The basic premise underlying our unique approach to ranking schools: the "new normal" for the legal job market is no longer new, it's just normal. Going to law school no longer guarantees graduates a good job, or even just a job. Given the cost of law school, potential students should prioritize their future job prospects over all other factors in deciding whether and where to attend law school. The relative quality of schools is a function of how they deliver on the promise of gainful legal employment and other desirable results. So in addition to focusing exclusively on such outcomes, ours are the only rankings to incorporate the latest ABA employment data concerning the class of 2013.
Among these, which has a plausible prospect of paying off his student loans? A) Biglaw associate; B) Associate at small local firm; or C) Temp doc reviewer? If you answer "all of the above," there are more than a few law deans who would like to talk to you. In this market, some legal jobs are more equal than others. Our rankings stipulate that an employment outcome that allows a graduate to pay down debt is a “better” one.
We also acknowledge “prestige” plays an outsized role in the legal profession. Our methodology rewards schools for producing Supreme Court clerks and federal clerks because the market rewards people who get those jobs with money and prestige. Don't hate us, we're just the messengers.
We limit our list to 50 schools because there are only a certain number of schools that have real employment prospects outside of their particular region. We want to look at "national" schools, and we want to look at schools that have employment options for students who don't finish in the top five percent of their class. Prospective students always think they'll be in the top five percent of their class, and 95% of them are wrong every year. In any event, the fact that one school in Virginia is #98 and another in Texas is #113—in any rankings system—is not a useful piece of consumer information.
Enjoy the rankings. But please use them responsibly.
Let's put it simply:
What happened last year?
We believe that the ATL Top 50 gives prospective law students a way to analyze schools using metrics that actually matter.
KAPLAN ASKED: “What is most important to you when picking a law school to apply to?”
BEFORE LAW SCHOOL: One-third of pre-law students consider law school rankings to be the most important.*
AFTER: Only 17% of new law school graduates continued to believe that. (A greater number recommend focusing on school’s job placement rate.*)
Apparently, three years of law school may cause aspiring lawyers to change their priorities.
In 2014, we surveyed our audience about the most relevant factors that potential law students should consider in selecting a school. By a large margin, these were the top choices, along with the percentage of respondents classifying them as “highly relevant”:
Employment data (85.43%)
Large firm placement (54.54%)
Federal clerkship placement (46.64%)
Tuition/Cost – (40.73%)
In other words, you prioritize employment outcomes above all else in comparing law schools. We agree. Therefore, these are the components of our rankings methodology:
We are staying out of all of the hairsplitting about the definitions of “J.D. Advantage” versus “J.D. Preferred,” or whether employment data should be captured at 9 or 10 months after graduation. Much of the debate around law school employment data strikes us as so much fiddling around the edges of a larger problem. Thus for the employment score, we only counted full-time, long-term jobs requiring bar passage (excluding solos and school-funded positions).
Quality jobs score (30%)
This measures the schools’ success at placing students on career paths that best enable them to pay off their student debts. We’ve combined placement with the country’s largest and best-paying law firms (using the National Law Journal’s “NLJ 250”) and the percentage of graduates embarking on federal judicial clerkships. These clerkships typically lead to a broader and enhanced range of employment opportunities.
SCOTUS clerk & Federal judgeship scores (7.5% each)
Though obviously applicable to very different stages of legal careers, these two categories represent the pinnacles of the profession. For the purposes of these rankings, we simply looked at a school's graduates as a percentage of (1) all U.S. Supreme Court clerks (since 2009) and (2) currently sitting Article III judges. Both scores are adjusted for the size of the school.
Education cost (15%)
Solid data on individual law student educational debt is hard to come by. Published averages exist, but the crucial number, the amount of non-dischargeable government funded or guaranteed educational loan debt, is not available. So as a proxy for indebtedness, we’ve scored schools based on total cost. For those schools placing a majority of their graduates into the local job market, we’ve adjusted the score for the cost of living in that market.
Alumni rating (10%)
This is the only non-public component of our rankings. Our ATL Insider Survey asks students and alumni to rate their schools in terms of academics, financial aid advising, career services advising, social life, and clinical training. For the purposes of the ATL Top 50, we only counted the alumni ratings, as that was more in keeping with our “outcomes only” approach.
We've scaled the scores by their respective weights (a perfect total score would be 100), to generate the "ATL Score."