students low.
  • It can inspire predictability in high ranked schools that become risk averse and reluctant to change for fear of dropping in their ranking.
  • Conversely, supporters will say it can account for higher quality students, more competition among peers, better school reputations in the marketplace which can, in turn, lead students to better post-graduation outcomes.  

Why the ranks are rank

Opponents of the rankings claim they’d be less against them if an improvement in ranking also corresponded to an improvement in educational quality. To many, the problem with rankings is a problem of methodology: It skews what’s important by amplifying insignificant differences between schools and creating differences that weren’t there before.

In 2011, public scandal erupted at Villanova University School of Law when a new dean announced that the previous administration had submitted falsely inflated LSAT numbers to the ABA and US News for several years. The school had reported a 162 median schore when it was actually 159. This revelation turned out not to be an error or miscalculation but an out and out lie. This misleading information was then rewarded with a higher rank for the school. When its actual median was counted, Villanova would drop in rank from 67 to 84. Rankings are always vulnerable.

With this kind of pressure on schools, "gaming the rankings" should’ve been considered inevitable. Other techniques some schools have used to manipulate their rank:
 
  • Rejecting high performing applicants in order to appear more selective.
  • “Teaching to the test” by devoting extra resources to the metrics with the highest weights for rankings.
  • Driving up tuition costs in the pursuit of higher rankings, schools will target scholarships for prospects with high LSATs and GPAs, pursuing merit-based rather than need-based scholarships.
  • High ranked schools becoming more predictable, risk averse, and reluctant to change for fear of dropping in their ranking.

Conversely, supporters will say the rankings have had the effect of bringing a higher quality of student, more competition among peers, and better school reputations in the marketplace which can, in turn, lead students toward better post-graduation outcomes.

After the scandal of falsifying test scores stats at Villanova, others followed: This caused US Senator Barbara Boxer to get involved by demanding that the ABA implement reforms to halt the deceptive reporting practices of law schools. “Most students reasonably expect to obtain post-graduation employment,” Boxer wrote, “that will allow them to pay off their student loan debts, and rely on this information [provided by law schools]—which may be false at worst and misleading at best—to inform their decision.”

For schools both on and off the list, the rankings can have significant effect on a school’s enrollment. If a school's ranking drops, those already accepted may decide not to enroll. This can have a serious effect on the school’s operations including the jobs of staff and faculty. However, if a school’s ranking rises, a flood of new applicants can result. For better or worse, for law schools and the industry, the rankings bring high stakes.

Law school lies: You can’t handle the truth?

A viral article from the New York Times in 2011 exposed the practices of law schools that had juked their numbers on graduate job placement. At the time, “…97 of the top 100 law schools, as well as a majority of the bottom hundred, claimed that more than 90 percent of their graduates were employed within nine months of graduation. Dozens of law schools posted employment rates of 98 to 100 percent…” Many more law schools posted midrange salary numbers of recent graduates earning up to $160,000 a year. And yet, at the same time as this article was published, many recent graduates were still unemployed. The article also claimed that law schools had been “jimmying up” their employment figures for years. They even hid the status of graduates not working at jobs in law firms or in the legal profession at all as part of their “employed” figures—figures that were true but wildly misleading. No one spends three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars on a law education only to become an Uber driver.

In 1997 US News reported that almost all of the Top 25 schools had placement rates of over 90%--one school reported over 97%. Schools ranked 26 to 50 had placements in the 80th percentile range and schools below 50 were in the 70’s and 80’s—though flagship local schools were reported also to be in the 90th percentile. The National Association for Law Placement, a group that collects its own data, came to a much different conclusion: From a high of 76.9% in 2007 to 74.7% in 2008, placement fell to 70.6% in 2009 and then to 68.4% in 2010. At the same time the percentage of part-time jobs rose significantly, from a norm of 5% or less to 11% in 2009. One in five jobs obtained by the class of 2010 were temporary, double what the number was in 2007.

