Chaos Reigns In New Above the Law Ranking

University of Chicago Law School

Chicago is nicknamed “The Second City.” Pessimists say the title stems from the city being the gritty runner-up to its bigger and brighter cousin on the Hudson. Along Lake Michigan, you’ll hear a different story: The Second City moniker is traced to the 1871 Chicago Fire, when legend has it that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow knocked over a lantern that sparked the maelstrom, leaving over 100,000 people homeless. From the ashes, the “City of Big Shoulders” went to work, building a metropolis with timeless architecture and sweeping skylines whose contributions range from great deep dish pizza to the beloved Cubs.

You’ll find that same can-do spirit at the University of Chicago Law School. For decades, Chicago Law has sat on the periphery of the top law schools. Its graduates have ranged from former FBI Director James Comey to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver. Over the years, the school’s faculty has included Supreme Court justices Antonin Scalia, Elena Kagan, and John Paul Stevens, and (of course) President Barack Obama.

Like its hometown, Chicago Law was always reaped respect but not always renown. Now the secret is out. In the 2018 Above the Law ranking, Chicago Law stepped into the spotlight.

OUTPUTS OVER INPUTS

Ranked 5th just four years ago, Chicago Law climbed over Stanford Law to earn this year’s top spot. That was just the start of a roller coaster ranking that turned conventional wisdom on its head. The University of Virginia, ranked 9th by U.S. News & World Report, vaulted four spots to 2nd, with Duke Law – ranked 11th by U.S. News – rounding out the top three.

How different is the Above the Law (ATL) ranking? Yale Law, which has maintained a three decade stranglehold on U.S. News’ top spot, finished 7th. Harvard Law and Stanford Law, which have played a tug-of-war with the 2nd and 3rd spots with U.S. News, rank 4th and 5th in ATL. The same is true for Columbia Law and New York University Law, which slid from 5th and 6th with U.S. News to 13th and 14th respectively at ATL.

What gives? Why is the proverbial law school royalty a notch behind more upstart peers in the ATL ranking? It comes down to one word: outcomes. ATL’s methodology confers no weight to coveted inputs like LSAT scores, average GPAs, and acceptance rates, which account for a quarter of U.S. News’ school ranking.  Even more, ATL doesn’t even bother with surveying academics, judges, and practitioners for their opinions on schools – a 40% share of the U.S. News ranking that’s ripe to be colored by reputation and bias over a rigorous review of curriculum and performance.

A RANKING FOCUSED ON JOBS AND DEBT

Bottom line: Two-thirds of U.S. News’ law school ranking criteria aren’t even factored into ATL’s formula! What is? Think jobs – and debt. 30% of the ranking’s weight is devoted to an “Employment Score,” which are defined as “full-time, long-term jobs requiring bar passage. In other words, ATL excludes graduates who work in school-funded positions or roles where a JD is considered to be “an advantage.” Another 30% is ticketed to a “Quality Jobs Score” – placement rates in large law firms and Federal judicial clerkships that offer better long-term career prospects.

Debt is another important factor. According to ATL, law school grads borrowed $112,776, on average, to pay for their law school tuition and associated costs. That creates crushing debt. Just ask New York University law grads, where 61% of 2017 grads owe $170,955 according to U.S. News. It’s not just graduates of pricey privates who are footing heavy bills. At the University of California-Berkeley, those numbers were $143,049 and 71% for last year’s grads. That’s one reason why “Education Cost” is factored into ATL’s formula at a 15% weight. At the same time, “Debt-Per-Job Ratio” – post-graduate debt contrasted against employment in “real lawyer jobs” – accounts for another 10% of the weight.

In addition, ATL measures star power and alumni satisfaction in its formula. The percentage of U.S. Supreme clerks (over the past seven years) and sitting Federal judges each constitute 5% of the ranking, a nod to academic excellence. The remaining 5% is affixed to an “Insider Survey” of alumni, who evaluate their alma maters in terms of “academics, financial aid advising, career services advising, social life, and clinical training.”

