Top Schools Lose Ground In New U.S. News Law School Ranking

Duke Law School library

DUKE AND NORTHWESTERN AMONG WINNERS

This year’s rankings included several big winners. Let’s start with Duke and Northwestern, which each joined the top 10. Duke rose thanks to slight upticks in undergraduate GPAs, LSAT scores and placement rates. In contrast, Northwestern’s move was precipitated by tighter acceptance rates (18% vs. 22%) and higher placement and bar passage rates after graduation. By the same token, UCLA enjoyed the best of both worlds, with higher LSATs, undergraduate GPAs, and bar passage rates, paving the way for its move into the top 15 law schools.

Several programs also made noise below the T14. Five years ago, Washington & Lee ranked 26th before plunging all the way down to 43rd. This year, the school staged a comeback, vaulting from 40th to 28th. The reasons are small, yet significant. For one, undergraduate GPAs were beefed up from 3.08-3.58 to 3.16-3.67. At the same time, first-time bar passage leaped nearly seven points to 81.6%, an indicator of better teaching and bar preparation. In the process, placement crept into the upper echelon at 91.7%.

Overall, Marquette Law made the biggest jump, leaping 23 spots to 100th. Other big gains were made by Penn State-Dickinson (+21), Texas A&M (+19), Northeastern (+17), University of Nevada-Las Vegas (+16), Indiana University-Indianapolis (+12), and the University of Connecticut (+11).  Marquette was also one of four schools to join this year’s ranking, along with Texas A&M, Stetson, University, and Florida International University.

BOALT HALL IS DOING SOME SOUL SEARCHING

University of Michigan Law

While you’ll hear champagne corks popping in Palo Alto, Durham, and Evanston, expect stone silence in Berkeley, which nose-dived out of the top 10. How? Point the finger at placement, which slumped from 95.5% to 87.1%, a rate lower than the four programs that leapfrogged Berkeley: The University of Michigan, the University of Virginia, Duke, and Northwestern. The California State Bar, one of the most rigorous, doesn’t do Berkeley any favors. The Class of 2015’s passage rate lapsed from 87.9% to 85.1%, again lower than Michigan, Virginia, and Duke. Despite boosting LSAT scores, the progress was offset by a dip in undergrad GPAs. When coupled with a peer assessment score that lost 0.1 of a point, it’s easy to see where Berkeley needs to focus for next year.

Boalt Hall isn’t alone in doing some soul searching. Boston University fell out of the top 20, ending up at 23rd. Call it a bittersweet year for Boston University, which saw rises in its undergrad GPAs (3.41.-3.75 to  3.52-3.77) and LSAT scores (160-164 to 161-165), all while keeping its academic and practitioner survey scores steady. What happened? Simple: the school’s bar passage rate crashed by nearly 40 points, going from 95.4% to 56.7%.

George Washington and Indiana University each flopped five spots to end up at 30th. After spending the past four years climbing from 38th to 30th, U.C. Davis lost all momentum by dropping to 39th. The College of William & Mary, Brigham Young University, and the University of Arizona each lost nine spots, taking them out of the top 40 law schools. The University of New Hampshire endured the worst, dropping 18 spots to 100. They are followed by University of Miami (-17), University of New Mexico (-17), Louisiana State University (-14), University of Oklahoma (-12), and the University of Cincinnati (-12).

IOWA AND NOTRE DAME IMPROVING OVER TIME

One year doesn’t make or break a program. So deans should hold off hosting swanky celebrations or reaching for the hemlock just yet. Many times, there is very little difference separating law schools. Consider this: There are 26 ties in the Top 100. That includes seven law schools tied at 65th and six programs tied for both 30th and 100th. In other words, very little separates law schools, particularly outside the T14. For example, the difference between top-ranked Harvard Law and 14th-ranked Texas is 25 index points — the same distance between Texas and 54th-ranked University of Houston. Due to the ties, there are times when two index points can separate schools by up to 10 spots! Such clusters, stemming from an overly-broad methodology, can help programs appear better (or worse) than they really are.

Looking at the rankings historically is a better indicator of whether law schools have been surging ahead or falling ahead. Over the past five years, just three top 20 law schools have gained or lost two spots or more (excluding shifts exclusive to the 2018 rankings). The University of Iowa, for example, has risen from 26th to 20th, the fruit of an enviable bar passage rate that peaked at 98.2% with the 2015 Class. Similarly, Notre Dame has climbed three spots over the same period. Conversely, Vanderbilt has slipped two spots to 17th since the 2013 U.S. News rankings.

University of Iowa College of Law

The shifts are more dramatic outside the top 20, which is driven by more regional and commoditized programs. Despite losing three spots in 2018, Boston University can take comfort in its progress over the past five years, where it has risen from 29th to 23rd. Across town, Boston College has made similar strides, climbing five spots to 26th. At the same time, the University of Colorado has emerged as an up-and-comer, bouncing up eight spots to 36th.

LITTLE CHANGE IN RANKINGS OF SCHOOL SPECIALIZATIONS

The data also reflects that some law schools have been taking a step backwards. Exhibit A is the University of Minnesota, which ranked 20th just two years ago. It has slid to 23rd, the product of a swollen acceptance rate that has nearly doubled over the past four years (23.2% to 45%). Just four years ago, George Washington University was another top 20 program before it careened down to 30th. Like Minnesota, it lowered its LSAT scores to keep enrollment high, resulting in a 10% higher acceptance rate. The University of North Carolina (-8), College of William & Mary (-8), University of Alabama (-5), and Indiana University (-5) have also struggled in recent years according to U.S. News.

Along with ranking law schools, U.S. News also evaluates the quality of various specializations at various programs. To do this, it conducts a survey with faculty members who can select up to 15 programs. A popularity contest with little quantitative rigor, the specialization ranking is open to the same bias and removal as the peer survey.

Unlike the school-based rankings, however, the specializations saw little disruption, with only one change among 11 categories. Here, Pepperdine re-took the top spot in dispute resolution. Otherwise, New York University continued to rank first in tax law and international law, with Georgetown also nabbing dual honors in part-time law and clinical training. Berkeley, located within an hour drive of Silicon Valley, held onto bragging rights for intellectual property, as did the University of Vermont in environmental law, St. Louis University in health law, the University of Seattle in legal writing, and Stetson University in trial advocacy.

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