Not only was it an historical time of extreme economic tumult, it was also one of the most difficult periods for employment in the modern legal industry. In his book Failing Law Schools, Brian Z. Tamanahaan provided an analysis that factors in thousands of lawyers laid off in a period of 2008 to 2010. He estimated that only 19,397 lawyer jobs were available during the period and noted that law schools produced more than two times that number of graduates each year. There was less than one job opening for every two new lawyers.

LSAT big or go home

For aspiring lawyers looking to enter the Empire of Legal Careers, the LSAT must be considered the coin of that realm. So important is the LSAT that its score counts more than a letter of rec, a personal statement, and a GPA combined. If you’re hoping to join the ranks of Harvard or Yale, you’ll need to go biggest of all. Both expect no less than a median score of 173 (50th percentile). Just for comparison, #25 ranked University of Alabama has a student median score of 164. Designed to determine a law student’s ability to succeed in law school and in the legal profession, the LSAT purports to measure logic and reasoning, reading comprehension and critical thinking. It also represents 70% of a law school applicant’s score for acceptance; the GPA makes up the other 30%. A high LSAT score is an applicant’s best ticket in, such is the reason why applicants will spend sometimes thousands of dollars on test prep courses.

So, you’ve done the work and have gotten your acceptance at an elite school—let’s say Columbia—and you’ve even the cash money to pay for it. Calculating three years of tuition plus room and board at the rates for the 2019-2020 school year, the costs will take you somewhere into the neighborhood of $304,035.

Next you’ll want to ask:

#5 Columbia vs. #24 UC Irvine: Is it worth the extra $60,000?

That depends.
At almost $70,000 annual tuition, Columbia is the home of the most expensive law program in the U.S. It’s also the only school to have a former student on the Court that isn’t a grad of Harvard or Yale. Aside from Harvard and Yale, Columbia is one of only four schools to send over 100 clerks to SCOTUS Justices. Compare that to the next 11 schools that have sent 2 and 31 more schools have sent only 1. This is out of 237 law schools in the U.S.

(Just to note: If you’re looking to clerk for the Supreme Court better make sure you get into Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, University of Chicago, or University of Virginia.)

There are some places where that higher tuition can pay off—sometimes even big. UC Irvine doesn’t have a graduate sitting on the Supreme Court nor has it placed any clerks to work with a justice. So, when you’re pounding the pavement trying to land your first job at a law firm, and it’s between you—an Irvine grad—and a candidate from a US News’ Top 14 school, AKA T14 you’ll be able to impress with your school’s elite status, its expense, its higher LSAT score requirements, and not least, their school’s name recognition. This is when the added expense of Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, Penn, Chicago, etc. begins to pay off. This is when those reputations, rankings, and big dollars make sense.

The US News’ #11 law school, Northwestern’s Pritzker school, holds the dubious distinction of graduating students with the greatest debt, which can average $155,777 debt upon graduation; 78% of grads will have debt.

Want a Biglaw job? What’s it worth to you?

Columbia has the most graduates placed at the top 100 largest law firms (based on lawyer headcount)—68%: The reputation precedes them. Some of the top firms have been known to recruit heavily from top schools too. According to website Above the Law, in 2017 groups of 17-19 students were pulled from the graduating classes of Harvard, Columbia, Northwestern, Georgetown, and Chicago and hired by some of the country’s 100 biggest law firms.

Above the Law makes the argument: Why pay $58,000 to go to a school that sends 26% of its graduates to Biglaw when you can pay the same amount to a school that sends 56% of its graduates to Biglaw?

