US News rankings

As 2013 draws to a close, let’s look back at the 10 biggest stories in the legal profession over the past year. This is an annual tradition here at Above the Law, which we’ve done in 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. We’ll fire up the old Google Analytics machine to get data on our most popular posts, based on pageviews, and share the results with you.

Before turning to specific stories, let’s look at the top general discussion topics here at ATL. For 2013, our most trafficked category page was Biglaw, which bumped Law Schools out of the top spot — a spot that Law Schools held from 2010 through 2012. Now that the word is out about the perils of getting a law degree, leading to plummeting applications, perhaps it’s time to move on from the “don’t go to law school” narrative.

After Biglaw and Law Schools, our third most-popular category page was, as usual, Bonuses. This wasn’t a terribly exciting year for bonuses — there were no spring bonuses, and Cravath and its many followers paid out the same bonuses as last year — but people still want to know the score.

Our fourth most-popular category page was small law firms. Small firms, including boutiques, are an area of increasing focus and readership for us — and also where many of the job opportunities are these days.

Moving on from the topic pages, what were the 10 most popular individual posts at Above the Law in 2013?

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Over the summer, the American Bar Assocation announced that it would stop collecting data on law school expenditures. Ignoring law school expenditures is (counterintuitively perhaps) an important legal education reform. Law schools should be spending, and charging, as little as possible. The fact that a law school spends a lot of money on its professors really doesn’t seem to have a great effect on the quality of legal education, especially if that quality is at all measured by job placement rates.

Of course, getting the ABA on board is only part of the battle. In June, we noted that the real prize is for U.S. News to stop rewarding law schools for spending as much as possible. A law school shouldn’t be able to improve its ranking by tricking out its library or giving its faculty fat raises in a market where law school tuition is far too high.

I had expected U.S. News to follow the ABA’s lead. Law schools might not be the most transparent institutions, but they generally try to avoid lying to the ABA (at least some of them do). But without an ABA check, there’s nothing to prevent schools from lying to U.S. News to inflate their expenditure figures in an attempt to game the rankings. Reasonable people can disagree about what factors should be important in a set of law school rankings, but I had assumed U.S. News would at least want their data to be tied to reality, instead of made-up statistics offered up by law schools without any independent auditing or fact-checking.

It turns out, I was wrong…

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In this age of plummeting law school applications, many deans must make difficult choices. They must sacrifice one of two things they love dearly: tuition dollars or their U.S. News ranking. It’s the legal academy’s version of Sophie’s Choice.

As fewer people apply to law school, deans have basically two options: they can shrink the size of the entering class, which reduces tuition revenue, or they can keep the size of the entering class the same, which results in credential dilution — a student body with lower LSAT scores and GPAs. Credential dilution can lead to a tumble in the closely watched U.S. News rankings, which can further reduce applications, setting in motion a vicious cycle.

So far, most schools seem to have opted for shrinkage. Most deans would prefer to be able to claim that they are taking a “stand for quality,” as Dean Patrick Hobbs of Seton Hall recently stated.

(Yes, we recently covered one exception. But to paraphrase Chinatown, “Forget it, Jake — it’s Cooley.”)

Interestingly enough, however, one top law school seems to be going in the other direction. It’s actually increasing the size of its incoming class over last year, even if doing so might lead to credential dilution….

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Does the amount of money a law school spends necessarily have an effect on the quality of its legal education?

Here at Above the Law, we say no. Our Law School Rankings take a look at the outcomes law schools provide for their graduates, not the inputs law schools cast into the pot.

But U.S. News still looks at many input factors in evaluating law schools. One of the most notorious factors U.S. News cares about is faculty resources. U.S. News rewards schools for spending a lot of money on the faculty per admitted student. You can kind of see the thought process there: good schools hire good professors and good professors command higher salaries.

Unfortunately, this U.S. News factor creates perverse incentives. Schools with unreasonably high tuition are rewarded for overpaying faculty, at the expense of the debt burden loaded upon their students and recent graduates. Ranking one school better than another because it engages in profligate spending is a cruel joke in this economy.

We don’t know if U.S. News will stop this madness, but yesterday the American Bar Association decided to stop asking schools to report the figure…

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It’s tough times over at U.S. News. After shedding nearly all pretense of being a news outlet, U.S. News threw all its eggs in the “telling people where to go to school” basket.

