You are currently viewing Podcast 12: Law School Rankings – What Do The Numbers Mean?

Podcast 12: Law School Rankings – What Do The Numbers Mean?

Law school rankings. Questioned, criticized, but rarely ignored. Whether rankings really say anything about the quality of legal education is an open question, but the fact is, they are used by students looking for the school that fits them best and by some employers deciding which law school grads to recruit. Some rankings rate full-time, part-time and international law programs, others rank schools based on their job placement rate, employer satisfaction, faculty and student diversity. You can also find rankings focusing on specialties such as intellectual property, environmental law, healthcare and tax law. We’ll dig into the rankings and find out which list is most appropriate for each set of criteria and what’s behind the numbers.

Guests include:

  • Robert Morse, Director of Data Research for U.S. News & World Report’s, Best Law Schools
  • Robert Franek, Senior Vice President and Publisher, The Princeton Review’s The Best 172 Law Schools
  • Brian Dalton, Managing Editor,’s Top 25 Law Schools
  • Don Macaulay, President and Founder,


Welcome to Law School Podcaster, your source for inside information and advice on the law school application process. I’m Althea Legaspi.

Law school rankings.Each year, new lists are published, ranking and rating the top law schools in the country.These lists are often analyzed, debated, questioned, and critiqued.But how can and should students navigate them? Law school rankings can be complicated and confusing with different schools topping different lists and categories. But when you know what they’re measuring, rankings can be a useful source of information to law school applicants to help make a decision on which law school they’ll apply to and which school to choose. We’ll help demystify some of the most commonly known and used law school rankings by speaking some of the people behind them in this segment, Law School Rankings: What Do the Numbers Mean?

We’ll hear from US News & World ReportVault.comPrinceton Review, as well as, a website that helps students find and research law schools and provides information and tools including the US news rankings and Brian Leiter’s Law School rankings.We’ll explore the methodology that puts schools at the top of each and what’s new in the world of rankings.

Yale Law School topped US News & World Report’s 2011 Law School Rankings while

Brian Leiter’s 2009 Rankings placed Yale at number two. In Vault’s biannual 2008 ranking, Yale weighed in at number 10. Princeton Review doesn’t have an overall ranking list, but one of eleven of their 2010 ranking lists, the Toughest to Get Into, cites Yale as number one. To understand what these numbers mean, let’s take a look at how each source evaluates schools.

US News & World Report publishes law school rankings annually for both full-time and part-time JD programs.They also rank by specialties.US News & World Report’s Director of Data Research, Robert Morse, explains how both objective and empirical data is used in their evaluations. “Well, we evaluate all ABA accredited schools that are – have full accreditation, which I think is nearly 190 and then we use a series of statistical indicators.We have an academic reputation survey.We also have a survey of academic quality among practicing attorneys and federal judges and states attorney generals.So, we have two separate measures of reputation, one among academics, one among practitioners, and we compare the schools on the admissions data, LSATs, and the graduate GPA.Then we have a series of indicators to measure the faculty and financial resources of the school, student-faculty ratio, library, how much the schools spend to educate the students.And then we have series of placement indicators on proportion of the students who gets jobs, and the bar – how successful they are at passing the bar. So, it’s a wide range of indicators.”

President and Founder of, Don Macaulay, posts [on his website] US News & World Report’s yearly rankings as well as the Leiter rankings and provides a three-year average for each of them. He explains Professor Brian Leiter’s student numerical quality rankings.“He relies on objective data.What he’ll do is he’ll rank the top 40 law schools in the country by student numerical quality, basically looking at their LSAT scores and their GPAs. Okay, things like the schools report to the ABA and then he actually tabulates them and then sends them back as a ranking.But then he also creates other rankings that are more fine-tuned, it would be fined tuned for a student who is interested, who says, hey look, I want to go to law school and I want to become a Supreme Court Clerk. Well, he actually has schools ranked by the number of Supreme Court Clerks that they actually place, or ultimately I want to go to law school and I want to teach. I want to be a law professor. Well, he’s got the rankings based on that.”

Macaulay also explains Admissions Dean’s selectivity rankings list. “So, basically what Admissions Dean’s selectivity score does is try to capture how selective a school is when choosing its own students. And our selectivity score is calculated by assigning weights to two almost universal admissions data points. The 75th percentile LSAT scores and the 75th percentile UGPA for the law schools matriculating students. And that information is actually captured from the reported ABA data that the schools actually self-report every year to the ABA and the LSAC.” publishes its law school rankings every two years but has plans to offer them’s managing editor, Brian Dalton, says they don’t evaluate schools per se but they compile information from surveys completed by legal employers to get their point of view.“We, that is to say Vault, doesn’t evaluate schools.We survey employers of law school graduates and ask their take on the employability of law school graduates relative to other schools.In other words, we take in employer’s perspective, but our –but the rankings that we publish are a pure function of our survey responses. There’s no editorial judgment calls in either what the rankings turn out to be or in devising some sort of formula to generate rankings.It’s just a single employability criterion.”

