Tipping the Scales

Above the Law’s New JD Ranking

by Jeff Schmitt on

2014-Rankings-Badge-300x300

“The more things change, the more they say the same.”

At first glance, you might apply this proverb to Above the Law‘s 2014 law school rankings. Among their top 20 schools of 2013, 19 of them repeat the feat in 2014. And the top ten schools in Above the Law’s ranking are no different than those in U.S. News and World Report’s latest ranking. But if you look into the numbers more deeply, you’ll find a growing gulf between the top-tier schools and the rest.

“The top 15 or so are roughly the same schools as you would find in U.S. News and elsewhere,” explains Brian Dalton, research director for Above the Law. “Yale, Harvard and Stanford are the top three as they would be under any credible ranking scheme…The drop off after the top-tier schools is shocking. The employment numbers for schools down the list is abysmal. It is practically scandalous how low the number of graduates landing real jobs that require bar passage. I think it is known but not widely understood. There is a tremendous excess capacity problem. There is no reason to think that the jobs lost during the recession will ever come back.”

Above the Law’s Methodology

Good jobs, high pay, strong networks, and low debt. That’s the foundation of Above the Law’s annual law school rankings. And their methodology has remained consistent between 2013 and 2014. In Above the Law’s formula, 30% of a score is based on employment, which encompasses full-time, long-term jobs that require bar passage (and are not funded by law schools themselves). Another 30% stems from a “quality jobs score,” which is graduate employment at the 250 “big law” firms or Federal judicial clerkships. Student debt weighs 15% and is based on the total cost of an education (while factoring in cost of living). Another 10% is derived from a confidential alumni survey, where participants rate the academics, career services, clinical training, and social life of their alma mater. Finally, Supreme Court clerkships and active Federal judgeships each account for 7.5% of the score, which rewards accomplishment and prestige.

Bottom line: The Above the Law rankings evaluate which schools best prepare students to earn a living, pay off their debt, and position themselves for bigger opportunities. And this methodology marks a sharp contrast to U.S. News’ model, where 25% of a score is based on subjective surveys results from academics (and another 25% is derived from LSAT scores, undergraduate GPAs, and acceptance rates). In short, as Dalton points out, Above the Law’s formula emphasizes outputs like employment outcomes over “inputs” (i.e. test scores, GPAs and school spending). “What differentiates us from U.S. News is we focus on outputs, most exclusively employment data. That sets us apart. In this completely out-of-whack legal job market, people just really care about outcomes.”

The ranking also offers a major benefit over U.S. News’ data: Up-to-date data. As Dalton recently wrote, “the ATL Law School Rankings are the only rankings of which we’re aware to incorporate the latest ABA employment data concerning the class of 2013.” (The U.S. News ranking, though labeled “2015,” relies on class of 2012 employment stats.).

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  • critic

    I would like to see the rankings without any weight placed on Supreme Court clerkships and active Federal judgeships. It is hard to see how this variable is relevant to the vast majority of law applicants and students. I suspect that if you took the 7.5% on this variable and redistributed it to the employment and quality jobs variables, you would see some interesting changes, such as Yale falling off the top spot and perhaps out of the top 3. I also suspect this is why ATL (i.e. David Lat) puts so much weight on this irrelevant variable.

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