Every year, thousands of prospective law students send out applications to law schools all across the country. Although many factors may play a role in a student’s ultimate decision to attend a particular law school, indisputably, a chief factor among them is the law school’s US News ranking. This is not a surprise. Undertaking such an educational commitment naturally fosters a desire on the part of the prospective law student to attend the law school with the most prestige. Prestige, of course, is based on the law school’s rank relative to the other law schools. The law schools know this well. In fact, so strong is the attendance decision of the average prospective law student influenced by the US News law school rankings that the law schools not only use it as a centerpiece of their marketing campaigns but as a measure of the law school administration’s worth (i.e. the Dean and various Directors). However, if a ranking system such as the one provided by US News is going to play a material role in your decision to attend law school, this should naturally beg the question: how exactly are these rankings computed? If the ranking system doesn’t include or weigh appropriately factors you consider instrumental to your decision to attend, it will be of little to no value. Considering US News is the current “pinnacle” of law school rankings, its methodology must be considered and understood before any value can be placed on it as a factor in your attendance decision.
Before the list of factors and their respective weight percentages are listed, there is a need to examine what is instrumental to the decision to attend law school for the average prospective law student. Assuming the student is not going to law school just for kicks, it can safely be assumed that he or she is enrolling in law school to find not only stable legal employment (at the very least, any type of stable employment), but more importantly, the type of employment that enhances his or her earning power as a result of the degree. In other words, it is reasonable to presume that the average prospective law student decides to pursue another 3 years of higher education because he or she reasonably expects this extra education will provide salary opportunities upon graduation that will be greater than the salary opportunities available to him or her with no law degree. Unless the student fits a specific niche that does not prioritize greater salary opportunities, such as the students pursuing public-interest, the point of enrollment is to increase earning power quicker. However, this is not the end of the story. If law school loans are involved, ideally, there is an additional expectation of not only finding employment that provides greater salary and career growth than the non-JD options available pre-law school, but that is also able to accomplish this after subtracting the amounts required to service the student’s law school loan repayments after graduation. Considering most law students finance their legal education with some amount of student loans, achieving these objectives is instrumental. With this in mind, how do the US News law school rankings fare?
US News Factors (% weight out of 100%):
- Peer [Dean, Faculty, Admin.] Assessment Score (25%)
- Lawyer and Judge Assessment (15%)
- Graduates Employed 9 Months After Graduation (14%)
- Median LSAT Score (12.5%)
- Median College GPA (10%)
- Per-Student Expenditures (9.75%)
- Students Employed at Graduation (4%)
- Student-Faculty Ratio (3%)
- Acceptance Rate (2.5%)
- Bar Passage Rate (2%)
- Financial Aid (1.5%)
- Library Resources (.75%)
As you can see, this list of factors and their respective weight percentages are quite eye-opening. Let’s break them down, with the employment opportunity increase in mind:
- Peer Assessment Score – One quarter of the weight that determines a law school’s rank is based on something as tenuous as the opinions of peer law school deans, faculty, and administrators about a particular law school. In what way do the opinions of individuals at other law schools impact the employment opportunities available to a law student? The even bigger problem here is that only 2/3 of those surveyed responded.
- Lawyer and Judge Assessment – the views of employers about a particular law school are important to the employment opportunities available to the students at that particular law school. However, only about 1/3 of those surveyed responded, making this category largely ineffective. You can’t award 15% weight to a factor that has such a small response rate. In addition, this is not exactly the most reliable metric. Instead of surveying employers, it would be better to look at the percentage of a given law school’s students that are employed in state and federal clerkships, as well as medium-big firms (the employment opportunities with the greatest potential of servicing student loans). Let the actual hiring do the talking, not questionnaires.
- Graduates Employed 9 Months After Graduation – the most important metric to the average prospective law student (including public interest students). This only receives an unbelievably low 14% weight. Why is it this low? It gets worse. Although US News gives more weight to full-time, long-term legal employment jobs, it does not assign different weights within this distinction. Big firms, government honors programs, and federal clerkships are more sought after employment opportunities than employment with a small firm or as a solo practitioner after graduation (chief among the distinguishing factors are the salary disparities and career growth opportunities).
- Median LSAT Score/Median College GPA – this controls for the quality of the law school’s student body, an important factor indicating to employers where the best and the brightest enroll. Combined, these two factors total 22.5% weight. This is still below the almost meaningless Peer Assessment Score given 25% weight.
