The 2018 ranking was lauded as a tipping point. Big names sagged as upstarts gained ground. Normally, such volatility heralds even larger shifts – a new order that reshuffles the power and prestige of top players. But if the 2019 U.S. News & World Report Law School ranking represents anything, it is the staying power of the status quo.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Yale Law maintained its quarter-century grip on the top spot. Stanford and Harvard locked down the 2nd and 3rd spots. The T14 schools clutched their familiar spots. And like before, UCLA, Texas, and Vanderbilt returned to their status of being on the outside looking in.
BERKELEY IS BACK!
That’s not to say the previous ranking was an outlier. In many ways, the new U.S. News ranking – the gold standard for legal education – simply cements many of last year’s biggest developments. Stanford Law again held sole possession of the second spot, after having sharing it with Harvard Law for several years. At the 4th spot, the University of Chicago further distanced itself from Columbia Law, two schools that had been tied together until last year. At the same time, the Georgetown Law Center returned to the T14 after being bumped for a year by Texas in 2018 – the first time in over five years that a T14 had ceded its coveted spot.
That’s not to say the 2019 rankings (released March 20) won’t cause some deans to reach for Schlitz instead of champagne. Duke Law and Northwestern Law, which had cracked the top 10 in 2018, each slipped to 11th – a number that catches recruits’ eyes for all the wrong reasons. After spending the past four years at 8th, Virginia Law lapsed to 9th. That ties it with Berkeley Law, but also means Duke and Northwestern are nipping at Virginia’s heels. And the University of Iowa, which had clawed its way into the top 20 for the past two years, tumbled back to 27th, the same rank it held four years ago.
The news was better for Berkeley Law. After dipping to 12th in 2017, Boalt Hall found its mojo and bounced back to 9th. A two-year stint in the wilderness also did the University of Minnesota some good; it returned to the top 20. Let’s not forget the impressive climb made by the University of California-Irvine: Established in 2008 and fully accredited in 2014, Irvine Law has achieved an unlikely feat, ranking 21st after just four rankings, including a seven-point rise over the previous year.
A ROBUST BUT EQUALLY FLAWED RANKING
What makes the U.S. News law school ranking so potent? For one, it has a robust methodology that weaves together student quality, employment outcomes, and expert opinion to create a composite index score. The ranking can be broken down into five parts. The largest weight, 25%, is given to a peer assessment score, where law school administrators and faculty chairs evaluate their peers on a five-point scale (where 5 is considered “Outstanding”). That same rubric is applied to an assessment score given by practitioners like lawyers and judges, whose evaluations of recent program grads account for 15% of the ranking.
Quantitative measures take up the remaining 60% of the ranking. That starts with inputs (aka the quality of students entering law schools). LSAT and GRE scores for 2017 law school entrants hold 12.5% of the ranking’s weight, with undergraduate GPA (10%) and acceptance rate (2.5%) included in the mix. The placement rate for graduates, the Class of 2016 in this case, is also factored in at a 20% clip (which includes bar passage rate at 2.5%). The remaining 15% is a catch-all category broadly titled “Faculty Resources.” The majority of this weight is given to the nebulous “instruction, library, and supporting services,” though financial aid and student-to-faculty ratio are also weighed.
It is a diverse ranking, but one that doesn’t come without questions. For one, 40% of the weight is conferred to peer opinion over quantifiable fact. Take, for example, the inclusion of law school administrators and faculty. As critics have pointed out, such respondents possess little day-to-day knowledge of what occurs at competing programs. Even if they had worked at another school previously, the value of that experience quickly diminishes. As a result, the methodology is open to being a popularity contest, where name recognition offers a natural advantage – a sentiment that is generally difficult to dislodge. Even more, U.S. News fails to disclose the number of survey respondents, with a lower number theoretically creating greater volatility.
In contrast, quantitative inputs also foster a virtuous cycle. Here, high LSATs and grades are translated into higher rankings, which in turn attract a higher-caliber student to repeat the cycle. Despite attaching “2019” on the ranking to reduce perishability, U.S. News is truly a lagging indicator as it leans heavily on data that is a year or two years old. That said, U.S. News has touched up its ranking on the quantitative side. Notably, it has chopped short-term, school-sponsored jobs from its placement rates to deliver a clearer read on market demand.
YALE LAW’S WINNING FORMULA EXPLAINED
Employment isn’t a strength of Yale, despite its No. 1 ranking and perfect index score. The program’s 2016 Class, for example, placed just 83.3% of its graduates within 10 months of receiving their diplomas. To put that number in context, the rates were 93.6% and 91.8% at Harvard and Stanford, respectively. However, Yale’s placement rates are hobbled by the nature of the program: over 37% of its graduates start out working in judicial clerkships, a number that eclipsed both Stanford Law (27.8%) and Harvard Law (23.2%) in 2016.
With placement serving as a major handicap, how does Yale Law overcome it year after year to sit atop U.S. News’ ranking? Simple: It notches its best marks in the categories that U.S. News deems most valuable.
Among the all-important surveys, Yale tied for the highest score in academic assessment (4.8) and finished second in professional assessment (4.7). However, it is the student inputs where Yale truly shined, as its 2020 class racked up the highest incoming median GPA (3.91) and LSAT (173) – not to mention an 8% acceptance rate. How exclusive is Yale Law? It is twice as difficult to get into Yale as Harvard Law. More impressive still, Yale Law grads pass the New York bar – its home jurisdiction – at a 99% rate (and 71% overall) – far better numbers than runner-up Stanford at 91% and 54%, respectively. In short, Yale Law again followed its winning formula. It kept pace with Stanford and Harvard in the surveys, while running the table on incoming student data. This enabled Yale to neutralize its inherent disadvantage in placement.
The difference between Stanford and Harvard, however, was hardly clear cut. Both posted identical survey scores with academics and practitioners alike. Stanford notched a higher average GPA (3.9 versus 3.86), while Harvard attracted students with higher LSATs (173 versus 171). Similarly, Harvard enjoyed an edge in placement (93.6% versus 91.8%) and overall bar passage (71% versus 54%) – an advantage that was mitigated by Stanford’s far superior performance with acceptance rate (10% versus 16%) and student-to-faculty ratio (4-to-1 versus 8-to-1). While these programs appear equal on their face, there are actually two index points separating them – a head-scratcher for sure.
TO SEE HOW YOUR FAVORITE SCHOOL FARED IN 2019 (AND OVER THE PAST 5 YEARS) IN THE U.S. NEWS RANKING, GO TO PAGE 3.