Yale Law Holds Top Spot in U.S. News Ranking

Greatness boils down to one quality: Consistency. Anyone can take short cuts. Those short-term spikes don’t last. Ultimately, they disrupt institutions and tarnish reputations. No, greatness is predicated on sustaining results.  It is grounded in an unrelenting focus on fundamentals, ones that produce outcomes that are replicated year-after-year.
By that measure, Yale Law is the epitome of greatness.
For three decades now, Yale Law has ranked atop U.S. News & World Report’s annual law school ranking. That’s without a break, every single year. Yale Law’s secret is simple: They attract the very best students and rank among the very top schools for placement.  That formula resulted in Yale again topping all comers in U.S. News’ 2020 ranking (released March 12th).
Think of 2020 as the déjà vu ranking. Among the Top 20 law schools, just one program – USC’s Gould School of Law – moved up or down more than one spot. In fact, the top seven school s remained lodged in their same spots for the third consecutive year. What’s more, the famed L14 law schools again held down the top 14 spots.
Indeed, consistency is the hallmark of U.S. News’ latest law school ranking. Stanford Law continues to serve as the runner-up, no different than it has for the past seven rankings. By the same token, Harvard Law ranks 3rd for the 3rd straight year  – after tying Stanford Law for 2nd for four consecutive years before that .  Similarly, the University of Chicago and Columbia Law rank 4th and 5th for the 3rd straight year – after sharing the 4th spot from 2014-2017.

Stanford Law School

U.S. News is regaled as the “gold standard” of law school rankings. It confers prestige on the top schools, generates fawning press for big movers, and demands soul-searching for programs that lose ground. This year will be no different. Notably, the University of Michigan and the University of California-Berkeley each lost a spot, though both retained their grip on the Top 10. At the same time, Duke Law and Northwestern Law earned back bragging rights by returning to the Top 10 – taking back the same spots they held in 2018. Outside the Top 20, the University of North Carolina and the University of Florida each climbed by double digits. Alas, these gains come with a flip side. Just ask the University of Washington, which nosedived by 12 spots.
It helps to think of U.S. News’ ranking methodology as a self-fulfilling prophecy – at least in the law school space. Basically, U.S. News has applied the same dozen measures with the same weight of importance for almost a decade now. Sure enough, law schools have taken heed. Many “teach to the test” – devoting extra resources to the metrics with the highest weights to keep pace. In some ways, this dynamic drives a perverse cycle where schools drive up tuition costs by pegging scholarships to prospects with high LSATs and GPAs – measures that account for nearly a quarter of U.S. News’ ranking. In other words, consistency doesn’t inspire greatness in ranking. Instead, it fosters a predictability, an aversion to risk that stifles change. That doesn’t mean the ranking doesn’t bring merits. Its strength stems from its three dimensional versatility, which accounts for quality of students, marketplace opinion, and post-graduation outcomes.
The largest weight goes to “Quality Assessment.” These are surveys conducted by U.S. News. That starts with a 25% weight given to “Peer Assessment,” which measures the opinions of “law school deans, deans of academic affairs, chairs of faculty appointments and the most recently tenured faculty members.” On a five point scale, these stakeholders evaluate peer schools from marginal (1) to outstanding (5). Separately, U.S. News surveys legal professionals, such as practicing lawyers and judges, on the quality of graduates using the same scale. This accounts for another 15% of the weight and averages three years of surveys to produce a school score.
Inputs and outputs are responsible for the remainder of a school’s ranking. An LSAT or GRE scores takes up 12.5%, followed by undergraduate GPA (10%) and acceptance rate (2.5%). Placement rate enjoys a 18% weight, with Class of 2017 numbers being measured in the 2020 ranking.  That said, U.S. News takes a more nuanced view of placement, giving greater importance to full-time work requiring bar passage over university-funded, part-time, and temporary work. It also tacks on a 2% weight for bar passage.  The remaining 15% is divided into a catch-all category called “Faculty Resources.” These include instruction and support services, financial aid, student-to-faculty ratio, percentage of full-time faculty, and library resources.

Harvard Law students

As you’d expect, the survey portion has proven controversial. These concerns center around the peer survey. In a nutshell,respondents are evaluating their competitors, a conflict-of-interest to say the least. More than that, administrators and faculty often possess little understanding of the day-to-day classroom experience of fellow law schools, resulting in a ‘reputation ranking’ that simply reinforces the status quo. To a lesser extent, that same bias is implicit in the legal professional survey, which doesn’t set specific criteria for how to judge alumni. Even more, U.S. News has traditionally declined to share the number of respondents who complete surveys (thought it did note a 72% response rate in the peer survey).
These surveys certainly benefitted Yale Law, which notched a perfect 100 index score in 2020 (a year used by U.S. News to make the ranking less perishable). In the peer assessment score, Yale Law averaged a 4.8 out of 5.0 – second-best to Stanford Law and Harvard Law at 4.9. The same was true with the professional assessment score, with Yale Law alums averaging a 4.7 — again just a shade below the 4.8 yielded by Stanford Law and Harvard Law.
This wasn’t the only areas where Yale Law earned high marks. In the 25th to 75th percentile, the Class of 2021 LSAT scores ranged from 170-176, a bit above either Stanford Law (169-174) and Harvard Law (170-175).In addition, Yale Law’s average undergraduate GPA in the same percentile range – 3.84-3.98 – also bested Stanford Law (3.82-3.99) or Harvard Law (3.80-3.97). Overall, Yale Law’s average LSAT and undergraduate GPA were a formidable 173 and 3.92, respectively. In addition, Yale Law’s 7% acceptance rate was more selective than either Stanford Law (9%) or Harvard Law (13%). What’s more, its 98.3% bar passage rate was three points better than Stanford Law (and a point-and-a-half above Harvard Law).

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.