- Per-Student Expenditures – the most egregious factor on the list, given almost 10% weight. Instead of providing schools with an incentive to limit costs for its students, this factor rewards schools that spend as much money as possible on students, hiking tuition in the process.
- Students Employed at Graduation – the second most important factor on this list, given a mere 4% weight. Understandably, most law school students will not have a job at graduation unless they succeed at 2L OCI or receive an offer from a law clerk or other internship position prior to graduation. There is often a delay in employment because there is a need to pass a given state’s bar and be admitted to practice law. However, when compared to some of these other factors, a 4% weight is extremely questionable considering the factor’s importance. The more law students a school places in jobs at graduation, the better. This is compounded by the fact that most law students with jobs at graduation have also obtained the highest paying jobs (again, there is no differentiation between job type even if full-time, long-term employment receives more weight as a whole).
- Student-Faculty Ratio – another egregious factor on the list. Outside of clinics, seminars or drafting classes, most law classes are lectures that function exactly the same whether there are 30 or 100 students. One on one discussions are saved for office hours. The importance of this factor is almost non-existent and incentivizes schools to hire more faculty at high salaries, again hiking tuition in the process.
- Acceptance Rate – this factor is supposed to measure a school’s competitiveness. The more law students apply to a law school, the more weight the law school receives in this factor assuming it keeps its admitted class the same size or smaller. This is one of the most easily gamed factors on the list, as many law schools provide waivers to prospective law students for attendance applications even if their LSAT/GPA does not qualify them for admission. This is done just to lower the law school’s acceptance rate. If you want to measure competitiveness, the LSAT/GPA factors get the job done. There is very little need, if any at all, for this factor considering how easily it can be manipulated.
- Bar Passage Rate – this is the only factor on this list that is arguably given the appropriate weight. Most ABA-approved law schools have sufficient bar passage rates that do not differ to a great degree. Although this factor matters for legal employment as you can’t practice without a law license, the fact most law students pass the bar at an ABA-approved law school gives this weight appropriately very little value.
- Financial Aid – although this factor looks like a solid factor on its face, law schools often provide scholarships for the incoming 1Ls with the best GPA/LSAT numbers at the expense of students with the worst GPA/LSAT numbers. In other words, the 75%-ile students are often given scholarship awards subsidized by the 25%-ile students paying full tuition to attend. The biggest problem, however, is that simply allowing students to take out unlimited amounts in government loans counts as financial aid. Therefore, the higher the tuition, the better the score.
- Library Resources – another egregious factor that incentivizes law schools to increase tuition to pay for vast physical libraries that simply have no place in today’s electronic world. This is arguably the worst factor considered on the list, as its value is the closest to an objective zero.
If you do not include the faulty and low-response rate surveys of potential legal employers, awarded 15% weight, the weight of the factors that actually play a role in securing employment for law students after graduation is an astoundingly low 45% of the US News ranking methodology [Median LSAT/GPA (22.5%), Employment 9 Months After Graduation (14%), Employment at Graduation (4%), Bar Passage Rate (2%), Acceptance Rate (2.5%)]. In fact, if the shaky Acceptance Rate metric is removed, the most relevant weight total drops to an even lower 42.5%. This low employment-factor weight should cast doubt on your potential reliance on the US News law school rankings. The ranking system simply isn’t designed with the average prospective law student’s interests at heart. Until the metrics change to reflect what truly matters, the measure of a law school’s ability to provide gainful employment opportunities to as many of its graduates as possible at the lowest cost possible, US News cannot serve as a very reliable indicator of a law school’s worth outside of the Top 14 law schools (for an explanation of this distinction, read the very relevant Top Law School Cliff article).
For the average prospective law student, what ultimately matters is the price paid for law school in relation to the employment prospects that law school provides. When even the employment factors comprising the overall low-weight employment total have problems with how they are computed in the US News list of factors, it is hard to see how the ranking system can come close to achieving that goal. But the employment dilemma does not end the story. Cost, from the student’s perspective, is not even on the US News radar. In fact, the few factors that do relate to law school cost actually incentivize schools to increase expenses to improve their rankings. This has created a troublesome result: the ranking system may be good for law schools to market and compete over, but it is out of touch with respect to the goals of the prospective law student (the same individual the ranking system is meant to guide). Fortunately, the decision to enroll, and specifically where to enroll, ultimately lies with the student. By recognizing the system’s deficiencies, you will be able to value it accordingly when making an attendance decision. For a better ranking system with a much greater emphasis on employment outcomes, visit Law School Transparency.