Here’s why: Because even at 56% almost half won’t be bringing home the Tesla money. Are you in the top of your class? Did you have the connections to get the plum summer associate jobs? While many talk about beginning associates pulling in the biglaw $160,000 paychecks, especially the claims of the top schools, the reality is very different for most. According to a US News report, the median salary for first year associates in 2016 was $90,000 for firms with 50 or more attorneys. But the salary range of available jobs ranged from $34,250 in public jobs, $68,375 in private-sector jobs, to $168,250 and a high of $180,000. According to Above the Law, in 2018 many of the graduating classes of T14 were only able to win jobs with biglaw firms at 50% or less like Harvard, Duke, Cornell, and Berkeley. The country’s largest 100 law firms hired 4,199 new law grads in 2018. Among the 50 schools most popular with those firms, 29 percent of that year’s graduates were able to land associate jobs. Some took a year or more. Fewer still didn’t find jobs at all.

Those in the bottom percentages, those that didn’t land the big jobs, they too have debts to pay. Whether top or bottom of the class, debt is the true democratizer.

Where a T14 school matters most

A T14 school may help you score a first job in the legal profession and distinguish you from the also-ran candidates from less famous institutions. If you’ve your heart set on a job at Biglaw, want to clerk for SCOTUS judge, or dream of a career in academia as a law school professor a T14 school is also your best bet. Abovethelaw.com ranks law schools by the percentage of its graduates taking associate positions at the nation’s 100 largest law firms. It lists T14 law schools in its top 10 year after year. T14 schools also offer graduates the most geographic mobility. Top schools have more graduates that leave the school’s area, lower ranked schools far less so. If you’re going to go to a lower ranked school, make sure it’s in an area that you’ll want to stay. As an example, both University of Georgia and University of California, Irvine had students finding jobs in their local region at rates of 82% and 81% respectively. The area surrounding a school offers students the best networking opportunities. A T14 school is no replacement for performance, however: Employers would rather hire a person who was top of their class at a strong regional school than at the bottom of their class at a top-tier school. (For at least half of those reading this, that’ll include you!)

Once a young associate has a few years of experience behind them, the beacon of their top-tier school will shine less and less. As one veteran associate said, “Once you start working, where you went to school is more of a conversation piece and less a critical hiring factor.” More important is the quality of your work, productivity, work ethic, and ability to work with clients. Once on the job, you’ll be judged on your work—not just the quality of the brief you’re writing but your ability to develop clients. Once you’ve enough experience to establish a reputation, where you are will be far more important than where you were, including a T14. But first, and this is a major “but,” you’ll have to get your foot in the door.

So what do the grads think?

According to this report from CNBC, only 23% of law school grads said their education was worth the cost. Then, according to the ABA Journal in 2018, less than half of recent grads had “good jobs” waiting after graduation—especially tough for those sitting on $100,000 or more in school debt. As bad as that sounds, however, the job market for lawyers has improved considerably over the last 10 years. When asked if they’d suggest law school for someone else, 59% of all JD holders surveyed said they would. For those who graduated during the Great Recession, 53% said they’d suggest law school for others.

As far as the work itself goes, for most job dissatisfaction was low. Only 8% reported they were “actively disengaged” with their work. Despite the hard work associated with law careers, among respondents with advanced degrees that weren’t in law, 9% reported they were actively disengaged with the work. Compare this to those with only a Bachelor’s degree where 13% reported of disengagement with their work.

The Top Law School Survey of 2020

What follows below is an incomplete list of the top law schools in the country according to US News & World Report along with some vital statistics:
 

1) Yale University

Full-time application fee: $85
Tuition full-time: $64,267
Student-faculty ratio: 4.2:1
Enrollment: 621

2) Stanford University

Full-time application fee: $85
Tuition full-time: $62,373
Student-faculty ratio: 4:1
Enrollment: 565

3) Harvard University

Full-time application fee: $85
Tuition full-time: $64,978
Student-faculty ratio: 7.6:1
Enrollment: 1,737

4) University of Chicago

Full-time application fee: $85
Tuition full-time: $ 64,089
Student-faculty ratio: 5.1:1
Enrollment: 600

5) Columbia University

Full-time application fee: $85
Tuition full-time: $ 69,916
Student-faculty ratio: 4.9:1
Enrollment: 1,268

