(Photo: Step via Wikimedia Commons)
Correction: This story has been edited to clarify a quote from College of William and Mary Marshall-Wythe School of Law dean Davison Douglas.
Another year, another U.S. News & World Report ranking naming Yale Law School as the best in the land.
This year’s edition of annual rankings offered few major surprises or upsets—unlike last year, when a methodology change involving graduate employment produced a major shakeup in the middle ranks. The year still brought some changes, but far fewer large jumps either up or down the list.
There were only a few minor shifts among the top 10 ranked schools (actually the top 11, due to a tie for the No. 10 spot), including one likely to please Harvard Law School students and alumni—Harvard pulled ahead of Stanford Law School to claim to the No. 2 spot, after both tied for No. 2 last year. That represented a reversal from two years ago, when Stanford claimed No. 2 and Harvard was No. 3.
The other top 10 schools remained the same, excepting the addition of Duke Law School, which joined the University of Michigan Law School in the No. 10 spot. Duke ranked No. 11 last year. Meanwhile, the No. 10 rank represented a slight decline for Michigan, No. 9 last year.
The only other change among the top 10 was the University of Virginia School’s slide from No. 7 last year to No. 8.
Perhaps the biggest story among the top 20 was the emergence of Emory University School of Law, which gained four spots to land at No. 19. Emory had been hovering on the cusp of the top 20 for the past two years.
This year’s list also brought good news for the College of William and Mary Marshall-Wythe School of Law. It moved up nine spots to land at No. 24.
“I’m pleased that we have improved so substantially,” dean Davison Douglas said. “We think we’re doing a lot of good things—we’re hiring faculty and we have brought in the best class in our history. It’s gratifying to see external validation, while also recognizing that distinctions between the schools in the No. 20-to-30 range, where we are ranked, is really very narrow.”
Douglas attributed much of the school’s movement to improved graduate job placement figures. More than 85 percent of its 2012 graduates had jobs within nine months of graduation, compared to 68 percent the previous year.
The largest shift among the top 50 was Washington and Lee University School of Law, which fell 17 spots from No. 26 last year to No. 43. U.S. News director of data research Bob Morse said Washington and Lee was hit hard by the fact that only 57 percent of its 2012 graduates had found jobs—a decline from nearly 63 percent the previous year.
“2012 was a poor year for us with regard to our employment numbers and bar passage rates,” dean Nora Demleitner said. “We have begun to address these issues through stronger bar support and changes in our approach to the employment market, and have already seen improvements in both areas for the Class of 2013.”
Graduate employment data accounts for 20 percent of a law school’s rank. Until last year, U.S. News counted graduates in any type of job equally. Then it began to assign greater weight to graduates in permanent, full-time jobs that require bar passage or in which a J.D. is an advantage. It assigned a lower weight to graduates in part-time or short-term jobs, or those for which a law degree is not required or preferred.
The change was possible because the American Bar Association began requiring law schools to report far more detailed graduate employment information.
The only methodological change this year involved the way the magazine found the lawyers, judges and legal recruiters it surveys about law school quality and reputation, Morse said. In the past, U.S. News randomly selected survey recipients by pulling names off various lists. This year, it asked law schools to provide up to 10 names of lawyers, judges and recruiters familiar with the school, and surveyed them.
“It resulted in a higher response rate,” Morse said. “We had a 32 percent response rate using the names the schools provided, compared to 9 percent last year. Additionally, we think the names they gave us resulted in surveying people more knowledgeable about the law schools.”
These assessments accounted for 40 percent of a school’s overall ranking. Selectivity—measured by Law School Admission Test scores, undergraduate grade-point averages and acceptance rates—accounted for another 25 percent. Graduate job placement and bar passage rates accounted for 20 percent and faculty resources (determined by spending-per-student and student-to-faculty ratios) made up the final 15 percent.
U.S. News assigns numerical ranks only to the top 147 schools. The others it lists alphabetically in what is dubbed the “second tier.”
Last year, 18 law schools saw their rankings change by 20 spots or more. This year, only eight schools saw changes of that magnitude. Still, 37 schools saw their rank go up or down by 10 spots or more.
The University of New Hampshire School of Law saw the largest increase, gaining 26 spots to end up at No. 93. That came on the heels of a 23-spot gain the previous year. Those gains came after the formerly independent Franklin Pierce Law Center merged into the University of New Hampshire, changed its name and became a public institution in 2010. The school’s selectivity measures and employment rates all improved, according to the U.S. News data.
“I’m really proud of the results,” dean John Broderick said. “In 24 months, we’ve rocketed up 49 spots, and we’ve brought in our best two classes over the past two years. I’m proud of what we’re doing on the ground, and our new relationship with the university certainly hasn’t hurt.”
Two additional schools moved up by more than 20 spots. Washburn University School of Law climbed 25 places to land at No. 115, after dropping 11 spots the previous year. Duquesne University School of Law picked up 23 spots to land at No. 121, after climbing out of the unranked tier last year.
The University of Illinois College of Law managed to stop the major ranking slide that began three years ago, after the school was caught up in an admission-data reporting scandal. Illinois at the time held the No. 23 spot, but fell as far as No. 47 last year. This year, it picked up seven spots, to end up at No. 40.
On the other end of the spectrum, Catholic University of America Columbus School of Law saw the largest single drop, losing 27 spots and ending up at No. 107. The Washington school’s acceptance rate went from 36 percent last year to 55 percent, according to U.S. News.
In a message to students posted on the school’s website, administrators said the drop was not unexpected, given the dramatic decline in law school applicants. “This annually recalculated ranking has no connection to the excellence of the education we offer,” the statement reads. “We are the same law school with the same strengths that we were yesterday and that we will remain tomorrow.“
Hofstra University Maurice A. Deane School of Law (No. 135), Samford University Cumberland School of Law (No. 135), and the University of the Pacific McGeorge School of Law (No. 146) each saw their rank fall by 22 spots.
Willamette University College of Law; New York Law School; the University of Toledo College of Law; and the University of South Dakota School of Law all broke into the numerical rankings this year, from the unranked second tier.
Conversely, Loyola University New Orleans School of Law; Southern Illinois University School of Law; St. Mary’s University School of Law; Suffolk University Law School; and the University of San Francisco School of Law each fell out of the numerical rankings into the unranked second tier.
Legal educators have long criticized the U.S. News rankings for creating incentives for schools to focus scholarship money on high-performing applicants rather than those in the greatest financial need; encouraging schools to spend more money rather than promoting efficiency; and for applying a one-size-fits all formula to law schools with very different missions.
Law School Transparency executive director Kyle McEntee summed up those concerns in a recent op-ed piece for The National Law Journal affiliate law.com.
“The unfortunate irony is that these rankings adversely affect the decision-making process for law school administrators and prospective law students alike,” McEntee wrote. “The stakes are high. Our profession and society need law schools that don’t figure inefficient metrics into annual budgets. Dollars spent chasing U.S. News rankings diverts funds away from students’ education. It also stands in the way of reducing tuition.”
Morse defended the expenditure-per-student measure, saying it’s more important than ever at a time when law schools are no longer considered university cash cows and are slashing spending as fewer tuition dollars come in.