Understanding Law School Ranking Systems

Wondering how all those law school rankings are compiled? Now sure how important they are? We've got the answers you've been looking for.

College rankings have long served as a guide to help students decide which schools are best suited to their interests, needs, and goals. Though the methods by which these rankings are determined are often the subject of debate and even controversy, students, parents, and educators still seem to anxiously await their arrival each year.

If you’re considering pursuing a law degree or have already begun the rigorous application process, you’re likely aware that law schools have their very own ranking systems. But which one is the most accurate and unbiased, and, more important, do these rankings even matter?

Where the rankings come from

There are several different law school ranking systems, each of which is based on facts and figures, subjective input (such as feedback from faculty and current and former students), or both.

U.S.News & World Report

The U.S.News & World Report ranking system is arguably the most well-known. For their 2015 law school rankings, they rated 194 law schools accredited by the American Bar Association (a voluntary organization of nearly 400,000 legal professionals) based on a weighted average of the following measures of quality:

  • Peer assessment
  • Assessment score by lawyers and judges
  • Selectivity
  • Median LSAT scores of accepted students
  • Median undergraduate GPA of accepted students
  • Acceptance rate
  • Placement success
  • Bar passage rate
  • Faculty resources
  • Expenditures per student
  • Student-faculty ratio
  • Library resources

At the top of the list are the so-called “T14 schools,” the law schools that rank in the top 14 of the list year after year. It should be noted that U.S.News does not use this term, but it’s a common phrase on the tongues of hopeful law school applicants. T14 schools include elite and highly selective institutions such as Harvard, Yale, Duke, and Georgetown.

Some members of the legal community have rallied against the U.S.News rankings, arguing that they don’t place a strong enough emphasis on outcomes (such as post-graduation employment) and that, for various reasons, the survey used to collect the data creates biases and inaccuracies. But others nevertheless consider them a good source of guidance for the law school application process.

Above the Law

Above the Law is a website that “provides news and insights about the [legal] profession’s most colorful personalities and powerful institutions.” Their rankings place a strong emphasis on outcomes, and their survey is based on the following factors:

  • Employment data
  • Large firm placement
  • Federal clerkship placement
  • Tuition and cost

The National Law Journal

The National Law Journal also places a strong emphasis on outcomes to compile their Go-To Law Schools rankings. For their most recent list, they ranked the top 50 law schools by the percentage of 2013 law school graduates who took jobs at NLJ 250 firms (the largest firms in America). They also compile helpful companion lists, including:

  • Firm Favorites: the schools that NLJ 250 firms most relied upon for first-year associates.
  • Associates to Partner: the schools that saw the most alumni promoted to partner during 2013.

Other ranking systems

U.S.News, Above the Law, and The National Law Journal provide just three of the most widely known ranking systems. Many others have popped up in recent years, often with the goal of assessing schools in the most holistic and impartial way possible. Some of these rankings include:

Do these rankings really matter?

All of these various ranking systems have pros and cons that largely depend on what you’re looking for in a law school. One can easily infer that the Ivies are among the “top” law schools in the country, but does that ranking alone mean one of them is right for you? Maybe, but maybe not.

The American Bar Association maintains a list of approved law schools but refrains from ranking them. They hold that the “qualities that make one kind of school good for one student may not be as important to another” and that “prospective law students should consider a variety of factors in making their choice among schools.” The Association of American Law Schools also has a list of member schools but similarly avoids rankings.

Law school rankings will always hold a certain degree of importance for students as well as employers, and it’s only natural that many applicants aspire to attend T14 or other high-ranking institutions. But a school’s number on a list should be but one of the many factors you consider as you decide where to apply. “Fit” is also a critical component, and the only way you can discover the best law school for you is to do your research, visit a few campuses, and speak with students, faculty members, and practicing lawyers. Furthermore, many schools are known for excellence in a specific area of law—for example, the Franklin Pierce Center for Intellectual Property at the University of New Hampshire School of Law and the Environmental and Natural Resources Law Center at the University of Oregon School of Law—so, depending on your specific career goals, graduating from such a program could give you greater earning power than simply going to a "top-ranked" law school.

Most of all, though, be sure to trust your instincts—they just may guide you better than any law school rankings ever could.

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About Stephanie Farah

Stephanie Farah

Stephanie is a former writer and senior editor for Carnegie Darlet and CollegeXpress. Stephanie holds a BA in English from the University of Texas at Austin and a master's in Journalism from the University of North Texas. At various times she has been: an uncertain undergrad, a financial aid recipient, a transfer applicant, and a grad student with an assistantship and a full ride. Stephanie is an avid writer, traveler, cook, and dog owner. 


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