What do the Law School Rankings Really Mean?

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Here is a link to an open letter written by Brian Leiter about the flawed methodology of the U.S. News Law School Rankings. Every law school applicant (in deciding where to apply and where to attend) should read it. If you do not read it, you are not doing your homework. Too many law school applicants make their decisions by the rankings; if you are going to stake such a big decision on what a magazine has to say then make sure you understand how law schools manipulate the rankings and why.

A lot of you have been asking me for my opinion about this year’s rankings. I believe that looking at only one year’s data provides an incomplete (and often overly dramatic) picture. After all, if the rankings will change a year from now then you made a very short sighted decision. And, of course, the rankings must change each year in order for U.S. News to continue to sell their magazine for $9.95.

The following is not a complete analysis of the 2009 Law School Rankings. This is the beginning of a continuing discussion about my observations, presented in no particular order. Also, keep in mind that I am not a statistician.

I decided to compare this year’s rankings with those from 2006 to see whether any of the notable rise and fall stories from this year had significant merit (as to both the praise of the rising and the panic of the falling).

Here are my general observations:

  • The top 5 schools are exactly the same (Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, NYU). For the last 4 schools, the overall scores decreased – apparently because acceptance rates were higher.
  • In groups of 5, the top 30 schools don’t change much over time. So if you limit yourself by applying only to Top 20 schools, you’re leaving out 3-5 schools that are in that group in any other year. Who is to say that #24 won’t be #19 by the time you graduate?
  • The Tier 3 and Tier 4 Schools should not be looked at as “lesser”. They should be regarded as “Regional Law Schools.” Many of these schools have excellent reputations in their respective geographic regions and are at a disadvantage in the rankings since national reputation is a major factor relied upon by US News. Most lawyers practice law in a particular community for their entire careers. Going to law school in that community has distinct advantages not properly taken into account by the rankings.

Some of my readers have been asking me school-specific questions. I’ll address a few of those here:

  • There is some panic about Cardozo’s ranking dropping this year. In 2006, it was #58 and in 2009 it’s#58. That is not a drop I would consider significant.
  • Pepperdine has climbed from #77 in 2006 to #59, largely because of acceptance rates. (Bar passage also climbed from 60% to 65%). The school has been under new leadership, and -arguably- more Conservative leadership.
  • UNC has dropped 11 places because of employment rates upon graduation. But don’t be quick to condemn. Reading Brian Leiter’s article may lead me to assume UNC-CH has been (perhaps) more ethical in their employment rate reporting and may be suffering as a result. Just a guess, with a “benefit of the doubt” mentality thrown in to the mix.
  • U. Washington going from #24 to #19? Still within my 5-point rule. I’m not worried.
  • U. Colorado has climbed from #48 to #32. Nothing substantive has changed except 9 month employment numbers.
  • University of San Diego was #63 in 2006 and is now #82 (and in very good company with University of Miami and Loyola Chicago). Acceptance rate changed from 21% to 31% – that’s the only major difference in the numbers.
  • Those of you deciding between Santa Clara and San Diego should keep in mind that Santa Clara is only ranked one school above San Diego. The difference is absolutely negligible. Don’t make this decision based on rankings. (However, in 2006 Santa Clara was Tier 3… it’s acceptance rate has doubled but employment and bar passage numbers improved). If you want to be a tax attorney, perhaps San Diego. If you want to practice IP, then perhaps Santa Clara. Do your research.

Those are my comments for now; I look forward to reading all of yours…..

22 thoughts on “What do the Law School Rankings Really Mean?

  1. Anonymous on said:

    What do you think about USF dropping off the top 100 list? Do you think it makes Santa Clara a better choice to attend over USF?

  2. Ann K. Levine, Esq. on said:

    USF was Tier 3 in 2006, just like Santa Clara. Santa Clara has significantly improved its student to faculty ratio and its bar passage is slightly higher than USF’s…. But there are a lot more factors to consider.

  3. Zachary on said:

    I’ve read one some msg boards about people knocking Iowa even though Iowa has been in the top 25-30ish for a long time. Why do you think that is?

    What do you think about Alabama’s rise in the past few years?

  4. Ann K. Levine, Esq. on said:

    Iowa is within my “Rule of 5” – in 2006 it was 22 and in 2009 it’s 27. Assessments are the same. GPA/LSAT has actually improved since 2006. Acceptance rate is higher now, but employment data is slightly lower. When you go line by line, you see that these schools do not change substantively from year to year in the majority of cases.

