Ready to geek out on the newest U.S. News law school rankings? Good, because we are going to break down the 2011 edition, which has been officially posted on the website and available for public consumption (and obsession). While we make it a policy here at Veritas Prep to caution applicants against reading too much into rankings when making decisions on where to apply and attend, there is no denying the fact that the material is interesting.
Our society loves rankings, law schools (and grad schools in general) are part of a fairly hierarchical world, and rankings have a way of making that world go round. Click through to get our take on some of the changes and trends that can be found within this year’s list.
First, for those who hate navigating links, we’ll go ahead and list out the 2011 top 20. We’ll even provide the service of including comparative numbers (something U.S. News doesn’t do):
Law School Rankings for 2011
Current rank [Previous rank] School Name (Rating) [Previous Rating]
1  Yale (100) 
2  Harvard (97) 
3  Stanford (93) 
4  Columbia (91) 
5  Chicago (88) 
6  NYU (87) 
7  Berkeley (85) 
7  Penn (85) 
9  Michigan (84) 
10  Virginia (83) 
11  Duke (82) 
11  Northwestern (82) 
13  Cornell (78) 
14  Georgetown (77) 
15  UCLA (76) 
15  Texas (76) 
17  Vanderbilt (75) 
18  USC (72) 
19  Washington U. (70) 
20  George Washington (69) 
Now, for some commentary:
The “T14” remains unchanged
Sure, there was some movement within the top 14 law schools, but for the umpteenth year, the schools making up that top tier remained unchanged. Here at the Veritas Prep compound, we joked that this list will never change in our lifetimes. (And yes, we felt very much like the TMZ guys as we hung around the office this morning, riffing about academic rankings. Oddly, we are not remotely embarrassed by this.)
15-19 remains identical, big news at #20
Usually there is some movement among schools 15-through-19, but not this year. Each school saw its raw score go up a bit (more on this below), but the ranking order remained exactly the same. But prized spot #20 features some excitement. You may recall the controversy surrounding George Washington’s awful drop from 20 to 28 last year (okay, maybe you don’t, but luckily the second bullet of this post will refresh your memory), which allowed Boston, Emory, and Minnesota to come crashing into the top 20. This year, those schools are out and GW is back in. Whether it was the placement numbers or the inclusion of part-time data that did George Washington in last year, everything seems to have course-corrected a year later. Cut to: GW law grads taking their fingers off the panic button.
Harvard continues to hold off Stanford for #2
One of the rankings races we watch most closely is the joust for #2 between Harvard and Stanford. Not only did HLS hold off Stanford yet again, they widened the gap and saw their score go up again (from 91 to 95 last year and from 95 to 97 this year). Clearly the momentum of former dean Elena Kagan (the current Solicitor General and a leading contender for appointment to the Supreme Court) is still alive and well in Cambridge. Yale is and probably always will be king, but one could argue that HLS is the hottest property on the law school market.
The U Chicago comeback continues
Two years ago, I wrote a plea to my alma mater Chicago to turn up the heat on their rankings efforts. Whether it is sheer coincidence or the school really has changed its view of the rankings games, the U of C Law School continues to turn things around. After a steady drop through the middle and end of the last decade, Chicago has moved back up in each of the past two years and has now passed NYU and sits at #5 in the current rankings. Again, there’s no need to obsess over this type of stuff (Chicago and NYU are very different schools and whether one is #5 or #6 is no reason to choose one school over the other), but in the case of Chicago it is interesting, because it represents a continued reversal from years of sliding down this list. Chicago grads everywhere (including your author) can breathe a sigh of relief.
Raw scores still going up
Whether law schools really are getting better and better (entirely possible, given the new emphasis on clinical opportunities, seminar instruction, and interdisciplinary learning) or we are just seeing the rankings version of “grade inflation,” the trend of improved scores across the board that we we saw last year continues for the 2011 edition. For instance, Columbia improved three points (from 88 to 91) but stayed at #4, while Michigan and Virginia also went up three points (81 to 84 for UM and 80 to 83 for UVA) but couldn’t make up any ground from a rankings standpoint (#9 and #10, respectively). NYU held steady at 87, but dropped a spot, Berkeley went up a point (84 to 85) but still dropped from #6 to #7, and Duke and Northwestern both went up two full points but dropped from a tie for #10 to a tie for #11.
Has Penn officially arrived?
Quietly, PennLaw keeps giving rise to the idea that it’s a truly elite program, on par with Columbia, Chicago, NYU, and Berkeley. For many, Penn has been viewed for years as the “start of the next tier,” and while that may remain the case for some, it is hard to argue that with a straight face anymore. The U.S. News raw score trend bears that out, as Penn has gone from 80 to 82 to 85 over the past three years and has improved in all of the key “profile” elements (acceptance rate, LSAT, GPA). This has largely gone unnoticed even by rankings junkies because Penn has gone from 7th to 8th back to 7th over the past three years, which obscures just how rapidly the school has closed the raw score gap on the competition.
Northwestern doesn’t climb, despite placement success
There was a lot of attention paid to a recent National Law Journal ranking that listed Northwestern as the top law school for placement of grads within the NALP top 250 firms. We threw some cold water on that excitement and if the U.S. News rankings are to be trusted, it looks like we might have been right. There are just too many factors excluded from a BigLaw placement ranking to establish any larger trends connected to a law school.