Entering the Fray: My Thoughts on the 2010 USNWR Law School Rankings

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This is my least favorite topic, but I know it’s the one you all want to hear about, so I will share  my thoughts (in no particular order) about the newly released 2010 USNWR Law School Rankings. The people who tend to panic most about the rankings are actually those who will be starting law school this fall, not those who will be applying to law school this fall. Unless a law school you’re planning to attend had a huge, absolutely unreasonable drop (with is very rare) this really shouldn’t impact your decision about where to attend. For those of you who will be applying to law school this fall (for the Fall 2011 admission cycle), remember that the USNWR Rankings are just one of many resources of information regarding law schools. The Rankings are not the end-all-be-all, and certainly no one should make a decision about where to attend law school based on a small difference in the rankings – that can change from year to year. As I discuss in my law school admission guide book, no one is really choosing between a T3 school and a Top 20 school. It’s not that easy. Take the nuances into account.

That being said, here are some of my observations following the release of the 2010 rankings:

1. All of last year’s top 10 also made the top 10 this year. New entries to the top 10 (which is really the top 12 schools) are Duke and Northwestern. So, this shows more schools are “tying” on the numbers. Last year, Duke and Northwestern tied for the #11 spot. So really, no difference between this year and last year except that students at Duke and Northwestern get to say they go to a Top 10 school. Of course, by the time they graduate those bragging rights might be embarrassing; if these schools didn’t shift a bit from year to year, US News wouldn’t be able to sell magazines (or get publicity from having their magazine’s contents leaked early on the Internet).

2. I always think it’s suspicious that Georgetown is ALWAYS #14 (2010, 2009, and practically every other year too) and we call it “Top-14” rather than “Top-15″…. suspicious, right?

3.  The Top 20 hasn’t really changed much. Of course, since there was only room for 8 schools (without multiple ties) in slots 10-20, the last three fell a bit, but not in any way that anyone should find meaningful. GWU moved up 8 spots to the Top 20. It’s become a very popular law school in recent years. They brought up their GPA numbers slightly, lowered their acceptance rate, and improved their employment stats for 2008 grads. Of course, these are not the most recent graduation stats and are from BEFORE the near-collapse of BigLaw so watch for this to catch up with them in the 2011 rankings if this is the main reason for the increase in the overall score.

4. There’s really no major movement in the Top 30, although my former clients at UCDavis are THRILLED to have jumped from 35 to 28 (but there are 30 schools in the top 28 this year, just so you know).  The LSAT percentiles went up, but the employment rate for 2008 grads at graduation was 97.3 (ten percentage points higher than the 2007 grad figure of 87.9!!!). Really? That’s a big jump in one year. That’s a LOT of grads employed before even taking the bar exam, let along passing it. Again, it’s going to be difficult for any school to legitimately keep these numbers up in next year’s rankings. But of course, all the schools will fall so the school that falls the fastest (and/or is most honest in its employment reporting) will bear the brunt next year. I just use UCD as an example: I love UCD. I love that they’ve always taken good people with mid-150s LSATs and (from watching my clients who were admitted in the Fall 2010 admission cycle) they are still doing that, so I don’t want to pick on UCD too much. Plus, I grew up in Davis and it’s still one of my favorite places on earth.

5. Last year, both Loyola Marymount and the University of Miami were ranked at 71. Now, these are two law schools that are remarkably similar to each other, just on opposite coasts. Plus, I have ties to each (both my degrees are from UM, and I was director of admissions at Loyola). So, I immediately noticed that University of Miami jumped up this year to #60 and Loyola is at #56 (along with three other schools!).  It’s worth pointing out that NONE of the University of Miami’s numbers changed significantly from one year to the next, except for its bar pass rate (from 86.4 to 90.5%). Oh, and same goes for Loyola (from 77.7 to 85.5%). The quality of education didn’t influence those numbers. I’m not telling you these schools did this, but there are lots of ways to increase bar passage rates from year to year – special tutoring for those most at risk of failing, encouraging people to take the exam in other states first…. tons of tricks. Did the quality of education at the schools change? Did the job prospects change? Is Loyola or Miami a better pick this year than it would’ve been last year? Only for ONE reason – because it is ranked more highly. C’mon, am I the only person who finds this silly?

Look, you should never choose a T3 or T4 school when you have the option to go to a Top 50. Unless, of course, you want to stay in your hometown or you need to attend part time or you’re relying on a really amazing scholarship. So, huh, I guess it’s not “never” but it is “seldom.” Of course a school’s reputation matters. But so do other things. The key is not to take the rankings literally: a school that is consistently in the Top 10 is no less appealing of an option simply because it’s #12 this year. Never choose #22 over #23 just for that one reason. Take all this with a grain of salt.

Here are some previous posts on the Law School Expert blog dealing with the rankings:

Let’s Talk Law School Rankings

Additional Insights about Law School Rankings

Another Reason Not to Rely on USNWR Rankings

Now, of course, the crowd that loves to slam anyone who encourages anyone else to go to law school is likely to stumble upon this post. For those people, I say this: I do not create the dream of attending law school. I do not even encourage the dream. If someone contacts me and is unsure about attending, I encourage them to do their research. If someone has made the decision to apply to law school, my job is to help maximize their opportunities. I encourage all of my clients to (1) do their research about schools and job prospects and what a lawyer really does every day, and (2) to apply to schools where they are likely to receive scholarships so they can be in the enviable position of choosing whether to attend a lesser ranked school for free over a more highly ranked school. I welcome comments to this post, but will only respond to  legitimate questions from law school applicants.

