U.S. News Law Firm Rankings

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….

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The new U.S. News law school rankings are due out in March. And according to rankings guru Bob Morse, the publication is considering giving numerical rankings to the third-tier law schools.

This would be a big change. For those unfamiliar with the law school rankings (and if you are unfamiliar with the rankings, you must have ended up here looking for information on a Steven Seagal movie), let’s review. U.S. News currently ranks law schools from #1 to #100. After the first 100, U.S. News drops numerical rankings and groups the remaining schools into a “third tier” and a “fourth tier.” These schools are listed in alphabetical order within each tier.

Why? Well, for one thing, it becomes kind of silly to try to make a meaningful distinction between the 120th law school and the 121st. Doing it this way also benefits lower-ranked second-tier law schools. It arguably makes DePaul Law (ranked #98) look significantly better than all of the law schools in the third tier.

But do these distinctions make sense? The U.S. News people are examining that issue…

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You can’t get two clicks into the legal blogosphere today without seeing a repackaged press release from Sidley Austin. Here’s one of the headlines we received today, which blares louder than a New York City fire engine stuck in mid-tier midtown traffic:

Sidley Austin LLP has received 20 first-tier national rankings in the inaugural U.S.News – Best Lawyers “Best Law Firms” survey, the most of any U.S. law firm.

Okay Sidley, we hear you; congratulations. Maybe you and Lady Gaga should confer and figure out how to get U.S. News to rank music video award shows.

Meanwhile, if you’ve spent any time clicking around the U.S. News law firm rankings since they went live last night (no, I haven’t really slept), you’ll notice that Sidley doesn’t seem to show up in the bottom right corner of the page under the heading “Featured Firm.” Instead of Sidley (or any of the other firms that garnered many first-tier practice area mentions), if you keep clicking refresh — I’ve done that about 100 times in the last hour, via multiple Firefox tabs — you see a bunch of firms that are outside the Am Law 100. And Squire Sanders.

Why aren’t the most well-respected firms the “featured” ones? The answer is obvious: the featured firms bought ads with U.S. News. Which begs the question: just how is U.S. News making money off of this exhaustive gambit into the law firm rankings market?

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We told you this day would come. Way back in July 2009, we reported that the rankings behemoth, U.S. News & World Report, would soon be ranking law firms. In February 2010, we reported that the American Bar Association — so toothless in the face of U.S. News’s law school rankings — was worried about how this new U.S. News product would affect the profession.

Well, for better or for worse, the day has finally arrived. As of midnight (give or take a few minutes), U.S. News went live with rankings of 8,782 firms across 81 different practice areas. From their press release:

These inaugural rankings, which are presented in tiers both nationally and by metropolitan area or by state, showcase 8,782 different law firms ranked in one or more of 81 major practice areas. Full data is available online for the law firms that received rankings, from the largest firms in the country to hundreds of one-person and two-person law firms, providing a comprehensive view of the U.S. legal profession that is unprecedented both in the range of firms represented and in the range of qualitative and quantitative data used to develop the rankings.

It’s like Christmas morning — if only Santa were a jolly red prestige whore. Let’s get to it…

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