6) New York University

Full-time application fee: $85
Tuition full-time: $66,422
Student-faculty ratio: 5.3:1
Enrollment: 1,380

7) University of Pennsylvania

Full-time application fee: $85
Tuition full-time: $65,804
Student-faculty ratio: 4.9:1
Enrollment: 755

8) University of Virginia

Full-time application fee: $85
Tuition full-time: $63,700
Student-faculty ratio: 6.5:1
Enrollment: 752

9) University of Michigan-Ann Arbor

Full-time application fee: $75
Tuition full-time: $62,762
Student-faculty ratio: 6.8:1
Enrollment: 1,012

10) Duke University

Full-time application fee: $70
Tuition full-time: $64,722
Student-faculty ratio: 5.5:1
Enrollment: 682

11) Northwestern University (Pritzker)

Full-time application fee: $75
Tuition full-time: $64,402
Student-faculty ratio: 3.6:1
Enrollment: 752

12) University of California, Berkeley

Full-time application fee: $75
Tuition full-time: $53,276
Student-faculty ratio: 5.8:1
Enrollment: 976

13) Cornell University

Full-time application fee: $80
Tuition full-time: $65,541
Student-faculty ratio: 4.2:1
Enrollment: 595

14) Georgetown University

Full-time application fee: $85
Tuition full-time: $62,244
Student-faculty ratio: 4.8:1
Enrollment: 1,790

15) University of California, Los Angeles

Student-faculty ratio: 5.9:1
Enrollment: 955
Full-time application fee: $75
Tuition full-time: $52,094

16) University of Texas, Austin

Full-time application fee: $70
Tuition full-time: $53,035 Student-faculty ratio: 4:1
Enrollment: 997

17) University of Southern California (Gould)

Full-time application fee: $75
Tuition full-time: $64,908
Student-faculty ratio: 5.9:1
Enrollment: 614

18) Vanderbilt University

Full-time application fee: $70
Tuition full-time: $57,558
Student-faculty ratio: 7.4:1
Enrollment: 577

19) Washington University in St. Louis

Full-time application fee: $70
Tuition full-time: $57,445
Student-faculty ratio: 6.8:1
Enrollment: 728

20) University of Minnesota

Full-time application fee: $60
Tuition full-time: $53,607
Student-faculty ratio: 5:1
Enrollment: 590

21) University of Notre Dame

Full-time application fee: $75
Tuition full-time: $58,358
Student-faculty ratio: 6.3:1 Enrollment: 587

22) George Washington University

Full-time application fee: $0
Tuition full-time: $60,790
Student-faculty ratio: 5.9:1
Enrollment: 1,366

23) Boston University

Full-time application fee: $85
Tuition full-time: $55,076
Student-faculty ratio: 6.8:1
Enrollment: 769

24) University of California, Irvine

Full-time application fee: $0
Tuition full-time: $51,593
Student-faculty ratio: 4:1
Enrollment: 514

25) University of Alabama (Culverhouse)

Full-time application fee: $40
Tuition full-time: $42,180
Student-faculty ratio: 6.4:1
Enrollment: 381

26) Emory University

Full-time application fee: $85
Tuition full-time: $57,348
Student-faculty ratio: 8.3:1
Enrollment: 864

27) Arizona State University (O’Connor)

Full-time application fee: $0
Tuition full-time: $45,940
Student-faculty ratio: 7 :1 Enrollment: 779

28) University of Alabama (Culverhouse)

Full-time application fee: $40
Tuition full-time: $42,180
Student-faculty ratio: 6.4:1
Enrollment: 381

29) Emory University

Full-time application fee: $85
Tuition full-time: $57,348
Student-faculty ratio: 8.3:1
Enrollment: 864

30) Arizona State University (O’Connor)

Full-time application fee: $0
Tuition full-time: $45,940
Student-faculty ratio: 7 :1 Enrollment: 779