Also see this very encouraging article (he was, of course, completely slammed on discussion forums by disgruntled law students, lawyers, and others so the dissent itself should prove quite educational): “Why Law School Is For Everyone”

8 thoughts on “Entering the Fray: My Thoughts on the 2010 USNWR Law School Rankings

  1. Ann,

    First, I loved the recent blog post about writing. I am already using some of the advice given in the article.

    You spent most of your time discussing Top 100 schools. What about those of us who are likely to attend a Tier 3 school that was a Tier 2 just last month. My current best offer just dropped from 87 to who knows. At that rate, by the time I finish it could be Tier 4. Should I now start considering other Tier 3 schools that I had not considered before?

    Yes – I know we aren’t supposed to make decisions based on rankings.

  2. DT – you’re right! I will do a follow up on the T3 and T4 schools shortly. In my book, I talk about these schools as “regional” schools, and in my previous blog posts I discuss the value of these schools as schools that train the local bar. Look, in Santa Barbara (where I live) we have a State Bar school and I have a lot of friends who have thriving law practices who graduated from the Santa Barbara College of Law. They even become judges! Is this the path to wealth? No. Not for most people. But it’s a profession and people work hard, help people solve their problems, and make the law accessible to others. Plus, they lead good lives and surf and enjoy friends and family. It’s all about reasonable expectations.

  3. Eliza on said:

    Thank you very much for an extremely insightful post on the rankings.

    Frequently, I come across countless articles and comments suggesting that tier 3s and tier 2s were the death wish of any prospective law student, and that law school in general could not be justified by the tuition it charges, barring perhaps schools such as Harvard and Yale, but even then there seems to be doubt associated with them.

    I have felt increasingly ambivalent about these types of articles. On the one hand, I can see how grossly exaggerated the horror stories could be, but is this degree of negativity surrounding law schools normal, and perhaps becoming more prevalent because of blogs and technology? Or, is it more directly linked to the recession? Moreover, I don’t quite understand the unhealthy obsession with rankings, to the point that it seems suggestive of a collective neurosis, except that there is some strong correlative to the variety of opportunities and employability based upon them. It’s somewhat disheartening because it makes it more difficult to evaluate offers and to really figure out the best option when deciding between scholarships and rankings.

    • Eliza,
      I completely agree with you. There is a lot more negativity on this issue and I feel it is strongly related to the recession. Big law firms were especially impacted by economic circumstances, and that causes a trickle effect all the way down the legal job market. (I’m not a career counselor or economic analyst, but these are my impressions). I will be hosting a Blog Talk Radio Show in the coming weeks addressing whether it’s worthwhile to go to law school. Keep an eye out on the blog for the announcement.

  4. Deanna on said:

    Hi Ann,

    Great post on the new rankings….
    I was wondering if you could discuss the big jump from last year for Loyola Marymount in LA. I’m currently trying to decide between Loyola and Pepperdine right now. With almost a 20 point difference last year, I was leaning toward Pepperdine, but now they are only a few point apart and I’m trying to understand why.

    I’ve got almost a full scholarship from Loyola, and nothing from Pepperdine. I went to the Admitted Students day at both schools, and came back even more unsure because they are so good at selling their school to the students.
    Any insight that you can give me would be a great help.

    p.s. I plan to stay and work in LA. Thanks!!

    • Deanna, Congrats on such great choices. If you have almost a full ride to Loyola, take it!!! Seriously. It would be worth going to USC or UCLA and paying $$$, but to choose Pepperdine at full price would be silly for the exact reason you are demonstrating – things change in the rankings and next year the gap between the schools may close, the next year it may reverse, by the time you graduate … who knows? The schools aren’t far enough apart in the rankings to make a huge difference. Plus, the two schools have totally different cultures politically. One is even just blocks away from downtown LA so what could be more convenient for access to jobs? Of course, I was director of admissions at Loyola 10 years ago so I might be biased…..
      Congratulations again! And good luck!

  5. tniem on said:

    Deanna – not sure if it helps your decision but Brian Leiter has shed some light on why Loyola dropped last year (hint, it had to do with USN changing the name it used on the academic and employer reputation survey).

    http://leiterlawschool.typepad.com/leiter/2009/07/why-did-loyola-law-school-falls-in-us-news-because-the-magazine-changed-the-schools-name-and-it-repu.html (July 2009)

    http://leiterlawschool.typepad.com/leiter/2010/04/revisiting-one-of-last-years-us-news-fiascos-the-case-of-loyola-law-school-los-angeles.html (April 2010)

    Seems like your going to have to go with your gut. I choose to attend a school that is going to cost me a bit more (or a lot more as I turned down a full ride at a lower ranked school) but has the intangibles I was looking for (great city, support for my spouse, and an older student body). I feel really good since making the call (side note: it was the one school that just felt right for me visiting, everyone else seemed the same and interesting but not special for me). However, if they really feel the same and you could be happy at either, why not take the money? You’ll have less debt to worry about. But make sure they actually are the same to you either direction without any concern at this point for the rankings — you want to be happy. Good luck!!!

  6. Deanna on said:

    Ann,

    Thanks for the advice. That explanation about the naming issues really makes sense now. I couldn’t understand what Loyola had done to deserve such a huge drop. It really shows you how unreliable the US news rankings are…. Well, I think I’m going with Loyola (unless by some stroke of luck I get in off the UCLA wait-list)!!

    Thanks again.

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