It’s that time of year.

U.S. News & World Report on Thursday released its 2010 law school rankings, which undoubtedly will renew the ongoing conversation about the usefulness of this enterprise.

There were few shakeups at the top of the list this year. Yale Law School, Harvard Law School, Stanford Law School and Columbia Law School remained in the top four places, in declining order. The University of Chicago Law School moved up one spot, pushing New York University School of Law down to No. 6, out of the top five.

The University of California, Berkeley School of Law fell one spot to No. 7, while the University of Pennsylvania Law School moved up one spot tie with Berkeley at No. 7. Duke Law School and Northwestern University School of Law each fell one spot to tie at No. 11.

As usual, the most dramatic rankings changes occurred outside the top 15 schools. George Washington University Law School moved up to the No. 20 position from No. 28 last year. Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law landed in the No. 38 spot from No. 55 last year, meaning it broke into the top tier of schools (which generally refers to those ranked in the top 50) and leapfrogged its in-state competition at the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law, which ranked No. 42.

The University of California, Davis School of Law; the University of Georgia School of Law; and the University of Wisconsin Law School each gained sevens spots to tie at No. 28. The University of Colorado School of Law gained eight spots to land at No. 38.

There were few dramatic declines in the top tier, with a large number of schools dropping between two and five spots.

Outside the top tier, Loyola Law School, Los Angeles gained 15 spots to land at No. 56, while St. John’s University School of Law also moved up 15 spots for the No. 72 ranking. The biggest decline in the top 100 was at the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Law, which lost 28 spots to land at No. 93.

Critics have long faulted the U.S. News rankings for being overly simplistic, easily manipulated and unreflective of the unique strengths of individual schools. The rankings have a core group of supporters, however. Northwestern University School of Law Dean David Van Vandt this week wrote a post on the legal blog Above the Law arguing that they provide important information to would-be law students even if they are imperfect.

Researchers have concluded that the U.S. News rankings have an outsized influence in the legal world, largely because the list has little competition. There are upwards of six widely recognized rankings of business schools, which helps to dilute the influence of any single ranking system.

The U.S. News law school rankings came under a fair bit of scrutiny this year from academics and even the government. The Government Accountability Office released a report in October 2009 suggesting that the race among law schools to boost their U.S. News ranking was the biggest factor in rising tuition; the schools need the extra income to pay the high salaries demanded by top faculty and offer the courses that attract the best students, the GAO concluded.

A separate study last year by sociologists Wendy Espeland of Northwestern University and Michael Sauder of the University of Iowa found that the rankings profoundly influence the way those schools are managed, spend resources and are perceived internally and by the outside world. Those same researchers released another paper concluding that the rankings make it harder for law schools to achieve diversity on campus.

Finally, U.S. News riled the American Bar Association in February with its plan to start ranking law firms. The ABA’s House of Delegates voted to examine the magazine’s ranking methods.

Karen Sloan can be