Since we released the ATL Top 50 Law Schools last week, we’ve received a fair amount of feedback and criticism regarding our approach to ranking schools. As noted (again and again), our methodology considers “outcomes” only — the idea being that, in this dismal legal job market, that’s all that truly matters. Our rankings formula weighs six outcomes; these three below were the most disputed:

Supreme Court Clerks. This is simply the number of SCOTUS clerks produced by the school over the last five years, adjusted for the schools’ size. By far, this is the most heavily criticized aspect of our methodology. “Preposterous!” “Irrelevant!” “Reflective of some weird fetish on the part of one of your editors!” And so on. To which we say, sure, SCOTUS clerkships are irrelevant in assessing the vast majority of schools. Properly considered, this component is a sort of “extra credit question” that helps make fine distinctions among a few top schools.

Federal Judgeships. The number of sitting Article III judges who are alumni of the school, adjusted for size. Some complain that this is a lagging indicator that tells us something about graduates from 25 years ago but little about today’s students’ prospects. Besides, aren’t these appointments just a function of the appointees’ connections? True enough, but this is certainly an indicator of the enduring strength and scope of a school’s graduate network — surely a worthwhile consideration. Connections matter.

Quality Jobs Score. The percentage of students securing jobs at the nation’s largest law firms combined with those landing federal clerkships. The principal criticism with this metric is that it fails to include some categories of desirable job outcomes, including so-called “JD Advantage” jobs and certain public interest/government positions. However, parsing out the “good” jobs from the rest is the problem. Whenever we could, we used the most straightforward, obtainable, and well-defined data points, with the goal of a “quality jobs score” as a reasonable proxy for quality jobs generally.

Read on for a look at which schools rated best in each of the above categories, as well as on Employment Score and Lowest Cost. We’ll also look at some of the biggest gainers and losers in the ATL 50, plus significant differences between our rankings and U.S. News….

One recurrent, broader criticism of our rankings is that they are just a reshuffle of the U.S. News rankings, especially at the top. This is not quite true. In the U.S. News top 10, one sees, at most, a couple of schools switching positions each year. So far, in just the second the year the ATL top 10 has proven a bit more dynamic, with, for example, Columbia and NYU both gaining four spots to come in at numbers four and six respectively. And outside the top tier, the differences are more significant. Some schools that fly a bit under the national radar but do well in their local job markets benefited from our rankings.

Biggest Differences Between ATL Top 50 Law Schools and U.S. News

New Mexico (ATL #22, U.S. News #72. 50 place difference)
With an LST employment score of 72.8%, New Mexico is close to the top of the pack when it comes to full-time, bar passage required jobs. If we ranked the ATL 50 by employment score alone, New Mexico would come in at #17.

Rutgers-Camden (ATL #48, U.S. News #81. 33 place difference)
Rutgers-Camden can boast of a 62.3% employment score, with no school-funded jobs.

Seton Hall (ATL #40, U.S. News #68. 28 place difference)
Another strong showing for a New Jersey school. Seton Hall had a 68.9% employment score.

Houston (ATL #34, U.S. News #58. 24 place difference)
Rewarded for a 62.4% employment score and a relatively decent quality jobs score, with approximately 16% of the class of 2013 landing a job in Biglaw or a federal clerkship.

On the whole, the composition, if not the order, of the ATL Top 50 was quite stable from last year to now. Only two schools fell out of the rankings, so obviously that means we welcome two new schools: Case Western and Temple. Stable does not mean static, however; there was quite a bit of movement in both directions.

Biggest Gains and Losses in the ATL Top 50 Law Schools from 2013 to 2014

Iowa (+19 places, from #37 to #19)
16% decrease in tuition + 5% increase in employment rate + 17% jump in quality jobs score = Happy Hawkeyes.

Florida-Levin (+12, from #44 to #32)
Florida’s employment score went up 10% and their Biglaw placement jumped 7%.

Wake Forest (-16, from #30 to #46)
Wake Forest’s employment score dropped approximately 11%. For the vast majority of schools in the ATL 50, the difference in employment score from class of 2012 to class of 2013 was less than 5%.

U.S.C. Gould (-15, from #20 to #35)
The school’s employment score went down 5%. USC also had a drop in the percentage of federal clerkship placements, from 6.8% in 2013 to 3.8% this year.

Finally, here is a look at the highest-ranked schools in each individual component of our rankings formula:

Top Schools By ATL Top 50 Law Schools Rankings Category

Most Federal Judges: Yale

Most Supreme Court Clerks: Yale

Highest Employment Score: Columbia

Highest Quality Jobs Score: Stanford

Lowest Cost: B.Y.U. J. Reuben Clark

Rankings are just one of many tools available to 0Ls for evaluating and comparing schools. Of course, there’s no perfect dataset or methodology. At best, rankings are a useful simulacrum; they should not serve as a replacement for one’s own research based on individual goals and priorities. So use our rankings — any rankings — skeptically and responsibly.


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