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US News & World Report Law School Rankings: A Double-Edged Sword?

published March 19, 2013

Jeffrey Harmatz
( 128 votes, average: 4.5 out of 5)
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US News & World Report Law School Rankings
On March 12, US News & World Report released their annual rankings of the United States' law schools for 2014. Though they are an independent organization unaffiliated with the American Bar Association, US News & World Report rankings have become the standard by which American law schools are judged, and are used by both prospective law students and law firm recruiters to decide where to go and who to hire, respectively. Despite a significant change to how schools are ranked (a response to the sagging legal market), the release of the 2014 list shows very few significant changes to last year's rankings, with little major movement either up or down the list. US News and World Report's rankings, while highly influential, remain mired in controversy, with many legal industry analysts questioning the way in which data is analyzed, and others accusing law school administrators of being less than honest in their reporting.

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Compiled annually, the US News & World Report is based on survey data from each of the 194 American Bar Association accredited post-graduate law schools in the United States. Using data from the American Bar Association, US News & World Report uses their own formula to weigh the importance of factors like acceptance rates, bar passage rates, average LSAT scores and undergraduate GPA's among incoming students, and faculty resources in their rankings. US News & World Report also conducts their own survey, in which they ask faculty, administrators, lawyers, judges, and recruiters to assess the quality of their peers in the legal education industry.

Due to the current legal job crisis, in which there are a significantly greater number of attorneys than there are attorney jobs across the United States, this year US News & World Report included data regarding the employment rate of recent graduates in this year's ranking formula. As explained by Bob Morse, Director of Data Research for US News & World Report, the ratio of students from each school's 2012 graduating class that were able to secure full-time, long-term employment that utilized bar passage (or at which having a J.D. was an advantage) counted for a very significant portion of a law school's overall ranking.

“The inclusion of this new data definitely affected the rankings,” said Morse in an interview with Bloomberg Law's Lee Bacchia. “The top tier of the ranking remained relatively unchanged. The bottom schools stayed at the bottom. Most of the significant changes were in the middle. The big gainers were in the Midwest and the south, with some of the bigger declines on the east and west coasts.”

The inclusion of this data has become a necessity in the current legal job market, which has declined by nearly 20% over the last two decades. Earning a law degree is no longer the guarantee of a long and successful legal career that it once was, and unemployment among law school graduates is at one of its all-time highs. The overall sag in the economy is partly to blame for the decline in opportunity for new lawyers, as law firms across the country, like most other businesses, are scaling back and hiring fewer attorneys. This, compounded with skyrocketing tuition rates, has made the prospect of earning a legal degree dicier than ever before. Groups of students have even begun to file class action lawsuits against law schools, claiming that administrators and recruiters held back and even lied about post-law school opportunities. Data regarding each law school's graduate employment rate was included in this year's rankings as something of a response to these new issues facing the incoming legal class. Compounding the employment rates of new graduates are skyrocketing tuition rates that, without a post-graduation job, mean unpaid debt which compounds difficulties for recent grads.

The inclusion of law school employment rates in US News & World Reports' rankings would seem to be an important step forward in redefining the value of a legal education, and in theory it is. The news of this novel factor in the report's ranking formula was met in many circles with curiosity and enthusiasm. Unfortunately, it seems as though the graduation rate, while heavily weighted in the data, has yielded little impact on the actual rankings.

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So what are the actual rankings? The rankings of the top 14 law schools, alongside their tuition costs and full-time enrollment, are below.

Rank

School Name

Tuition Per Year

Full-Time Enrollment

1

Yale University

$53,600

615

2

Harvard University

$50,880

1,727

2

Stanford University

$50,802

575

4

Columbia University

$55,488

1,290

4

University of Chicago

$50,727

610

6

New York University

$51,150

1,471

7

University of Pennsylvania

$53,138

776

7

University of Virginia

$46,400 (in-state)

1,078

9

University of California, Berkeley

$48,068 (in-state)

856

9

University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

$48,250 (in-state)

1,124

11

Duke University

$50,750

660

12

Northwestern University

$53,468

811

13

Cornell University

$55,220

596

14

Georgetown University

$48,835

1,683


To see the full rankings, click here.

As anyone familiar with US News & World Report's rankings has already determined, this year's Top 14 looks awfully similar to last year's Top 14, despite the inclusion of new data. Explaining the consistency of the results, Morse credits the high-quality of the schools topping the list. “Movement at the very top was not significant, which shows these schools weren't affected by methodology change. It also shows that many of the students at these schools are consistently getting full time jobs.” (As a point of interest, an opposing view can be taken that the rankings, for whatever reason, naturally skew towards certain schools and away from others, and this year's inclusion of job data had little impact on what many perceive as a data bias in the rankings.)

