New Law School Rankings Are Out, But Should They Matter to You?

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There’s a new law school ranking out this week, and it’s not the dominant and ubiquitous U.S. News & World Report Law School Rankings. Rather, Above the Law has released their own yearly law school rankings: The Above the Law Top 50 Law School Rankings of 2018.

ATL uses an outcomes-based methodology — what I like to call the “bang for your buck” ranking of law schools. From most heavily weighted to least, ATL‘s rankings factor in: employment score (30%), job quality score (30%), education cost (15%), debt per job (10%), active federal judges (5%), SCOTUS clerks (5%), and ATL alumni rating (5%). These are all things graduates wind up with after going to school, which is why this is considered output-based model. The main difference in the U.S. News rankings is that their more complex methodology factors in things a student brings to the school; U.S. News utilizes a 12-point input-based model that includes measuring factors like the grades and LSAT scores of law school applicants accepted by each school. And while the more inputs-based measurement system of U.S. News tracks relatively incremental changes in law schools (the median GPA and LSAT scores of incoming students don’t change much from year to year for a given law school), the factors included in the ATL rankings can fluctuate considerably, which means that schools can jump up or fall quite a bit further down in the rankings each year.

Here are a few of the highlights for the new Above the Law rankings: The new #1 is the University of Chicago, followed by UVA and Duke as the new #2 and #3. Stanford (#5) and Yale (#7) both saw demotion on the list compared to the previous year. And some of the greatest year-over-year changes were William and Mary, up 14 spots to #27, and Georgia State, down 13 spots to #36.

I have to admit, as a soon-to-be law student determined to work in public interest, my first reaction to the Above the Law rankings was: hey, what’s the big idea? Not all of us want jobs at big law firms making big money (or at least, I do plan to get rich, but I’m gonna do it through the Mega Millions lottery, not through my career). In other words, the “employment score” in the ATL rankings is essentially a score of how well law schools place their students in high-paying jobs at the largest law firms. You could be a Harvard Law grad elected president of a small country, but that just doesn’t do Harvard any favors in their ATL employment score.

The other thing that makes the ATL rankings more fun, but also a little more unbelievable, is that their steadfast dependence on specific measured outcomes means that Yale, Harvard and Stanford don’t hold secured positions at the top of the list. Depending on your own educational background, you probably have strong feelings of disbelief (C’mon, Yale is #7???) or amusement (yeah, take that Yalies!) upon seeing the law school with the most consistent #1 spot in U.S. News rankings cast down from its place of distinction. But I have to give this one to Above the Law. They didn’t make their ranking system to focus on Yale. People aren’t going to stop attending Yale Law just because a ranking tells them that it’s not the highest bang for their buck. But just maybe, if you are a student hell-bent on attending UCLA Law over USC Law because UCLA is ranked 3 spots higher by U.S. News, it’s worthwhile for you to consider that USC ranks 4 higher in the ATL rankings.

Of all the benefits of the ATL law school rankings, the most important is that it reminds us of the ambiguity involved in measuring law schools at all. While the ATL rankings focus on outcomes and U.S. News rankings also include inputs, for any particular law school applicant, there will be countless other factors worth measuring. For some students, finding a law school on the east coast is important. Others care about the political bent of their law school or their school’s reputation for preparing students in a very specific area of law. But the reason the Above the Law rankings really matter is that they free law school applicants from the flawed view that the U.S. News rankings can tell them exactly how much better one law school is than another law school. U.S. News & World Report, and all other law school rankings, could never provide a complete and objective grading system of all schools for all students.

But at least in the case of the ATL rankings, their information can be helpful to all students to some extent, because all law students should have some interest in the job outcome of their law school decision. And to the extent that the Above the Law methodology doesn’t align with one student’s law school priorities, it’s pretty simple for that student to understand the ATL ranking system and to disregard them to the extent that it doesn’t match up with their priorities. ATL may ding law schools in areas with a high cost of living, but if you’re a New Yorker for life, you can choose to overlook the relatively weak showing of the pricey Northeastern schools on ATL‘s list, while still being able to gain other information from the rankings.

If you have aspirations to apply to law school, take a look at the Above the Law rankings. U.S. News isn’t the only game in town, and it’s not the only list you should consider when you choose your law school.

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