But what about how current law school students rank the institutions they already attend?Well, Princeton Review’s Senior Vice President and Publisher, Robert Franek, explains how their The Best 172 Law Schools 2010 edition uses student opinion to inform their rankings.“We go directly to whom we’ve consider law school experts, students in law school classrooms across the country.So, this is not the opinion of the Princeton Review.It’s simply the opinion of current law school students informing prospective students of their experiences.”

Ten of Princeton Review’s 11 law school rankings by category are based on student opinion surveys.But Princeton Review’s Franek says their Toughest to Get Into category, is not. “That one list that’s called Toughest To Get Into is based on our admission’s selectivity ratings. So, that is based solidly on quantitative data collection that we do, thinking about entering LSAT scores. Did you graduate at the top 5%, 10%, 20% of your graduating college class?So, those things are unapologetically on the quantitative side. The qualitative side are those other ranking lists.So, it’s 10 other rankings lists from the best career prospects to best professors and so on.”

Franek says Princeton Review also makes a distinction between ratings and rankings.“The ratings that we generate, there are specific ratings that we will generate for each of the 172 law schools in the book and they are focused on admission’s selectivity, so we can help compare the student that’s coming to the admissions table, let’s say for a New York Law School, but then academic experiences, talking specifically about professors — whether they’re interesting, whether they’re accessible and so on.So, I think the ratings are very valuable because then you can compare all of those ratings with other schools that might be on your list of consideration. The rankings are solidly focused on only those top 10 schools that get called out in a particular area. So, with the most liberal students, best classroom experience and so on.So, not every school will be represented in a ranking, but every school will have those rating numbers generated for them.”

While Princeton Review breaks down their list into categories, which reflect such areas as classroom experience, environment for minority students and most diverse faculty, according to student opinions, US News & World Report law school rankings can also be sorted by areas of specialty and offer statistical data on diversity. “We have tax law, we have environmental, we have trial advocacy, we have, I think we have appellate, and we have legal writing.We have health law.”

So, each of these published rankings has different criteria when evaluating what schools make their lists from objective to subjective and to opinion surveys and empirical data. They also have different means to measuring the final tally. For example, US News & World Report’s Morse says indicators are given specific weights to the variables to give an accurate statistical ranking.“I mean, we use something called standardized scores, which is Z-scores, which is, create the distance from the mean, how many standard deviations. But that’s just a vehicle for taking variables that are different indicators, you know. That’s a way of converting all, like an LSAT score and a GPA and a graduation rate and bar passage rate and a reputation score, all to the same statistical variable, the same – you’re putting them to the same process.So, then you can compare them statistically.”

Given the varying approaches, criteria, and measurement poles for how rankings are developed within each of these respective lists, AdmissionsDean’s Macaulay believes it’s important to understand the methodology behind each ranking when interpreting them.“My belief of what students should look at in the rankings, is again, an understanding that the ranking should only mean something to you if you buy into the underlying methodology, that whatever ranking body is used to create the rankings is something that you ascribe to. So if you believe that certain data points identically matches your beliefs in terms of how to rank a school or what’s important in terms of ranking a school, then I think they’re great, right? But, you know, often or far too often, I should say, students don’t really know or what the underlying methodology is or maybe don’t necessarily care if they didn’t know. So, in that respect, ranking should sort of be taken with a grain of salt.”

Once someone has a better understanding to the methodologies and criteria used to develop rankings, our experts tell us that rankings can be a great tool for researching law schools. US News’ Morse cautions, however, that ranking should never be the sole factor for choosing a school.“It should definitely not be the sole basis to determine which — to choose one law school over the other.If you’re using them in that way, that would be the wrong way to use rankings, at least our rankings.But they can certainly be used as one tool in the application or deciding where to go. But students have to take into account where their LSAT scores, you know, where they’re likely to have a chance to get in, how much it costs to go to school, and what kind of program the law school has.Is it like a national focus, is it a state – is it a school that people, you know, just practice at the state level or local level.That’s a lot of factors that anybody is spending three to four years of their life has it taken into account before they invest their time and money in getting a JD degree.”

