Most people attend law school to obtain jobs as lawyers (Not butchers or bakers, or candlestick makers.)

If law school was just a cool place to chill out for a few years without building specific job skills, they’d call it “college.” Jobs are important, and we think that law schools should be competing to place students in the best jobs, not the best libraries. And given the cost of obtaining legal education, we want to know which law schools put you in jobs that pay you money, instead of jobs the law school pays for. With that in mind we present our inaugural ATL Top 50 Law School Rankings.

So launched Above the Law’s Top 50 Law School Rankings.

And if I were the editor-in-chief of US News & World Reports (USNWR) law school rankings, I would wave the white flag of defeat and resign my position forthwith. (Of course, they won’t do that, but here you have yet another example of the capability of entrenched incumbents to assume the future is predestined to look like the past, and to prefer denial to reality.)

What’s so great about ATL’s law school rankings, and why should we care?

Two words: Prestige vs. results.

USNWR focuses on prestige. 40% of their ranking weight comes from what they call “quality assessment,” which is merely one grandiose accumulation of votes by lawyers and others about schools they like. Surprise: The prestige scorecard is grossly skewed by the sheer throw-weight of alumni numbers, in many cases. By alumni number skew, I simply mean that each individual vote is counted equally, so schools with bigger class sizes and bigger alumni pools get more votes if everyone simply votes for their alma mater. I would, wouldn’t you?

What makes up most of the rest of the USNWR ranking? A combination of median LSAT score, which are correlated with nothing meaningful, so far as we can tell, and raw undergrad GPA, valuing a 3.5 at Princeton less than a 3.6 at Boise State—and yes, we welcome the PC police emails on this score.

Finally, “Placement Success” (USNWR language) accounts for the final 20%. The problem is that this metric is as arbitrary as they come, being a dart-board toss combination of employment at graduation and nine months (270 days) later. This is one of those consummately meaningless metrics, which nevertheless achieves the daunting hat trick of:

  • Saying nothing about what any actual, sentient, human being would define as employment prospects or care about;
  • Being consummately manipulable (schools have been known to hire their own grads for part-time jobs at the magic nine month mark—pure coincidence, I hasten to assure you); while
  • Still sounding objective, unbiased, and above the fray.

So what goes into the ATL rankings?

First, a bit more about their philosophy, starting with why they only list 50 schools, not the entire steroidally expanding universe now approaching 200 with the ABA cheering loudly on he sidelines. Forgive the extensive quote, but this is such a refreshingly revolutionary, clear-eyed, and needed approach that all of us who’ve been imprisoned in the USNWR cave for so many years need the oxygen it provides:

Why would we limit the list to only 50 schools? Well, there are only a certain number of schools whose graduates are realistically in the running for the best jobs and clerkships. Only a certain number of schools are even arguably “national” schools. Though there is bound to be something arbitrary about any designated cutoff, we had to make a judgment call. In any event, the fact that one law school is #98 and another is #113—in any rankings system—is not a useful piece of consumer information.

The basic premise underlying the ATL approach to ranking schools: the economics of the legal job market are so out of balance that it is proper to consider some legal jobs as more equal than others. In other words, a position as an associate with a large firm is a “better” employment outcome than becoming a temp doc reviewer or even an associate with a small local firm. That might seem crassly elitist, but then again only the Biglaw associate has a plausible prospect of paying off his student loans.

In addition to placing a higher premium on “quality” (i.e., lucrative) job outcomes, we also acknowledge that “prestige” plays an out-sized role in the legal profession. We can all agree that Supreme Court clerkships and federal judgeships are among the most “prestigious” gigs to be had. Our methodology rewards schools for producing both.

Now more than ever, potential law students should prioritize their future job prospects over all other factors in deciding whether to attend law school. So the relative quality of law schools is best viewed through the prism of how they deliver on the promise of gainful legal employment. The bottom line is that we have a terrible legal job market. Of the 60,000 legal sector jobs lost in 2008-9, only 10,000 have come back. So the industry is down 50,000 jobs and there is no reason to believe they will ever reappear. If you ignore school-funded positions (5% of the total number of jobs), this market is worse than its previous low point of 1993-4. The time has come for a law school ranking that relies on nothing but employment outcomes.

So what matters, and what doesn’t? What does not matter are “inputs:” LSAT scores, GPA, student scholarships, and more. What does matter are results: Full-time legal jobs requiring JD’s, school costs, and alumni satisfaction. At a more conceptual level, here’s why it’s important that  USNWR is looking at inputs and ATL is looking at outputs.

