KEEP AN EYE OUT FOR THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO
However, Harvard and Stanford might be best served looking over their shoulders. Chicago Law continues to creep toward the top three – just one index point behind Harvard. Thanks to the 40% weight given to the two surveys – where the University of Chicago suffers a 4.8 versus 4.6 disadvantage on each – Harvard Law can probably skate by on reputation alone. On quantitative measures outside median LSAT score – where Harvard boasts a 173 versus 170 advantage – Chicago Law is cleaning house, including a better median GPA (3.90 versus 3,86), placement rate (95.3% versus 93.6%), and bar passage rate (77% versus 71%).
The University of California-Berkeley was another winner in the 2019 ranking, climbing back into the top 10 (though still below its high mark of 8th in the 2017 rankings). What did Berkeley do to vault Northwestern and Duke and tie with Virginia? Like Stanford, Berkeley is dragged down by lower bar passage rate, the price of operating in a state with an onerous bar exam. The school compensates, however, with stellar marks in the surveys. Boalt Hall – as the school is popularly known – averaged a 4.4 among academic peers, a tenth of a point better than Duke. While this may not be statistically significant, it does create separation. More significant, however, was the legal professional survey, where Berkeley’s 4.5 was .30 above Northwestern.
Berkeley Law wasn’t the only state school making noise in 2019. UC-Irvine is poised to make a run into the top 20 next year, thanks to rising LSAT scores and lower acceptance rates. George Washington made an impressive showing, bouncing back from 30th to 24th, buoyed by an academic peer score that jumped from 3.4 to 3.7. Speaking of comebacks, Washington & Lee administrators are undoubtedly performing back flips in Lewis Hall. Four years ago, the program plummeted from 26th to 43rd. This year, the school returned to 26th, thanks to ongoing efforts that have attracted students with higher LSATs and undergraduate GPAs.
Overall, the University of New Hampshire made the biggest jump in the 2019 ranking, going from 100th to 85th. Double-digit improvements were also made at the University of Denver, the University of Miami, Villanova, and Texas A&M.
IOWA AND NOTRE DAME LOSE STEAM
While these law schools are celebrating, plenty of others are engaged in some soul-searching. Take the University of Iowa, an upstart school to watch in recent years that fell seven spots to 27th. What happened? Blame the surveys, as it lost 0.1 of a point in the all-important academic peer ranking. In the process, Iowa Law either equalled or fell behind eight programs in that measure. The damage was only intensified by a decline in undergraduate GPA, where the range in the 25th to 75th percentile dropped from 3.44-3.79 to 3.38-3.75.
Notre Dame Law suffered its own fall from grace. After making a steady climb to 20th in 2018, the program slid back to 24th. Not surprisingly, the biggest culprit was a lower academic peer score – a quarter of the ranking weight – which offset an improvement in undergraduate GPA (3.41-3.82 to 3.51-3.83) with the 2020 Class. Within the top 50, the University of Colorado and the University of Utah each lost 10 spots. Beyond that, the greatest volatility can be found in the bottom 25, with the biggest losses incurred by the University of Nebraska (-23) and the University of San Diego (-18).
Overall, six law schools left U.S. News’ top 100. The list is headlined by Pepperdine, which had ranked 52nd just three years ago, but was left unranked this year after a reporting error. The University of Tulsa, the University of Louisville, West Virginia University, the University of Hawai’i, and Florida International University remain ranked, but fell outside the top 100. In addition, U.S. News made an error of its own, failing to slot any school at 62nd – effective making the 2019 ranking a 99-school affair.
RANKINGS SETTLE AS YOU LOOK AT THEM OVER THE YEARS
Despite losing six schools, the top 100 didn’t gain any new programs. The reason is associated with another traditional flaw in the U.S. News ranking: It allows for too many ties – including the six schools that tied at 100 in 2018. This year, there were 21 sets of ties, including five schools each tied at 27th and 32nd respectively – not to mention four schools crammed together at both 41st and 50th.
What does that mean? Think of it this way: There are just two index points separating programs that rank 32nd from those ranking 26th – the same difference between Yale and Stanford. In other words, law school quality varies greatly in the top 20, but grows more consistent outside of it. For example, 15 index points separate top-ranked Yale from Virginia and Berkeley, which are effectively ranked 10th. Another 17 points separate Virginia and Berkeley from 20th-ranked Minnesota. However, there is just a nine-point difference between Minnesota and a cluster of programs – including Brigham Young and Florida – ranked at 41st. These bunches create opportunities for school to make big moves. However, they also create the illusion that differences are wider than they really are.
For perspective, it helps to look at the long-term trends. Here, the rankings stabilize to a great degree. Among top-25 programs, for example, just one law school, Boston University, has moved up more than one slot since the 2014 ranking. By the same token, just three programs – Virginia, Vanderbilt, and George Washington – have lost more than one spot during that same time. However, the volatility grows as you drill down into the ranking. Notably, the University of North Carolina has lost 14 spots since the 2014 ranking, while the University of Illinois has gained 10. Further down, the changes become even more staggering, as Villanova has vaulted 33 spots over this period to rank 65th, while the University of San Diego has plunged 27 spots to rank 95th.
ONLY ONE CHANGE AT THE TOP IN THE SPECIALTY RANKINGS
Along with law schools, U.S. News also ranks legal specialties at particular programs. Hardly a scientific instrument, U.S. News mails nomination forms to law schools in 10 fields each fall. In turn, the schools ask faculty members in particular specialties to list up to 15 schools that they consider to be stellar in the field. Like the academic peer survey, it is purely the opinion of seven or more respondents, subject to the same lack of day-to-day awareness and bias as the previous study. Still, it offers value by identifying the programs with the strongest brand reputations – an undisputed advantage during the job search.
Sure enough, this ranking again reflects why it can be so hard to move up in the U.S. News rankings: reputations are a hard thing to shake. This year, the top spot was held by the same program as last year in nine of 10 programs. The only change involved legal writing, where the University of Nevada-Las Vegas pulled the upset on the University of Seattle. Otherwise, New York University continued to earn the most votes in tax and international law, a feat matched by Georgetown Law in clinical training and part-time programs. Berkeley Law has capitalized on the Bay Area tech startup ecosystem, ranking first in intellectual property. Stetson University, a mock trial juggernaut, continued its reign as the top program for trial advocacy. Pepperdine (Dispute Resolution), the University of Vermont (Environmental Law), and St. Louis University (Healthcare Law) also retained their top spots in the 2019 ranking.
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DON’T MISS: TOP SCHOOLS LOSE GROUND IN NEW U.S. NEWS LAW SCHOOL RANKING