HOW CHICAGO, VIRGINIA, AND DUKE CLIMBED TO THE TOP

Duke Law School library

Overall, the ATL ranking combed through the profiles of 34,923 law graduates from the Class of 2017, mining data from the American Bar Association and Law School Transparency. It was also a ranking that pulled no punches, with just 66.2% of graduates holding jobs requiring a JD. Another 24.2% worked in positions where a JD may or may not have given them an advantage. In addition, 7.9% were unemployed, while 1.7% worked in law school-funded positions.

So what set Chicago Law apart in the new ranking? For one, the program’s placement in big law firms (100+ attorneys) stood at 66.4%, up 11% over the previous year. The program also placed 3rd in students receiving Federal clerkships – a 21% rate in the 2017 that only fell short of Yale Law (29.5%) and Stanford Law (26.4%). Even more, just 1.4% of the class was underemployed, defined by Law School Transparency as being unemployed or working in part-time or short-term jobs. To put that number in context, that rate was nearly triple at Stanford Law (4.1%) and Yale Law (4.5%). Overall, 92.1% of Chicago Law’s 2017 class found work in legal jobs, tying it with Cornell Law for 3rd overall (behind just Duke Law and Columbia Law at 93.8% and 92.8% respectively).

While Chicago Law’s $134,853 average debt topped a majority of law schools, it still fell short of fellow private schools like Harvard Law ($162,672), Columbia Law ($158,348), and Penn Law ($148,896), along with public stalwarts like Berkley Law ($143,049) and Virginia Law ($142,906). What’s more, the debt difference between Chicago Law and rivals like Duke Law ($132,002) and Stanford Law ($131,745) was almost negligible. Bottom line: Chicago Law ranked among the top programs in overall placement and quality jobs, all while being slightly more affordable than most of its nearest competitors.

A similar strategy fueled Virginia Law’s four spot jump to 2nd. According to ATL, the percentage of 2017 graduates who earned Federal clerkships rose 8% over the previous year. At the same time, it ranked 3rd for placement in big law firms (69.3%), 4th for low underemployment (2%), and 5th for long-term, full-time jobs (91.6%). The same formula worked for Duke Law. It ranked 1st overall for long-term, full-time jobs (93.8%) and low underemployment (0.4%). It even finished 4th for Federal clerkships (16.9%). So why didn’t Duke Law top the list? It ranked 7th in Big Law placement at a still-enviable rate of 64.4%.

University of Michigan Law

STANFORD LAW TUMBLES FROM 1ST TO 5TH

The same couldn’t be said for Yale Law, which consistently ranks as the top program for inputs like low acceptance rate (8.4%), median undergraduate GPA (3.91), and median LSAT (173). When it comes to outputs, Yale Law struggles to rank among the top programs, finishing outside the top 10 programs for placement in law jobs and Big Law placement (with the latter influenced by 18.8% entering public service and another 29.5% enjoying Federal clerkships).

This year’s big winner was undoubtedly Michigan Law, which climbed from 13th to 8th, buoyed by a 3.5% improvement in placement with Big Law firms. At the same time, Stanford Law tumbled four spots to 5th, highlighted by full-time, long-term employment falling from 88% to 82%. Overall, William & Mary gained the most in this year’s ATL ranking, jumping 14 spots from 41st to 27th. Wake Forest (+11), Temple (+9), and Alabama (+7) also made impressive moves. By the same token, Georgia State suffered the worst in 2018, going from 33rd to 46th. Seton Hall (-11), George Washington (-10), and Washington & Lee (-9) also lost substantial ground in this year’s ATL ranking.

Overall, the 2018 ATL ranking included eight new entrants, headlined by USC’s debut at 19th. The Trojans were followed by the University of Tulsa (37th), Louisiana State (40th), University of Missouri (43rd), Saint Louis University (47th), University of New Hampshire (48th), Arizona State (49th), and the University of Utah (50th) as new additions. The highest profile to drop out of the top 50 was Penn State, which ranked 27th a year ago. Florida State, University of Washington, University of Houston, Rutgers (Newark), Indiana (Maurer), Drexel University, and Fordham University also plummeted out of the ATL rankings.

To see how your law school fared in this year’s ATL ranking, go to page 2.

For a comparison between the ATL and U.S. News law school rankings, go to page 3.

For a comparison between the 2018 ad 2013 ATL rankings, go to page 4.

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