U.S. News enjoyed a virtual monopoly for years before someone came along and created a better law school ranking system. The crux of the ATL Top 50 ranking is focusing on post-graduation results rather than LSAT/GPA inputs.

Now U.S. News seems to be considering a new post-graduation component, but it doesn’t seem all that scientific…

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The headline comes from a tipster, but I think it perfectly sums up the Cardozo note in their latest alumni newsletter. Cardozo has issued an intellectually soft apology that admits what they did, but completely glosses over why they did it. “Aww shucks, we’re just goofy!”

Last week, we caught Cardozo trying to game the U.S. News ranking system by encouraging students to make token donations in order to pump up the school’s alumni participation score. The school said that alumni participation was a factor in the U.S. News law school rankings, but it turns out they were wrong.

The school is now apologizing for the error. They’re not apologizing for trying to game the rankings, they’re just apologizing for being wrong about how to do it….

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I almost feel bad for Cardozo. Yesterday, we reported on how Cardozo was trying to convince the class of 2011 to give money to the school on the theory that even a small donation will help the school move up in the U.S. News law school rankings, thus increasing the “value” of a Cardozo Law degree. Yeah, the campaign isn’t about how giving more money will deliver more value to Cardozo students in terms of job opportunities or educational experience. It’s just a hard sell that a higher ranking equals “value,” and an instruction on how Cardozo alums can help the school game the system.

And it turns out that the strategy isn’t even an effective way to game the rankings. The school is actually wrong about how the rankings work.

Look, I have to be one of the foremost authorities on “stupid things law schools do” in America. I believe I meet all of the Daubert requirements to be qualified as an expert on this topic on the Internet. In my expert capacity, I hereby testify that this Cardozo thing is the dumbest alumni giving campaign I’ve ever seen….

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And now back to our regularly scheduled programing. We join this episode of “My Law School Nearly Got Away With It,” already in progress.

We all know that law schools do all kinds of things to game the U.S. News law school rankings. U.S. News knows this, yet does little to stop this behavior. But rarely do we catch a law school red-handed.

Here, we have a school openly calling upon its students to do something for the express purpose of increasing the school’s U.S. News rank.

Even more embarrassingly, the school is targeting a class of graduates who have generally not had much luck in the employment market. The email suggests that the way to increase the value of their law degree is to give money to the school, since right now it’s not good enough to get them a job…

(Please note the important UPDATE at the end of this post, a punchline of sorts.)

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Ed. note: This is the latest installment in a series of posts from the ATL Career Center’s team of expert contributors. Today, AdmissionsDean helps prospective law students better get to know the Associate Dean of Admissions at New York University Law School. This is the first in a series of interviews with admissions deans at the top 10 schools per ATL’s Law School Rankings.

Dean Kenneth Kleinrock received his BA from Queens College (CUNY), magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa (1975), his M.A.T. from Duke University (1977), and his Ed.D. from Teachers College, Columbia University (1987). In 1989, Mr. Kleinrock joined the admission staff at the New York University School of Law. He began as Director of Recruitment and Admission Services, and became Executive Director of Graduate Admissions in 1997. He was named Assistant Dean for Admissions in 1998 and became Associate Dean for Admissions in 2012. Currently, Dean Kleinrock oversees the offices of J.D. Admissions, Graduate Admissions, and Student Financial Services.

Read more at the ATL Career Center…

Just yesterday, the latest batch of starry-eyed dreamers sat for the LSAT (although the number of these hopeful 0Ls seems to be in freefall). As they wait for the scores to come in, these aspiring JDs will no doubt be doing their research and narrowing down where to apply. Law school applicants have no shortage of resources at their disposal to help them in making their decisions and navigating the process: from U.S. News to Princeton Review, from Anna Ivey to Top Law Schools. But we all know that there is no decision-making tool as beloved as a ranked list. People love rankings — such time and energy savers! We suspect more application and matriculation decisions are made by perusing rankings than will ever be admitted to.

Regular readers of this site might recall that a little while back we published our inaugural ATL Top 50 Law Schools ranking. We are proud that we, rather than burying our methodology in the footnotes or an obscure appendix, prefaced our rankings release with a detailed discussion about the choices we made in devising our methodology.

Whatever the subject matter, anyone looking to rate or rank anything has to make some choices between three basic methodological approaches:

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