Yale Law School.
Yale Law School. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Yale Law School remained the best law school in the United States, according to rankings released Tuesday by U.S. News & World Report, while Stanford Law School moved up one spot to tie Harvard Law School at No. 2.

Duke Law School saw the most movement within the Top 10—it rose from No. 10 last year to No. 8 in a three-way tie with the University of California, Berkeley School of Law and the University of Virginia School of Law.

Rounding out the Top 10 were Columbia Law School; the University of Chicago Law School; New York University School of Law; and the University of Pennsylvania Law School. The University of Michigan Law School landed at No. 11, after tying with Duke last year for No. 10.

The only school to drop out of the Top 20 was George Washington University Law School, which went from No. 20 last year to No. 22 this year.

The University of California, Irvine School of Law debuted at No. 30 in its first year of eligibility.

As is typical, the biggest changes occurred among the schools ranked between 50 and 149. Thirteen saw their rankings change by 20 or more spots—up from eight last year. Forty law schools moved 10 or more spots, up from 37 last year.

Howard University School of Law and St. John’s University School of Law both saw the largest increases, each gaining 25 spots.

Howard went from No. 135 last year to No. 110. It saw slight increases in both the LSAT scores and undergraduate grade-point averages of its newest class. But its biggest improvement involved a nearly 10-percentage point increase in the number of recent graduates in jobs nine months after graduation.

“I’m not surprised,” dean Danielle Holley-Walker said. “It shows that our law school is very focused on our mission of creating leaders both in corporate law and in social justice. Even in difficult economic times, we continue to do well in placing our students in jobs.”

Improved graduate employment numbers appear to have helped boost St. John’s, too. It rose to No. 82 from No. 107 last year with a nine-month job rise of more than 6 percent. St. John’s also admitted a smaller, more selective class as part of a strategic plan.

“The goal of the plan is not to rise in the rankings; the goal is to improve those measures that matter most to our students and to their employers,” dean Michael Simons said. “Our view is that if our inputs and outcomes are improving, our law school is improving. That’s what’s the most important.”

Seattle University School of Law saw the largest decline, falling 26 spots to No. 113. According to U.S. News, that school’s nine-month employment rate fell by nearly 6 percent.

“Of course we are disappointed by this drop in the rankings, which is due primarily to our nine-month employment statistics,” Dean Annette Clark said. “Even before the rankings were released, we had taken important, proactive steps, including significantly downsizing our enrollment and strengthening our Center for Professional Development to help our graduates find employment in what continues to be a challenging legal job market.”

Hamline University School of Law of St. Paul and the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law dropped 24 and 23 spots, respectively.

US News’ formula

The magazine counts peer assessments by practitioners and other legal educators toward 40 percent of a law school’s ranking. Selectivity, including median LSAT and undergraduate grade-point averages and acceptance rates, accounts for another 25 percent. Job placement accounts for 20 percent and faculty resources the remaining 15 percent.

U.S. News assigns numerical rankings to the top 149 law schools and groups the remaining 45 in an unranked “second tier.” For the first time, it included the three American Bar Association-accredited Puerto Rican law schools, all in the second tier.

This year, the magazine gave less weight to graduates in jobs funded by their law schools or universities, compared to full-time legal jobs at a law firm or in government, U.S. News Director of Data Bob Morse wrote in a blog post explaining the change.

“Still, U.S. News believes that these law school-funded positions have some value, since being employed in a law-related job is preferable for new graduates than not working in the legal field or being unemployed,” Morse wrote. “Therefore, these jobs will still be partially factored into the rankings.”

It’s unclear whether that change had much effect. Among the 10 with the highest percentage of recent graduates in school-funded jobs, only two saw significant declines: The College of William and Mary Marshall-Wythe School of Law dropped five spots to No. 29 and Lewis & Clark Law School fell 22 spots to No. 94.

The U.S. News rankings play an outsized role in legal education, in part because they have had little competition until recent years. But the obsession with the rankings obscures law school’s larger financial woes, Emory University School of Law professor Dorothy Brown wrote in an opinion piece published Monday by The Washington Post. The “usual chaos” will follow the release of the new rankings, she predicted.

“Deans at highly placed law schools will issue news releases; deans with less fortunate rankings will have their already hectic lives turned upside down,” she wrote. “The lucky ones will get fired. The unlucky ones will have to deal with the fallout.”

Instead, law schools should rethink their emphasis on faculty scholarship and stop funneling so much money toward merit scholarships at the expense of need, she wrote.

In an opinion article for NLJ affiliate Law.com, Law School Transparency executive director Kyle McEntee complained that U.S. News gives insufficient weight to employment outcomes; offers little evidence why a school’s ranking has changed over time; and that the numerical rankings overstate the actual difference in quality between schools.

“The legal profession is worse off for elevating the importance of a publication that falls victim to these flaws each and every year,” McEntee wrote.

Contact Karen Sloan at ksloan@alm.com. For more of The National Law Journal’s law school coverage, visit: http://www.facebook.com/NLJLawSchools.