2017 Law School Rankings: Winners and Losers

The new law school ranking are out by U.S. News & World Report and there are the usual winners and losers. Indeed, I have connected to both.  George Washington University, where I teach, is down 6 slots to 30 (the continuation of a trend where GW dropped 3 spots the year before and 2.5 slots that year before that).  Northwestern, my alma mater, was one of the big winners in breaking into the top ten law schools.  While professors overwhelmingly express contempt over the ranking, I have long been in the minority. I view the rankings as very helpful for students. (There was no such resource when I applied to law school).  Moreover, they are generally reliable in my view, though I would disagree with some specific rankings.

Northwestern tied with Duke Law School.  Duke is also back in the top 10, though it only moved to the 11th spot last year. The loser is  University of California, Berkeley School of Law, which fell from No. 8 last year to No. 12 this year.  Georgetown also dropped — failing out of the so called T14 but taking the 15th slot. University of Texas moved into the cherished T14 at 14.

Harvard and Columbia fell one slot each the T14 that now stands as follows:

1) Yale
2) Stanford
3) Harvard (-1)
4) U Chicago
5) Columbia (-1)
6) NYU
7) Penn
8) Michigan
8) UVA
10) Duke (+1)
10) Northwestern (+2)
12) Berkeley (-4)
13) Cornell
14) UT Austin (+1)

Among other changes high on the list, the University of Texas School of Law and Georgetown University Law Center flipped, leaving Texas at No. 14 and Georgetown at No. 15.  Notre Dame moved to the 20 slot.

The biggest numerical loser (if you discount the removal of the Charlotte School of Law entirely from the rankings) was the University of Maine School of Law which dropped a staggering 28 spots to No. 139 with a mix of declining peer reviews, LSAT scores, and graduate employment.

Some schools made controversial moves that appear to have paid off.  The merger of the Rutgers-Newark and Rutgers-Camden’s law schools is a case in point. Rutgers Law School jumped from No. 92 to No. 62 in the country – a 30 spot rise.

As for our drop, we clearly have work to do. Our peer assessment is slightly higher so the trend appears driven by other factors like scores, bar passage rates, and placements.  The current ranking is clearly too low and not reflective of the school.  However, we have to look seriously at these factors as a faculty and move aggressively to deal with the most sticky data points.

I am confident that GW will be able to tweak our programs to remain these slots.  There are other schools that have faced such roller coaster rides on the USNWR.  Washington & Lee University in 2014 fell from 26th to 43rd.  This year it moved from 40th to 28th.

Even for those faculty members who continue to dismiss the USNWR as superficial and arbitrary, it is clear now the single most influential factor in law school applications and also impacts employment and clerkship opportunities.  It is like complaining about the weather.  You deal with it or face the consequences.

20 thoughts on “2017 Law School Rankings: Winners and Losers”

  1. Avoid Washington College of Law like the plague. It is nothing but a bastion of left wing idealogues.

    1. I think this is decent advice for a lowly accredited school. However a national law school like GW, my alma mater, I think you can carry that degree anywhere. Many of my CA friends at GW came back to practice in CA, as did I.

      As far as rankings go, GW’s ranking is unacceptable. It was I believe #16 or 18 when I attended, C/O 2006. It needs to be in the top 20. I’m glad Prof. Turley sees this and hope that he has the influence on the faculty to make the other faculty members respond.

      1. I concur with these comments. As a GWU Law Alum. I am also dismayed by this rating decline. This dramatic drop not only effects law school applicant decisions. It also reflects badly on alumni and their investment. The faculty and administration need to understand this and make the necessary adjustments. Otherwise, they will endanger their relationship with many Alumni and a generation of potential future law school applicants.

  2. California law schools will always be at a disadvantage in the rankings because it has the nation’s toughest bar exam (26% pass rate!) and a super competitive job market. It probably doesn’t matter locally, because local firms know their local schools and will hire from them regardless of a magazine ranking. If you have a remote law school in a state with an easy bar exam, the students are virtually assured of passing the first time and getting a job. In hyper-competitive CA, students may take longer to obtain employment, and may have to take the bar exam twice, but they have opportunities for first-rate internships, clerking and so forth, as well as sophisticated adjuncts and trial lawyers as instructors. I suppose geography matters in terms of the goal of law school: becoming a practicing lawyer, but the quality of the law school experience isn’t measured completely by those factors. Also, in looking below the T-14, there are schools I’ve never heard of, and I also question how the rankings could change so dramatically from year to year. A 30 point drop means what, that several students didn’t obtain immediate employment? I rank job applicants for my federal agency, and I’ve never consulted the USNWR list. I go by my general impression of a law school that I’ve acquired over many years based on reputation and our experience with its graduates.

    1. Per the National Conference of Bar Examiners, 43% of those sitting passed the July Bar exam in California in 2016, and 36% passed the February exam.

      Per the California state bar, 6,559 people took the examination de novo in 2016, of which 53.6% passed. As for those who failed, the mean passage rate for February repeaters was 32% and for July repeaters was 17%. That suggests that about 3/4 pass eventually.

      1. If 3/4% eventually pass, that means that CA has tens of thousands of lawyers from non-accredited and semi-accredited law schools (as well as numerous ABA approved law schools that didn’t even make it to the USNWR’s top 150 ranking). Most of these lawyers are essentially unemployable, so they have no prospects but to chase ambulances and to file bogus tort claims. Not at all good for CA’s economy!