Judging quality by what goes into a good or service rather than how it actually performs in practice is an error of the first order.  This is not an abstract notion: Would you rather drive over a bridge whose engineers had designed it to support XXX thousand tons (XXX being appropriately defined, of course) or who had relied on an expensive steel alloy without calculating what weight it could actually support?  Yet it’s such a common fallacy as to defy belief: Closer to  home, the ABA, in accrediting law schools, values such antique things as the amount spent on the library and (conversely) won’t give credit for adjunct professors. And the upshot is they invite the Law of  Unintended Consequences to kick in brutally.

Many is the conversation I’ve had lately about the seemingly glacial, but accelerating, migration of our industry from prestige-driven to outcomes-driven, and this is one milestone along that salutary path. (The enormous issue of “prestige” vs “outcomes” is worthy of one or more columns of its own, but lest anyone take immediate umbrage at my questioning one of the profession’s century-old pillars, suffice to say for now that prestige should follow from consistently superior outcomes and not be floating without visible means of support in mid-air, thanks to some ancient and indecipherable runic decree.)

So I fundamentally agree with the methodology. A second welcome element is that that graphic presentation is both vivid and informative:


And finally, as one has come to expect from Above the Law, the writing is fresh and conversational. For example, answering the self-posed question, why does employment score merit a 30% weighting, they write:

Because duh. Law schools are professional schools and we believe that obtaining a job as a lawyer is the whole point. (Except for Yale.)

So putting all this into the Excel spreadsheet blender, here are their top 10 schools:

  1. Yale
  2. Stanford
  3. Harvard
  4. Chicago
  5. Penn
  6. Duke
  7. UVA
  8. Columbia
  9. Berkeley
  10. NYU

I’m not enough of a student of the finer points of law school rankings to parse whether there are any headline surprises here, or in the other 40 ranked schools, but I would be surprised if there are not some material differences with that paleolithic ancestor, USNWR. (I hope so!)

Now, is everything perfection incarnate?

As a first start out of the box, it’s drop dead impressive. Yet if I know the folks at ATL well (and, disclosure, I do), they’ll never be satisfied. So what tweaks might they make next time?

  • Obviously, one could question whey they ranked 50 schools and stopped there. I happen to think that’s actually an ingenious decision. Let’s not kid ourselves, people, are there really a lot more than 50 law schools that most people pay attention to? Whether 50 is the right cutoff or not reminds me of the ceaseless debate over whether 18 or 21 is the right age to be able to vote, drink, smoke, serve in the military, etc. Who knows, and at some level I fundamentally don’t care: What matters, and what we can all agree on, is that it’s not 12 and it’s not 30.
  • Do SCOTUS clerkships and lifetime-tenured federal judgeships really deserve so much (or any) weight?  I know they are “prestige” incarnate–not to mention more-than-decent outcomes in life for the lucky occupants–but the SCOTUS jobs may be unduly subject to allocation based on who you know and the federal judgeships based on whose campaigns you supported.  (Never having pursued either one, this is blissfully uninformed by personal experience.)
  • Conversely, if you join me in mild skepticism of  putting specific, name-brand jobs onto the scales, what about other arguably more valuable jobs?  If you asked me, I would immediately nominate “entrepreneur,” for example.  Peter Thiel (Stanford, Stanford Law) co-founded PayPal and was the first outside investor  in Facebook.
  • I have a more philosophical observation, and it has to do (stay with me, folks) with the epistemological foundation of numerical rankings such as this. Before I explain, let me show you the “30’s” from this list:

30: Wake Forest
31: George Washington
32: U of Minnesota, Twin Cities
33: U of Illinois Law
34: William & Mary
35: U of Houston
36: Seton Hall
37: U of Iowa
38: Washington & Lee
39: Tulane

Here’s the point: What does it really mean to say that Chicago is better than Penn (by 0.40 points on a 100 point scale, by the way) or that Seton Hall is better than Iowa (by 0.10 points)? We may not just be pushing the limits of what we can know, but blasting right past them into distinctions without differences. To recur to the 18 vs 21 age cutoff debate, if you only get into NYU (in the “bottom” of the top 10) and Wake Forest (at the top of the 30’s), would anyone in their right mind not know what to do? But if you “only” get into Iowa and Tulane, or you “only” get into UVA and Columbia, it’s not so obvious, is it?

So maybe a “batched” ranking would actually be more sensible: Something like “Creme de la creme, really excellent, not half bad, OK, and do-not-pass-go” (this is ATL writing, in this thought experiment).

The counter-argument, of course, is that a Top 50 Law School Ranking is first and foremost a ranking.  And not just because the hairsplitting is food for amusing cocktail hour debates (and bumps up page-view metrics), but more profoundly because we humans love comparisons.  Winning Olympic gold by 0.01 second is still winning.

But we have passed a milestone: Never again will USNWR own the monopolist’s mindshare or wield the monopolist’s destructive, irrational, corrosive, and odious power.  We are in the presence of Creative Destruction.

The King is Dead, Long Live the King.

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