Within the top four, the most significant change was Berkeley's law school falling two places, from seven to nine, tying Ann Arbor. Also of significance is Harvard's increase, moving up one slot to tie Stanford for the second position within the Top 14. Chicago also moved up one slot, as did Cornell, pushing Georgetown into the last position within the Top 14. Though these changes are noteworthy, no law school has moved in or out of the Top 14 this year, and the same schools are consistently ranked within the Top 14 year after year.

Though little has changed within the top tier of the rankings, there was dramatic movement throughout the rest of the list. The biggest gain was the University of Mississippi, Oxford, which moved up 33 positions to 102. Comparably, the University of Montana is now ranked at 113 (tied with four other schools,) which was an increase in 32 rankings. Samford, Nebraska, and Hawaii also had significant gains, with Nebraska ranking the highest of improved schools at 61.

Among schools that declined in the rankings, the University of San Francisco fell 38 spots, landing in a tie for 144, the lowest ranking on the list. Lewis & Clark fell 22 spots to 80, and University of Pittsburg fell 22 spots to tie for 91. Explaining the decline of these schools, Morse again credited the inclusion of graduate employment rates. “Of the schools that fell, the old methodology was masking the quality or duration of the law school jobs acquired by graduates.”

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But what specifically does the inclusion of employment data mean for these rankings? Morse defined the jobs they included in their data as full-time, long-term positions which either require bar-passage or in which having a J.D. is advantageous. This primarily focuses on jobs as in-house or at law firms, and while these types of positions are typically what law students are after, this is not always the case. Many students, upon passing their bar, may be using their skills in unusual ways, or using their degree to augment an existing position. The use of a J.D. or bar accreditation in a professional capacity is varied, but the parameters used by US News & World Report to define the graduate employment rate may be too narrow or too conservative to serve as effective data.

Compounding the issue is the fact the universities are well-known to skew data in their own favor when reporting to US News & World Report. This phenomenon is known to the company's statisticians, who have begun to keep their formula for creating the rankings a secret each year in an attempt to prevent the fudging of numbers or outright omissions on the part of deans, faculty, and teachers. Still, Morse admits that, despite his team's best efforts, data continues to be skewed, and in a way that does impact the rankings. (Within the peer review section, it could be argued that the rankings from previous years' US News & World Report Top Law School Rankings have had an incredible influence on how each school is perceived by reporting attorneys, judges, recruiters, and law school faculty, thus turning each year's rankings into a deteriorating feedback loop.)

But perhaps the most egregious skew to this year's data surrounds the very graduate employment data that was meant to refine the 2013 rankings. The US economy's slump is preventing thousands of law school graduates from finding meaningful work, and many law schools have reacted to this by either paying recent grads to take on part-time work until they find full-time work, or starting their own, school-run law firms to employ recent graduates. George Washington University is one example of the first practice, in which graduates are paid a relatively low-rate by the university for legal work until the attorney secures full-time work. Arizona State pioneered the second plan, opening up their own, school-affiliated non-profit law firm, at which 30 recent graduates are employed to perform legal work for both the school and the surrounding community.

While these two programs are, at their most basic level, good for the recent graduates (as they receive both a paycheck and legal experience), they have been criticized for providing a far greater benefit to the schools. By essentially employing their own graduates, the schools can report a significantly higher rate of graduate employment, effectively boosting their rankings and improving the data they provide to applicants.

In his interview with Bloomberg Law, Morse acknowledged these types of programs, and explained that they were considered to be the same as any other legal job, essentially giving approval to the programs as a way of skewing graduate employment data. “These jobs are kept in the rankings,” said Morse. “School funded jobs are not broken out as granular as the other sub-sections.” He did express a desire for the American Bar Association to expand their graduate employment inquiries to factor in these types of jobs in the future.

Regardless of its flaws, US News & World Report's Top Law School rankings are the most popular and preferred law school rankings in the nation, and have become a legal industry institution. The rankings are used by thousands of law school applicants to make important determinations about their future and are an important tool for recognizing outstanding legal education institutions across the country and establishing benchmarks in legal education. As a tool for applicants, there is nothing inherently dangerous in the idea of ranking the nation's law schools; the danger manifests when one system of ranking takes on too much importance within the legal education system, and this danger is multiplied when law schools focus less on providing excellent educations in favor of improving their own rank in the eyes of US News & World Report.

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