Underdog Schools Top ‘Above the Law’ Ranking

If you ask John Q, Public what the top law schools are, the answers would come as little surprise. They’d tick off hallowed heavyweights like Harvard, Yale, and Penn. Thanks to the James Comey hearing, Columbia might even enter the conversation. In other words, the masses will give the benefit of the doubt to any Ivy founded during the Colonial era.
Well, the times, they are a changin.’ Look no further than the 2017 law school rankings from Above The Law (ATL). Long regarded as the output-driven yin to U.S. News’ input-focused yang, the ATL ranking doesn’t trot out Yale Law as the top program year-after-year as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, you’ll find a greater fluidity in school rankings, thanks to its emphasis on quality jobs and low debt. In such areas, Stanford Law and the University of Chicago stand above all comers.
Both schools climbed a notch in the 2017 rankings, with Stanford snapping up the top spot and Chicago Law taking runner-up. The big news, however, involved Yale Law, which ranked #1 in three of ATL’s four rankings. It tumbled to third, edging out Duke Law which made its first top five appearance since the ATL rankings began in 2013.

What’s so special about these law school rankings? Think of it as a counterweight to the better known U.S. News rankings. Unlike the former, which bases 40% of its ranking off surveys to law school academics and legal practitioners, ATL allots just 5% of its weight to qualitative data — a student and alumni survey no less. Another 13% of U.S. News’ weight is devoted to LSAT score and undergraduate GPAs, measures that are anathema to ATL, which prides itself on measuring “how well their students do upon graduating, not based on how strong they were on the way in.”
Indeed, outcomes are the key for ATL, whose ranking almost serves as a satisfaction report card for law schools. Here, placement, good jobs, manageable costs, low debt, and happy customers are the metrics that matter. In this ranking, weights are divided into seven buckets. A 30% weight is given to both employment score (full-time and long-term jobs) and quality jobs (higher-paying work that requires bar passage such as BigLaw positions or Federal clerkships). Another 15% cover student debt and living costs after three years of school (i.e. pay-to-debt ratio commensurate with paying off loans faster). The remaining weight is divvied up equally between the percentages of active Federal judges and Supreme Court clerks (i.e. prestige) and alumni satisfaction.
In a nutshell, ATL is the ranking for those hoping to identify the schools where they have the best shot to make a strong start and gain real experience after graduation. Not to mention, it rewards schools where graduates are able to pay off debt faster so they can pursue their dreams sooner. That’s key, as ABA stats for the 2016 Class show that just 62% of law grads found “real lawyer” jobs, with the rest in non-law jobs (27%), unemployed (9%), or holding short-term school-funded jobs (2%).  The data used to formulate the ranking has also been harnessed from the ABA employment data for the Class of 2016, making it more current than U.S. News. However, you could also call ATL the “Take My Word For It” ranking, as it hasn’t made the data available to readers as in previous year. Instead, readers must make sense of raw data from both the American Bar Association and Law School Transparency.

Columbia University Law School

What was behind Stanford Law’s big move into first? According to Brian Dalton, the Director of Research for Breaking Media (which includes ATL), Stanford’s rise stemmed from improved employment prospects for its 2016 grads. “Together, “employment score” and “quality jobs score” make up 60% of our rankings formula,” he tells Tipping the Scales in a written statement. “Stanford improved by about five percentage points on the former, which credits graduates’ placement in full-time, bar passage-required jobs.  “Quality jobs” reflects placement in the best-paying law firms and federal clerkships. On that front, Stanford held steady, with their federal clerkship placement second only to Yale.”
Stanford wasn’t the only big winner in this year’s ranking. Georgetown Law center, Washington University, and the University of Georgia each climbed into the Top 20, with Columbia Law being the lone new entrant into ATL’s Top 10. By the same token, U.C.-Berkeley tumbled two spots out of the top 10 to 12th. That’s still a better fate than UCLA and the University of Iowa, which slumped six and eight spots respectively to finish outside the Top 20 for the first time since the 2013 rankings (when Iowa ranked 37th). However, both schools can be comforted that they weren’t Boston University, which plunged from 17th to 30th.
Boston University wasn’t alone in losing ground among employers. The College of William and Mary had climbed 15 spots to 23rd over the past three rankings. That progress was swept away, however, in one fell swoop in 2017, as it nosedived to 41st. New Mexico Law was once the anomaly of the ATL rankings, finishing as high as 18th in 2015 despite never cracking the Top 50 in U.S. News. In 2017, New Mexicoreturned to Earth, barely sneaking into ATL’s Top 50 at 47th, down another 11 spots.  The news was far better in Champagne, Illinois, where the state’s flagship law school raced up to 22nd. Georgia State also made a strong move in terms of outcomes, going from 44th to 33rd in the past year alone.

University of Georgia School of Law

Overall, five law schools debuted in the 2017 ATL ranking, including Penn State, Rutgers, Villanova, Drexel, and Fordham — all east coast programs. Penn State’s Dickinson School of Law made, by far, the splashiest debut at 27th. At the same time, several regional powerhouses failed to return to ATL’s Top 50, including Missouri, Arizona, Louisiana State, Richmond, and Brigham Young.
As a whole, Dalton was impressed by the performance of state law schools though. “I think our list is most interesting outside the top tier, where many state schools —Georgia, Illinois, Ohio State, Iowa, Penn St. etc. — place strongly. These schools do well by employment outcomes, and very well in terms of cost and debt burdens, which are other factors we consider.”
The difference in ranks between ATL and U.S. News also offers some telling contrasts between law schools. Notably, graduates from Duke, Vanderbilt, Boston College and Georgia are far more popular with employers — as evidenced by their higher ranking in ATL, particularly in terms of its previously-mentioned affinity for schools where graduates land good jobs with manageable debt. In particular, the University of Illinois (22nd vs. 44th), Seton Hall (24th vs. 57th), Georgia State (33rd vs. 65th), Villanova (45th vs. 77th), Drexel (46th vs. 112th), and New Mexico (47th vs. 77th) punch above their supposed weights in ATL when outcomes are factored in more heavily.
In contrast, USC’s Gould School of Law, which ranks 19th with U.S. News, doesn’t even make ATL’s Top 50. The same is true of Arizona State and U.C.-Irvine, which placed 25th and 28th respectively in the 2017 U.S. News law school rankings.  In addition, both Columbia and New York University rank higher on U. S. News’ inputs and survey responses than ATL’s outputs.  UCLA (25th vs. 15th), Wisconsin (42nd vs. 30th), and Emory (50th vs.22nd) also fare better in U.S. News’ more expansive benchmarks.
To see historical ATL and U.S. News ranking information for the Top 50 schools, go to the next page.

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