Winners & Losers In U.S. News’ 2015 Ranking

Law Library at the University of Tennessee College of Law

Law Library at the University of Tennessee College of Law

It’s not whether you won or lost. It’s that you competed. And you learned something. Never forget: there’s always another game to do better.

Ever hear those sentiments? Did they really make you feel better? Of course not! People are wired to keep score – and measure themselves against their peers. It’s no different in academia. Rankings may not be perfect, but they do measure perception and progress. Fair or not, in an era of increased expectations and decreasing enrollments, rankings matter. And there are rewards for performing – and repercussions for plodding.

Based on this year’s rankings, Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California-Irvine’s School of Law, is in for a big raise. In the week’s biggest news, Irvine Law skyrocketed from obscurity to 30th on U.S. News’ 2016 Law School Rankings. In the process, the school leapfrogged traditional favorites like Fordham, Boston College, Indiana, Ohio State, and Southern Methodist. At the same time, Duke Law solidified itself as a top-10 program. And let’s not forget Emory, which has danced around the top 20 for six years. In the latest rankings, Emory managed to hold its 19th ranking for the second year. With higher placement and bar passage rates than many of its top-20 peers, Emory could be entrenched there for years to come.

MODEST GAINS MADE IN BOTTOM 50

niversity of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law

University of Utah S.J. Quinney College of Law

Yes, these were the big winners, aside from the University of Iowa (27th to 22nd), Arizona State (31st to 26th), and the University of Utah (49th to 42nd). Some might argue that the T7 schools were the real winners, as they maintained a wide distance between themselves and usurpers like the University of Virginia and Berkeley Law. If you’re looking for sheer improvement in the 2016 rankings, the only school that comes close to Irvine Law is the University of Tennessee College of Law.

You could call Tennessee Law a curious case. Ranked 56th in 2012, the school has bobbed up and down in recent years, falling to 72nd in 2015 before bouncing back to 52nd today – its highest ranking in recent years. So what do the stats show? At first glance, many of Tennessee Law’s indicators remained unchanged, including academic and practitioner survey scores and incoming GMAT scores. And the school’s nine-month placement rate only nudged the needle, tiptoeing from 72.3% to 76%. True, Tennessee’s acceptance rate dropped from 51.2% to 39.6%. But the biggest change involved one of the school’s strengths: bar passage. Building on an already respectable rate of 85.1% in the 2015 rankings, Tennessee managed to raise passage to 94.3%, ranking it above distinguished programs like Stanford, Virginia, Michigan, Northwestern, and Texas.

Overall, many of the biggest gains came from schools that have been yo-yoing around the bottom 50 in recent years. Case in point: the University of Oregon School of Law, which technically clambered from 100th to 82nd. In reality, the school simply settled where it belongs. From 2011-2013, Oregon Law ranked 80th, 79th, and 82nd respectively before crashing to 94th and 100th in the 2014-15 rankings.  Over this six-year period, the school produced an average rank of 86.2, meaning it is simply rebounding from a few bad years. As a bottom 50 school, Oregon Law is more susceptible to being dinged in the rankings by sluggish hiring and declining enrollments (hence a more liberal 54.3% admissions rate). In Oregon Law’s case, the school’s ranking was also bolstered by academic and practitioner survey scores that were higher than most programs around them.

You’ll also find this same dynamic at work for the University of Hawai’i (+18), where its 2016 rank (82nd) is within range of its six-year average rank (88.2). In fact, Hawai’I Law’s big jump still falls short of its 72nd rank in 2011. The same is true of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas (+16), where its 2016 rank (67th) isn’t that far off its average (73.8).