The Law Quadrangle on the central campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan
The Law Quadrangle on the central campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan (Michael Barera)

The latest U.S. News & World Report law school rankings, released Wednesday, offered few surprises among the elite schools, although several outside the top 50 saw big moves.

Yale Law School retained its No. 1 ranking, with Harvard Law School and Stanford Law School once again tying for the No. 2 spot.

In fact, the only changes among the top 10 were the University of Michigan Law School’s move into No. 8 from No. 11, and Duke Law School’s converse decline from No. 8 to No. 11—the same place it ranked from 2011 to 2014. Michigan, long a staple of the top 10, returned after a one-year absence.

Rounding out the top 10 were Columbia Law School and the University of Chicago Law School, which tied at No. 4; New York University School of Law at No. 6; the University of Pennsylvania Law School at No. 7; and the University of California, Berkeley School of Law and the University of Virginia School of Law both tied with Michigan at No. 8.

Boston University School of Law and the University of Iowa College of Law both entered the top 20 this year, tying at No. 20. They pushed Emory University School of Law and the University of Minnesota Law School, now tied at No. 22 along with the University of Notre Dame Law School, out of the top 20.

Boston University’s move up from No. 26 last year was due largely to improvements in the school’s graduate employment rates, said dean Maureen O’Rourke. Job placement, measured at graduation and 10 months after graduation, along with bar-passage rates, accounts for 20 percent of each school’s ranking, and U.S. News assigned greater weight to full-time jobs that require bar passage.

Maureen O’Rourke.

Boston University saw a nearly 8 percent increase in the percentage of graduates employed 10 months after graduation, to just above 80 percent.

“We’ve made a lot of effort to find alternatives beyond the traditional law jobs in the private sector and in public interest,” O’Rourke said. “The recovery of the economy has also helped.”

The school recently hired a career development administrator whose job is to locate nontraditional jobs for which a law degree is a benefit, such as in corporate compliance departments.

Three law schools among the top 50 jumped nine spots in the rankings, which were the single largest changes among that cohort of schools. Indiana University Maurer School of Law–Bloomington moved up nine spots to land at No. 25, while both the University of California Hastings College of the Law and the University of Houston Law Center increased nine spots to tie at No. 50.

Austen Parrish, dean at Indiana, said the school’s climb in this year’s ranking was less surprising than an unexpected five-spot drop the previous year.

“It’s always good when you are moving up a little bit, rather than going in the other direction,” he said.

Indiana’s gain was not the result of any single factor. Rather, small improvements in nearly every component of the rankings made a cumulative difference, Parrish said. The school also admitted fewer students last year in a bid to maintain their Law School Admission Test scores and undergraduate grade-point averages, which factor heavily in the rankings.

After debuting in the rankings last year at No. 30, the University of California, Irvine School of Law picked up another two spots to land at No. 28.

Texas A&M University School of Law saw the single largest increase this year, moving up 38 spots from No. 149 to No. 111. The school, which until 2013 was part of Texas Wesleyan University, landed in the unranked second tier two years ago. Dean Andrew Morriss attributed the steady gains to both the school’s recent affiliation with Texas A&M University and changes administrators have since made to the Fort Worth school.

“We’ve invested heavily in improving the quality of our incoming class,” Morriss said. “We’ve become much more selective.” The school’s acceptance rate dropped from 40 percent to 20 percent last year and its 25th and 75th percentile LSAT scores each went up by two points. Texas A&M was able to be more selective about the students it accepted because it reduced the size of the incoming class by 100 students over the past two years, Morriss said.

Santa Clara University School of Law saw the biggest rankings decline this year, falling 35 spots from No. 94 to No. 129. That comes on the heels of a 13-spot increase in its ranking last year. The school saw a dip in graduate employment rates and its 25th and 75th percentile LSAT scores dropped three points each.

“The rankings contain a great deal of volatility and compression in the middle,” Santa Clara law dean Lisa Kloppenberg said. “We moved up considerably last year and fell significantly this year. We are working methodically to firm up those areas over which we have control.”

Kloppenberg said the school’s bar-passage rate fell significantly in 2014—the year captured in this year’s rankings—but has since improved after the school expanded its bar preparation programs.

In addition to Santa Clara, both of Pennsylvania State University’s law campuses; Marquette University Law School; the University of Wyoming College of Law; the City University of New York School of Law; Gonzaga University School of Law; and Willamette University College of Law each fell 15 or more spots.

Brooklyn Law School had one of the largest drops, falling 19 spots from No. 78 to No 97. U.S. News reported significant drops in the school’s graduate employment rates—something dean Nicholas Allard said the school’s internal figures don’t bear out. Allard said he has requested a meeting with U.S. News in order to determine why the school’s data doesn’t match up.

“The truth is that we really don’t know why our ranking declined because it’s so opaque,” Allard said of the rankings. “Rankings go up and rankings go down. Obviously we would prefer to be up, but we know that we’re not suddenly a weaker school. If anything, we’re the same school or stronger.”

Allard said applications to the school are currently up 15 percent compared to this time last year.

The rankings methodology was unchanged this year, except that postgraduate employment rates were gathered 10 months after graduation instead of nine months, in accordance with recent changes to the American Bar Association’s jobs reporting requirements.

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

U.S. News has plenty of critics who claim the rankings force schools to make decision with an eye to the rankings rather than what is best for students. Moreover, the rankings create false distinctions between schools, they argue.

University of Chicago law professor Brian Leiter called the rankings “nonsense” on his popular blog Brian Leiter’s Law School Reports. The rankings’ “reign of terror” has been “a disaster for legal education,” he wrote.

The rankings still influence perspective law students, said Indiana dean Parrish, but less so than in the past.

“I think it matters less than it did because students are weighing so many different factors now,” he said. “They have access to more information today.”