Familiar No. 1 in ‘Above The Law’ Ranking

University of Chicago Law School

University of Chicago Law School

Alas, Yale Law can’t hide some of its weaknesses behind a lower debt burden. For one, the school placed the smallest percentage of students in high-paying BigLaw firms (i.e. 100 or more attorneys), at 38.5% of its 2015 graduating class. In context, Columbia Law — the leader in this field — sent 73.6% of its graduates there. Yale Law grads also finished second-worst at 84% for the percentage of jobs requiring bar passage, perhaps an indication that the bottom half of the class is underemployed.

On top of that, the school’s alumni were less-than-satisfied with their alma mater compared to their peers. Yale Law received the lowest rating for academics and the fourth-lowest mark for experiential education from alumni.

HIGHER COSTS DOOM STANFORD, PENN AND HARVARD

Yale’s ascension came at Harvard’s expense. And it can’t sit well in Cambridge that Harvard now ranks behind both Yale and Penn among the Ivy League law programs. The reasons are subtle. To start, Harvard’s LST score dipped from 90% to 89%. Of course, that was compounded by fewer Harvard Law grads landing BigLaw jobs compared to the year before (57% versus 51.8%). Even ATL Managing Editor Elie Mystal, the architect behind this year’s ranking, was perplexed by this result. In a mea culpa, “Everything Wrong With The ATL 2016 Top 50 Law School Rankings,” he exposed one of the flaws of their methodology: Sometimes, they just can’t tell what differentiates a good job (i.e. BigLaw) from a decent one, particularly in the nebulous area where a law degree may not be required but offers a distinct advantage.

“The real problem I have with our rankings,” Mystal admits, “is that I can’t prove which schools are legitimately generating attractive non-legal opportunities, and which schools are throwing crap against the wall trying to juke the stats.”

Stanford Law finished just a point below Yale in ATL’s formula. And you could point the finger at cost. Over three years, Stanford students can expect to shell out $315,604 — roughly $33,500 more than Yale grads. Like Yale, Stanford doesn’t churn out BigLaw attorneys (51.8%) in bulk, placing them at a disadvantage to upstarts like Chicago and Penn. In contrast, however, Stanford alums are among the most satisfied with both their alma mater’s black law and experiential offerings.

The University of Chicago, an uber-academic environment known for high placement, rounds out the top three. Chicago has a reputation for being a BigLaw factory, with nearly two-thirds of its 2015 class ending up there — so it may come as a surprise that Chicago also sends a higher percentage of its class into public interest law than any other school in the L14. So why did Chicago Law finish third again this year? Like Stanford, it was hobbled by a $300,000 cost. This undercut Chicago’s performance in the salary-to-debt ratio, a new category introduced to the 2016 ranking.

As luck would have it, the weight of the judges and clerks categories — traditional strengths of Chicago — was siphoned to accommodate this ratio.

Georgetown Law Center

Georgetown Law Center

DOES ATL PICK ON URBAN SCHOOLS?

Developing rankings can sometimes foster ill will (for one year, at least). And you can bet Columbia, New York University, and the Georgetown Law Center are nitpicking ATL’s ranking this year. All three schools are considered part of the all-powerful L14 club, that band of law schools considered to be a cut above the rest. With ATL, Columbia — which traditionally sits 4th in rankings — finished (gasp!) 11th. And NYU and Georgetown ranked 15th and 21st, respectively, placing them among the likes of Boston College and Iowa.

The reason: high cost of living — which creates an inherent (and admitted) bias against big cities in ATL’s ranking.

“So the difference between Columbia tuition and Cornell tuition ($61,000) might be slight,” Mystal explains. “But when you count that spread over three years, and you add in the cost of living difference between the Upper West Side and Ithaca, you’re looking at a lot more debt for students in big cities than students in the middle of nowhere.”

Mystal acknowledges that some students seek out big city schools, knowing high cost is the price of admission if they hope to eventually start their careers in more cosmopolitan (and pricey) locales. This further clouds ATL’s methodology. “Our rankings are good at telling you which major market school is a safer bet, and which small market school is better than you think,” Mystal adds. “It’s not really good at comparing the two between each other.”

NEW MEXICO FALLS BACK TO EARTH

Big city programs weren’t the only big losers in the 2016 ATL rankings. Last year, the University of New Mexico made headlines by vaulting into the top 20, thanks to low in-state tuition ($16,521 a year) and enviable placement (97% for the 2015 class). This year, however, New Mexico dropped from 18th to 36th. The culprit, of course, is ATL’s inclination toward BigLaw jobs. How many New Mexico grads found their way into those resource-rich and deep-pocketed firms? Try 0%. And fewer than 1% were chosen for federal clerkships.

That disadvantage, partially rooted in geography, is nearly impossible to overcome, even when New Mexico alums give their alma mater the highest marks in every area except social life (a B+).

Brigham Young University also nose-dived 18 spots, despite tuition being an absolute bargain ($11,620 for LDS members and $23,240 for non-members). Unlike New Mexico, BYU placed 7.5% of its class in large firms. But that’s where its advantages end. Nine percent of its 2015 class found itself unemployed — and another 38% worked in jobs that didn’t require bar passage. Not to mention, another 7% could only land school-funded jobs. In ATL’s formula, which rewards practice-based jobs, such numbers are punished.

Arizona State (-18), Temple (-14), and Georgia State (-11) lost the most ground in this year’s rankings. In contrast, upward mobility was more subdued, with no school making a double-digit jump. Instead, steady progress was made by Seton Hall University (+9), Southern Methodist University (+8), George Washington University (+7), and Emory University (+7). However, one move carried heavy significance, as Northwestern climbed into the top 10 after ranking 13th in 2015. At the same time, Baylor Law made the biggest debut, at 32nd, with Florida State University (37th) and the University of Washington (39th) entering the top 50 closely behind.

Continue on to see the 2016 ATL Top 50 historical ranking.