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Analysis: U.S. News Law School Rankings

U.S. News and World Report released its 2016 law school rankings yesterday, and it essentially looks like a huge game of chutes and ladders up in here.

Among the top tier of schools, the names remain familiar – for now. The top three schools are the same for the zillionth year in a row, although Stanford (formerly #3) moved up to share the #2 spot with Harvard. Whenever a school in the highest echelons of the rankings moves up or down, it’s treated as a Big Freaking Deal – but realistically, this change won’t make a huge difference, since Stanford hasn’t actually surpassed Harvard. They’ll get some bragging rights, sure, but essentially Stanford’s status is changing from “extremely well-regarded” to “still extremely well-regarded.”

Just below the rarefied air of the top three spots, Columbia, Chicago, NYU and Penn remained in their customary order in spots 4 through 7. Looking further into the T14, the big winner this year was Duke, which jumped from #10 to #8. UC Berkeley moved up one spot, from #9 to #8, rounding out a trifecta of schools in the 8-spot (including University of Virginia, whose ranking didn’t change).

Two schools in the T14 slid by one: University of Michigan, which fell from #10 to #11, and Georgetown, which moved from #13 to #14. The change puts Georgetown in a particularly precarious position, since it’s now on the very edge of the Top 14. You can bet that these schools will be going into damage control mode to reassure current, former and prospective students that their ranks won’t slide any further; expect slight changes to their admissions stats and law libraries in an effort to boost their rank.

Outside the Top 14, the biggest winners were St. John’s (which jumped 25 spots to #82) and Howard (which also improved by 25 spots, to #110). The biggest drop was Seattle’s, which fell 26 spots to #87, followed closely by Hamline, which fell 24 spots to #145. Above the Law has conveniently highlighted the biggest increases and decreases here. Also notable was the entry of a couple new law schools into the rankings, especially UC-Irvinein the 30th slot a mere six years after opening its doors (though well short of its publicly stated goal of debuting in the top 20).

The U.S. News rankings have been criticized in the past for factoring in what detractors see as largely irrelevant criteria, such as the number of books a law school has in its library. Especially in recent years, there’s been a growing call for rankings that place much more emphasis on schools’ employment outcomes. In response, there has been a proliferation of alternative rankings from sources such as Above the Law and Other tools allow students to examine employment outcomes for themselves based on the factors they deem most important.

U.S. News appears to be listening to the criticisms, and it actually instituted one significant change with this year’s rankings criteria: law schools now receive less credit for employing their own graduates. In the past, law schools used this loophole to make their employment numbers higher, but these jobs are typically short term and not actually related to the practice of law – hence they’re much less desirable than employment outside the school. With the change, U.S. News is taking a step in the right direction by emphasizing the most important result of going to law school: getting a job in the legal world.

For better or for worse, the U.S. News rankings remain the most influential numbers in the game. The rankings can give you a general sense of how prestigious a school is perceived to be, but make sure to take them with a big grain of salt, and certainly don’t make any decisions based on slight differences in rank. Realistically, there’s not a huge difference between a school ranked #50 and a school ranked #60 (or even #70). If this year’s rankings show us anything, it’s that times are a-changing, and schools’ rankings can shift at any time.