Yale (Again) Tops 2016 U.S. News Law Rankings

Wake Forest School of Law

Wake Forest School of Law

WAKE FOREST DROPS 16 SPOTS

Last year, the big news involved Washington & Lee University, which cratered from 26th to 43rd. This year, the school stabilized itself, inching up one spot to 42nd. And Wake Forest can only hope to match that feat, after tumbling from 31st to 47th in 2016. The school’s fall is easy to diagnose. To begin, Wake Forest’s nine-month placement rate plummeted from 76.9% to 62.3%. Its practitioner assessment score fell from 3.8 to 3.5. Similarly, its first-time bar passage rate nose-dived, going from 89.3% to 75%.

And Wake Forest wasn’t alone. Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law and Florida State Law each fell five spots, with the College of William & Mary dropping four spots. As a result, Florida State now ranks below in-state rival Florida in their see-saw battle to be the state’s top law program. Meanwhile, Indiana, which ranked 23rd just five years ago, continues to slump, despite an enviable 95.9% bar passage rate and nine-month employment increasing from 64.7% to 80.5%. However, Maurer’s Achilles heels are surveys, with its practitioner score falling from 4.0 to 3.7.

Among top-50 schools, the trends also don’t favor Boston College and the University of Illinois, whose rankings have dropped 12 and 20 spots respectively since the 2011 rankings.

TIES DILUTE CREDIBILITY OF RANKINGS

U.S. News

For many, a tie is worse than a loss. When it comes to law school rankings, ties seemingly boost numbers artificially. In the top 10, there were deadlocks at the number two, four, and eight spots. In the top 50, there were logjams at 20, 22, 26, 31, 24, 42, 47, and 50 – with four schools tied at both 22 and 42 – and six schools locked in the 34th spot. And it gets even worse among schools ranked between 50 and 100, with seven schools each tied at 87th and 94th.

As a result, the margins between schools are rather thin. To calculate rankings, U.S. News weighs various factors on a scale of 100. The 2016 ranking (which is technically U.S. News’ 2015 ranking based on 2014 data) measures school quality, selectivity, placement, and faculty resources. Twenty-five per cent of the ranking is derived from assessments from law school administrators and faculty. Another 15% results from similar surveys with judges and lawyers (i.e. practitioners). LSAT scores and GPAs account for 12.5% and 10% of the rank respectively, with acceptance rates given 2.5%. Placement success, particularly employment within nine months of graduation, is factored in at 20%. The formula is rounded out by a 15% weight to faculty resources (expenditures per student, student-to-faculty ratio, and library resources).

This formula has remained relatively consistent year-over-year, though the 2016 formula gives less weight to law school and university-funded jobs held by new J.D. graduates. Still, the formula has produced an index where a point or two point variance can make a huge difference.

For example, consider the University of Colorado, ranked 40th (up two spots from 2015), with an index of 58. With just one more point they would rank 34th. And what is the difference between Colorado and, say, the University of North Carolina at 34? Well, North Carolina has a much higher assessment score from practitioners (3.8 vs. 3.3) and academics (3.4 vs. 3.1). However, those are subjective measurements that can be based on limited exposure and prejudice. And they can even be a lagging indicator of the type of graduates a school currently produces. True, North Carolina has a more stringent acceptance rate (40.3% vs. 47%) on the front end. But Colorado also outperforms the school on the back end, with  higher bar passage (89.2% vs. 81.3%) and nine-month placement (78.4% vs. 75.4%) rates. Since their LSAT scores and undergraduate GPAs are comparable, very little separates these schools. Yet, Colorado is six spots lower.

FEW REAL NEWCOMERS TO THE 2016 RANKINGS

Last year, six schools entered the top 100 (there were 103 schools overall in the top 100 due to four schools being tied at 100). For the 2016 rankings, there are five new schools. Aside from the previously-mentioned California-Irvine, these schools include: St. John’s (82nd), Syracuse (87th), Santa Clara (94th) and the University of Mississippi (94th). However, three of those schools (St. John’s, Syracuse, and Santa Clara) have actually returned from a year-long exile after being top 100 programs in the 2014 rankings.

Schools that dropped out of the top 100 include: Florida International, Stetson, Marquette, Wayne State, the University of Seattle, Indiana University-Indianapolis (McKinney), and Rutgers University-Camden.

FEW CHANGES AMONG THE TOP SPECIALTIES

Aside from environmental law, the U.S. News’ 2016 top programs in various specialties came out identical to 2014’s rankings. This year, there were two changes. The University of Maryland unseated St. Louis University atop the health care law rankings. And Berkeley reclaimed the top spot in intellectual property. The eight programs repeated as the No. 1 school for the remaining specialties: Lewis & Clark (environmental law), Georgetown (clinical law and part-time programs), Pepperdine (dispute resolution), New York University (international law and tax law), the University of Seattle (legal writing), and Stetson University trial advocacy).

 (See following page for the actual rankings and six year trends)