No one wants to finish second. Coming so close, runner-ups are cursed to dwell on the details. In the U.S. News law school rankings, Harvard Law traditionally finishes second to Yale Law. Their rivalry is more Roadrunner and Coyote than Ali and Frazier, however. Going on over a quarter century, Yale Law has outpaced its Cambridge rival year-after-year.
The 2017 results (though U.S. News pretends these are 2018 results to increase their perishability) are no different. That said, you won’t find Harvard Law administrators asking “what if” this year. Instead, they’re pondering “what now” after being passed by Stanford as Yale’s biggest rival.
For the first time in five years, Stanford Law earned the proverbial silver in the law school rankings. That wasn’t the only shakeup in the top five, with the University of Chicago claiming sole possession of the fourth spot over Columbia Law, breaking a tie that has lasted four of the past five years.
MAJOR CHANGES AT THE TOP OF THE RANKING
Such a shift is sure to reverberate for months to come, as law schools base their pitch on prestige more than any other graduate discripline. Like Edwardian mores, law schools seemingly operate off social hierarchy, with the top programs coalescing in the what is called the T14 (as in the Top 14 law schools). Think of it as an exclusive club at best and a cartel at worst. For the past six years, the top 14 programs in the U.S. News rankings have remained set. In the 2017 rankings, for example, just two T14 schools switched spots. The year previous, just four schools moved up or down —and only by one spot.
However, the 2018 rankings have engendered change top-to-bottom. The ascension of Stanford and the University of Chicago was just the start. Take the University of California-Berkeley, popularly known as Boalt Hall. A top 10 stalwart, it tumbled four spots to 12th. It was replaced by Northwestern Law, which scored its first Top 10 finish at 8th. More ominous, Georgetown Law, which had ranked 14th in three of the past four rankings, dropped out of the T14 altogether, ceding its spot to the University of Texas-Austin.
Should the 2018 rankings be looked at as the opening salvo of a major renovation of the status quo — or the cementing of long-emerging trends? Consider this: Among the 21 law schools ranked in the top 20 (Iowa and Notre Dame tied for 20th), 10 held the same position as the previous year. Just three of those schools experienced a jump or loss of two places or more (including UCLA, which climbed two spots to tie Georgetown at 15th). Looking at the broader context, such shifts could be considered almost revolutionary, as movement is uncommon in U.S. News’ law school ranking. How uncommon? In 2016 15 of the top 20 schools held the same spot as the year before. In 2015, that number was 16.
A FLAWED RANKING THAT REINFORCES STAGNATION
Indeed, the top of the chain is beginning to suffer the same tumult as the second and third tier programs. That’s a bit of a surprise. In some ways, law schools operate off of a virtuous cycle, where higher rankings draw better students. This fosters a self-fulfilling prophecy where law schools game their advantages in the rankings criteria. Top notch students bring the highest undergrad GPAs and LSAT scores, which (in turn) attracts high grade faculty who amplify these students’ natural advantages. That makes these students better equipped to pass the bar, with continued prestige ensuring higher placement. Even more, top programs produce the best opportunities for students, whether they’re set in deep-pocketed Big Law firms or Federal judicial clerkships. By being positioned in the best roles, T14 law graduates students earn accolades from academics and legal practitioners alike.
This stagnation is reinforced by the design of the U.S. News methodology, which rewards narrow inputs and flawed opinion above all else. Survey responses from law school deans and faculty members account for 25% of U.S. News’ weight, with surveys answered by lawyers, judges and recruiters accounting for another 15%. LSAT scores, undergraduate GPAs, and acceptance rates from the incoming 2016 Class make up another quarter of the ranking. Placement success for the 2015 Class is given a 20% weight, with the majority of that based on 10-month placement in long-term jobs that require bar passage. In a catch-all category, Faculty Resources — which packages per student spending, financial aid, and student-to-teacher ratio — round out the remaining 15% of the ranking.
While U.S. News is considered the gold standard for measuring law school performance, the methodology has its critics. For one, 25% of the weight is based on surveys to the law school community, who often have little exposure to the curriculum, students, and day-to-day operations of peer schools. As a result, a chunk of the rank could derive from unconscious bias or antiquated assumptions as opposed to quantifiable data. Another 25% is given to inputs, which emphasize recruiting over the more difficult work of teaching and preparing students. What’s more, the methodology ignores the insidious impact of student debt, while giving short shrift to outputs (i.e. jobs).
STANFORD TOPS HARVARD…BUT IS IT LEGIT?
Alas, the top law programs excel in every facet of the ranking. Yale Law is a case in point. It tops all comers in undergrad GPAs in the 25th to 75th percentile, while tying Harvard Law for the highest LSATs in the same range. It also boasts the second lowest acceptance rate among top 20 programs, though being nearly a third the size of Harvard Law gives it an embedded advantage here. It also notches the highest survey marks from the law school community, while finishing a close second in scores from legal practitioners. Yale Law’s drawback, however, is a biggie. The Class of 2015 merited just an 84.5% placement rate. However, that is nothing new, as nearly a third of Yale classes traditionally gravitate towards short-term Federal clerkships at the expense of more lucrative and stable Big Law jobs. Despite this handicap, Yale Law still managed a perfect score in U.S. News’ index.
Although U.S. News’ methodology is clear on its face, it can be more opaque in practice. The Stanford vs. Harvard rumble epitomizes the point. Both programs earned the highest scores from the law school and practitioner surveys. However, incoming Harvard students brought slightly higher LSAT scores and undergraduate GPAs to campus. Harvard’s graduates also yielded higher bar passage and 10-month placement rates. What were Stanford advantages? Like Yale, Stanford is a third of Harvard’s size, which is reflected in a lower acceptance rate (11% vs. 17%) and a lower faculty-to-student ratio (7.3 vs. 11.6), which amounts to a mere 5.5% of the ranking. Even more, Stanford’s performance dipped slightly in LSAT scores, undergraduate GPAs, and placement over the previous year, while Harvard held steady in all three areas. At the same time, Harvard and Stanford both earned 4.8 scores in academic and practitioner surveys, no different than the year before. So why did Stanford somehow beat out Harvard in 2018? That’s a question that may never be answered.
In contrast, the reasons for the University of Chicago topping Columbia Law are easier to discern. For one, Chicago first-years brought far higher undergrad GPAs (3.73-3.95) vs. (3.56-3.71) on the front end, while leaving with superior bar passage rates (98.8% vs. 92.7%) and 10-month placement rates (90.8% vs. 89.6%) on the back end. While Columbia edged out Chicago in higher LSAT scores (168-174 vs. 166-172) and a lower acceptance rates (20% vs. 21%), Chicago’s advantage was too great elsewhere.