Last night, we published the second annual Above the Law: Law School Rankings. Please enjoy them. But use them responsibly.

I’m the official “rankings hater” around here, and that hate extends even to rankings that I helped design. There is some useful consumer information in the Above the Law rankings — but it’s also important that consumers understand what is not here, what we didn’t do, and what our rankings can’t tell you.

Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about what’s wrong with our rankings…

Problem 1: Law School Costs How Much?

We all agree that cost is very important when it comes to choosing a law school. When looking at this important factor, Above the Law looks at the total projected cost at each law school, adjusted for the cost of living of where the law school employs a majority of its graduates. This metric is better than just looking at flat tuition, and it’s better than disregarding the cost entirely.

But it’s not the best metric. The number we’d really like to know is the average total indebtedness of each graduating class. U.S. News does publish figures for average indebtedness of graduates, but that information is self-reported by the schools and fails to distinguish between federally subsidized debt and the rest. That’s why the U.S. News “least indebtedness” metric we posted earlier today is fundamentally flawed. We don’t want to ding schools for admitting more-needy students who qualify for federal aid.

Failing that, it would be nice to know the effective cost of attendance, once you adjust for how much each school is giving out in scholarship money. Schools are running around the country right now, quoting wild, unverifiable figures about how much money they’re giving out in financial aid. It would be great to know how much money they’re actually putting in students’ pockets via scholarships.

Students want to know how much debt they’ll be in when they graduate. The law schools won’t tell them that. The ABA won’t require law schools to be transparent about that. And Above the Law can’t tell you that, even if we asked the schools really, really nicely to tell us.

Problem 2: The School You Ranked Poorly Is Giving Me A Free Ride, What Should I Do?

How the f**k should we know?

Our rankings proceed from the legal fiction of “all else being equal.” Of course, in real life all else is never “equal.” In this market, given the dearth of law school applications, students aren’t choosing between two similarly ranked schools at the same price, they’re choosing between a highly ranked school at full price, a middle ranked school at half price, and a poorly ranked school for free.

And our rankings can’t tell you what to do about that. I’ve been calling this “The Vanderbilt Problem.” Vanderbilt is a very good law school. We rank it at #14, which is even better than U.S. News ranks Vandy. But it’s not as good as Duke (ATL Ranking #7). But it’s “better” than Washington & Lee (ATL Ranking #37). If you get into all three, you should probably go to Duke, and our rankings reflect that.

But what if Vanderbilt is giving you 20% off? What if it’s giving you 50% off and Washington & Lee is giving you a full scholarship? Should you still go to Duke at full price? How much is a spot or two on the ATL Rankings worth in monetary terms? That’s not a silly question: it’s actually the question prospective law students are trying to answer.

And there probably is an answer to that question, an objective “right answer” based on math and statistics that we just haven’t bothered to think through. You could look at the cost of tuition, the probability of certain job outcomes, the effective salary of recent graduates, yada yada, multiplied by the speed of light squared, and spit out some kind of number that represents a “dollar value per spot.” If you are going to a school 20 spots lower in the ATL Rankings, that school should be giving you X% of a tuition discount. That would be useful list-making.

As it is, we just have to guesstimate. I can argue that Washington & Lee should be paying you a stipend to go there over Duke, but that’s just conjecture.

Problem 3: Prestige Matters.

We are proud that the Above the Law Rankings don’t directly look at law school “prestige” beyond what it can get you in the actual job market. We look at clerkships, for instance, because they’re one of the more tangible expressions of prestige, and we leave the “reputation ratings” for other people to talk about.

But come on, prestige matters. Just because it matters in ways that can’t easily be captured or measured doesn’t change the nature of its existence. I was talking about this the other day to a student choosing between Columbia and NYU Law. Any lawyer, legal professional, or judge worth talking about knows that those two schools are essentially the same. But non-lawyers — or as practioners call them, “clients” — are more likely to think that Columbia is “better” because it’s an Ivy. And that’s that.

Take a look at Emory Law. It ranks #36 in our rankings, much lower than it ranks on other lists, and significantly lower than the University of Georgia Law School. We think people should consider that when they are trying to figure out which law school gives them the best chance of one day paying off their debts. But there’s nothing that these rankings can do that will stop an old Georgian judge who thinks that “Emory” is prestigious and “Georgia” is just a state school. And if you run into that guy, waving the ATL Rankings at him on your Galaxy S is likely to give him the vapors.

Prestige doesn’t matter to us, but it probably matters to you.

Keep all of this in mind while using the Above the Law Rankings. We’re proud of them, to be sure. But they’re not the antidote. If you really want to live and work in Washington, D.C., don’t let anybody tell you, ATL included, to go to Alabama instead of GW. Don’t be an idiot.

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