Candidates often refer to law school rankings as an objective criterion to select their schools. But it’s important to remember that programs move upwards or downwards within the same publication’s rankings from year to year. The ranking of the program when you start may not be the same as when you graduate.
This is not to say that rankings are useless. Rankings can be helpful when used judiciously as just one of the criteria to select the schools that are best for you.
it’s a good idea to dig into the numbers, rather than rely on the overall rankings.
Firstly, it’s a good idea to dig into the numbers, rather than rely on the overall rankings. You should find out more about the school’s reputation in your intended function, industry, and even company. e.g. while Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, and Chicago reign supreme in the U.S. News overall full-time JD rankings, its top 5 for Environmental Law are University of Vermont, Lewis & Clark College, Pace University, Berkeley, and – tied at 5th – Georgetown and UCLA. Similarly, the top 5 for Intellectual Property Law are Berkeley, Stanford, NYU, George Washington University, and University of New Hampshire.
A good way of looking at rankings is to think of them as league tables. While individual programs may climb or fall from year to year or publication to publication, leagues are generally stable. Consider the league of the top 5 full-time US JD programs. While the deck might shuffle fairly often, the occupants of the top-10 list remain the same: Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Chicago, NYU, Upenn, Berkeley, Ann Arbor, and University of Virginia. The same is true for the 2nd league, i.e. programs ranked #11 to #20, and the 3rd league, i.e. programs ranked #21 to #30. Very rarely does a new program break into the elite group, and very rarely does a program fall out. So, the leagues or groups are rather more informative than exact ranks of the schools.
Another good way to cull information out of rankings is to look at trends over time.
Another good way to cull information out of rankings is to look at trends over time. While programs do not generally change “leagues”, that does happen on occasion. And looking at trends over time can help us understand and predict such changes.
A rise in rankings is likely to attract better students and faculty to the school. It is also likely to enliven the alumni base and help the fundraising. All of these factors in turn contribute to improving the school’s ranking further, creating a virtuous cycle. Conversely, a significant fall in major rankings can have the opposite effect, leading to a vicious cycle.
So if within a particular’s publication’s ranking, a school has risen from #30 to #27 to #24 in consecutive years, then there is a pretty good chance of that school breaking into the top 20 by the time you graduate.
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