  5. Luke Frank on said:

    Previous poster from yesterday about Northeastern University: I read where you stated not to rule out tier 3/4 schools. As I previous stated I am looking at Northeast University because of their dedication to public interest law. However, I am not entirely sure if I would stay in the Northeast region where they have the reputation for public interest. I was wondering what you view is on applying to a program that does have a low ranking (mid 80s if I am not mistaken) when working in that region is not always certain. I guess another question I am having is are there other law schools that place such a large emphasis on public interest work?

  6. Ann K. Levine, Esq. on said:

    Hi Luke,
    The most important consideration for a law student who knows he/she wants to practice public interest law is to go to a school that is so affordable that you’ll be able to take a job that pays very little.
    The way to gain experience is to be in a city where you can clerk for organizations serving the population you hope to serve. The contacts you make and experience you garner while in law school is what will make the difference in your career.

  7. Eric on said:

    What do you think of University of Baltimore’s jump from tier 4 to tier 3 for the first time in school history? Do you think it is the impact brought by Dean Closius (former Dean at Toledo)? And how is U. of Baltimore’s regional reputation in Maryland especially when it is often overshadowed by U. of Maryland?

  8. Ann K. Levine, Esq. on said:

    Re: BigLaw the answer is “both.”

    What firms interview on campus? That’s question #1. How many does each firm hire from the school?

    However, this isn’t the only way. I got my job at BigLaw by flying myself to regional job fairs where I met firms who then flew me all over the country. Once hired, I worked alongside (in Houston, for example) people from UT, Duke, Vanderbilt, and -yes- South Texas. In the lower ranked schools, you’ll need top grades to get these jobs. But you can still get them.

  9. Anonymous on said:

    What do you think about Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School? They have provisional ABA approval and they are applying for full approval this fall. The new Dean is the former Dean of Pepperdine. I went to an open house for accepted students recently and I was impressed with what is happening at the school. Unfortunately, it will take a few years for the legal community to take notice. Right now the school does not have the reputation in the Atlanta area. I’m not sure I want to bear the huge expense for a degree that the legal community may look down on.

  10. Ann K. Levine, Esq. on said:

    The answer is that it depends on what you hope to do with your law degree and what your other options are. If you got a full scholarship to Georgia State (for example) then there’s not a lot of benefit to going to John Marshall. However, if you have work experience and networking in your own right and are a go-getter (and have few other appealing options for law school) then I would not dismiss John Marshall Atlanta as a good prospect.

  11. Anonymous on said:

    What do you think about Cooley? How come in some rankings they are so high up and in some other they are almost at the bottom?

  12. Ann K. Levine, Esq. on said:

    Cooley is diverse – and that’s probably what they rank most highly in, and being part-time student friendly and giving people a chance to attend an ABA school who otherwise would not be able to do so due to low numbers. However, they also flunk out a lot of people. It’s also very hard to transfer out of Cooley once you start there.

  13. Anonymous on said:

    Thanks for your answer. One more question: what do you think about Thomas Jefferson? Why would the stats show that only 40% of their students pass the BAR?

  14. mike on said:

    thanks for your blog! I have the classic dilemma:

    UBALT for a full scholarship vs. UMD and no $$ I wont have to take out many loans (I’m an older student & have $$ saved) and want to work in biglaw for at least a five years..

  15. Hi, Ann.

    This board has been quiet for a few months, but I wanted some input. I have a low GPA (2.25) and low LSAT (141 – 2nd time around), but I’m applying anyway to see if anyone will take me. I’m obviously applying to T3/T4 schools. I live near the Houston area so I’ll be applying within the city, of course. I’m also willing to relocate outside of Houston so I’m considering schools out of town/state as well. I also plan to attend part-time since I don’t think it’s financially possible for me to attend full-time.

    My question is, how do we know we’re applying to a “quality” T3/T4 school? In general, the lower ranked schools are looked down upon by some, but I believe there are some good schools out there. I don’t want to waste time and money applying to schools if my employment chances are slim after I graduate. I also don’t want to be shortchanged when it comes to my education, which is why I always look at the available courses/seminars/organizations a school has to offer. Is there a way to weed out the “good” from the “bad”? I don’t want to apply aimlessly because I have a better chance getting in to some school, but coming out with debt and no job.

    Any advice? Thanks!

  16. I forgot to add a footnote: I’m a non-traditional applicant. 31 y.o., graduated with my bachelor’s in 2000, also have a paralegal certificate. My work experience has been within the legal field.

  17. Ann K. Levine, Esq. on said:

    Alan, I think you’re pulling the cart before the horse, so to speak. I think you need to see if you have choices to make before making the choice. You know what I mean?
    Happy New Year….

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