Legal employers certainly are familiar with law school rankings.But our experts explain that legal employers have a great many criteria determining whom they hire. And for the most part, their hiring practices are not limited to how high the applicants’ law school ranked. Vault’s Dalton expounds on this.“Whether it’s a law firm or some other institution with a years’ long track record of hiring and recruiting law students, I imagine that they have their own criteria and they have their own experiences with specific institutions and I’m not sure how dependent their practices are to be on the fluctuations year to year, these various rankings and tables that are available for consumption.”

But rankings appear to be only one piece of a large puzzle that either a potential student or legal employer can reference in decision making. Each of our rankings experts has found some interesting findings past just straight interpretations, as well as some new schools making their lists.Long Island’s Hofstra University is new to Princeton Review’s law school descriptive profiles, which was a result of a sufficient amount of students responding to student surveys. Princeton Review’s Franek shares another notable finding in their rankings edition.“One that comes to mind is the City University of New York here in our hometown, Queens College. Their law school is number one in most liberal students, which I think is important for prospective students to know about, but that there’s also equal lists. I have a lot of flip side lists — I have the most conservative student list.I think that you will find these ratings and rankings a great lever, a great resource for you to find a little bit more about schools.And then when you go for your first visit, you talk to your first law school counselor, you’re going to be focused and able to sort of drill down into the important questions to ask, and it will simply make you a more informed shopper.”

In addition to Vault’s overall ranking, they offer a section on the 25 Most Underrated Law Schools.It first was published in 2007.Vault’s Dalton noted a trend in regional value when it comes to law schools from that edition. “That list, which again was 25 schools much like the – our top 25 list, showed very interesting regional pattern. Emory came out as number one and that was because folks in the South really think highly of Emory. Fordham came out number two because people in New York think really highly of Fordham.And so all over the country, there are these real gems of schools that may not have national profiles but are really worth serious consideration by any prospective student.”

As AdmissionsDean’s Macaulay outlines, it tries to empower students when it comes to rankings, by offering a create-your-own rankings calculator.“If you went to the Admissions Dean website and clicked on Search and Compare, you can actually create your own rankings based on 16 different data points within the – within what are objectively – objective data reported by the ABA or reported by school to the ABA, I should say.You know, so if you wanted to rank the school, for instance by things that are important to you, say you’re interested in small class sizes or schools with high bar passage rates in the Northeast, you can do that and you can actually even assign weights. So, when you say, half of the score or three-quarters of the score of my ranking should be devoted to small class size, because that’s the kind of learning experience that I want to have.And then maybe 25% of my score should be related to the bar passage rate. And then you can hit Search and – hit Rank, I should say, the button and it will actually spit out schools from the Northeast, if that’s the geographic area you wanted to search based on those two criteria, and it will spit out schools and rank them that these are schools that you should be looking at.”

For the second year in a row, the 2011 US News & World Report Law School Rankings features part-time law school rankings.Morse says the approach has been revised this year. “We’re doing the part-time law rankings in a more sophisticated way. I mean, I know that that doesn’t represent a big part of legal education, but to some students it’s important. So, we’re doing the part-time ranking using a more sophisticated methodology, so that’s something new.”

US News & World Report’s Law School Rankings are released in April each year, Princeton Review released The Best 172 Law Schools 2010 edition in October 2009, Vault plans to release its 2010 edition in September, and AdmissionsDean’s [data] are updated annually after both the US News & World Report and Leiter rankings have been published.

Regardless of what is said about them, rankings can be a useful reference tool for potential students. As Vault’s Dalton says, rankings are a good starting point. “These sorts of rankings and whatever their source are best used as a starting point. A student knows what his LSAT scores are. He knows what his GPA is. And by taking a look at rankings from the – US News on down, you can just start to get a general sense of sort of your range of possibilities.But then from that point, it’s really up to the student to do the real work to visit the schools, visit their sites, do your own research, cross reference all the various rankings and assessments and make their own decision.”

Rankings provide comparative information about law schools and their JD programs.And while it’s impossible to quantify the quality of the educational experience at a law school, applicants, students, faculty, and parents are interested in the information the rankings try to convey. We hear from our guests that rankings can be a helpful resource in the law school application process. Understanding the methodology behind them and knowing what’s most important to you in seeking your JD can make you a savvier shopper and help to better navigate the different law school rankings out there.

For more information, a transcript of this show, or to register to receive more law school podcasts, visit Look for us on Facebook and Twitter to get the latest news and insight into the world of law school. This is Law School Podcaster. I’m Althea Legaspi. Thanks for listening and stay tuned next time when we explore another topic of interest to help you succeed in the law school application process and beyond.