  3. They need to take this list and factor in how those that graduate and work in public service, measure up to the constitution. Freedomworks has a congressional scorecard that ” identifies the most important votes on issues of economic freedom and scores Members of Congress based on their votes.”


    1. You’re confounding ‘the Constitution’ with libertarian nostrums and confounding the value of legal security with the value of good policy.

      1. I prefer “explicating”. But then again my goal would be to rank these schools with respect to their contribution to our civil society and rule of law.

        1. Re the elaboration on constitutional law, the contribution of nearly all of them would be negative. Re statutory law, such an assessment would not be so categorical.

  4. Even for those faculty members who continue to dismiss the USNWR as superficial and arbitrary,

    What Mandy Rice-Davies said.

  5. One can staff the legal profession in this country with 26,000 bar admissions per year (which assumes a legal career of 26 years in duration on average – i.e. taking account of career changes and burnout). Question: why does the market function in such a way that 49,000 law degrees are awarded each year (of which over 90% will pass the bar exam on their 1st, 2d, or 3d attempt)?? Here’s a suggestion:

    1. No federal grants or loan guarantees for legal education, bar perhaps those incorporated into veterans’ benefits. Creditor protection in bankruptcy for those lending to aspirant law students would not be hypertrophied, either.

    2. No state subsidies of any kind sluiced to private law schools.

    3. Annual admissions to state law schools limited to 7 or 8 per 100,000 citizens in a given state. Aspirants would be awarded a voucher based on examination results and could claim their voucher for a fee which would be scaled to the result of this formula: 1-[(p + a) / y] where ‘p’ is the number of annual tax returns the parents of the aspirant filed in the state ‘ere he turned 23, ‘a’ is the number of returns the aspirant himself has filed subsequently, and ‘y’ is the chronological age of the aspirant.

    4. An end to the requirement that one obtain a law degree ‘ere taking the bar exam.

    5. A requirement in state law that debars the state law school from hiring for any faculty position someone who has not practiced law for a minimum of 7 years. ‘Practice’ would mean at a private firm, as a prosecutor, as agency counsel, or in a judgeship; in-house counsel to educational institutions or philanthropies wound not count toward the 7 year requirement, nor would working as a public defender or legal aid lawyer. Up to two years as a clerk to a judge could be counted toward the 7 year requirement, but no more. A ‘year’ in private practice would be defined as a standard quantum of billable hours.

    6. Establishment through juxtaposed state and federal statutes of a revised schedule of law degrees: certificates in specialized components of law offered to law firm employees (for which the time might be anywhere from 3 weeks to 48 weeks of study); a 48 credit working lawyer’s degree; a 36 credit judge’s degree supplementary to the working lawyer’s degree; and a 2 year legal scholar’s degree supplementary to the judge’s degree. This last would be offered by only a few schools.

    7. Establishment through juxtaposed state and federal law of renewable multi-year contracts as the mode for law faculty, with continuous tenure awarded on a discretionary basis only to those who have reached the age of 52 and had a minimum of 20 years f/t service (or the equivalent) on the law faculty. Retirement after 35 years f/t service (or the equivalent) would be mandatory.

    8. Establishment through juxtaposed state and federal law of certificate programs rather than the baccalaureate degree as the modal requirement for admission to law school, say, a 48 credit arts-and-sciences certificate (heavy on Anglo-American history and philosophy) and a 24 credit business certificate (with courses on accounting, finance, real estate, and insurance).

    Fewer admissions to law school, less debt to attend law school, fewer law schools, fewer law professors, and professors who’ve actually worked in the trade.

    1. My approach would be much simpler: Take the accreditation process away from the ABA, and create a commission that considers not only the quality of the law school, but the economic impact, i.e., considers how many more lawyers are needed. In the meanwhile, no federal loans to non-ABA accredited law schools, which would affect about 2/3 of the schools in CA. The ABA has been totally irresponsible in accrediting marginal law schools and flooding the market with heavily indebted, unemployable new lawyers.

    2. Wrong answer. Public defenders actually work while they defend the Constitution. Prosecutors are the exact opposite on both counts.

  6. I know nothing about law schools but I have imagined that those admitting more students from wealthy paying families, jwind up withlower LSAT and lower bar passing scores, but more funding. Those admitting more high merit scholarship kids get higher LSAT and higher bar passing scores, and less funding.

  7. I rank magazines. U.S. News and World Report is not very high on the list. In fact, the list is made up of news sources such as Reuters and Huff Post as well. The old magazines are fading. Time has dropped down. New York Times has gone down the sewer. Washington Post is up near the top. If the WP would start ranking law schools I would listen. As far as law schools go I rank them in terms of how the lawyers who graduated from them do as jury trial lawyers. You do not see many good ones from Harvard or Yale. Snotty toddy does not fare well with the jury. The legal blogs seem to give too much attention to snotty law profs who profess to be Originalists and all that sort of thing. I would like to see another Hugo Black come on the Supreme Court and a Thurgood Marshal. Both of those guys tried cases in courts. Both were great Justices who knew about justice. Playboy is going to rate bars in the next edition and I will pay attention to that.

  8. What a year for Northwestern! The basketball team made the NCAA tournament for the 1st time ever AND the law school made it into the top 10. Go Wildcats and go Pritzger! Now, professor, get my alma mater up a few notches back to where it belongs. Embarrassing.

  9. Rankings or accreditation can be a wake up call. I suggest a five-year program to break the top ten. A committee of faculty, staff and students can lay out the plan. Anyone throwing out an anchor goes on sabbatical.

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