Is the USNWR list really a good indication of what makes a good law school?

Apr 2, 2023

Table of Contents

  1. Summary
  2. Bitter Much?
  3. Why did Harvard Drop?
  4. So is UChicago so much better than Harvard now?
  5. Things to consider
  6. Related Articles

Yes and no. It is the list that people think of first when they think of how good a school is. But it also forces schools to get ranked (obviously) which pushes people away from the nuance of what makes schools different. 

The algorithm that USNews uses to rank schools is proprietary and a secret, but some researchers did some analytics magic and found some interesting/disturbing/informative things about the way in which schools are ranked. You can read about that here.

Overall, what they found (maybe obviously) is that the ranking system is better for schools with big endowments, which admit students with the highest scores, and which seem elite. Other things do matter, like employment rates, but according to this research those things that you might care about like employment or financial aid might not be that relevant in the rankings of schools. 

In no way does that mean that USNews is useless or that you should ignore it. Instead we recommend taking the rankings themselves with a grain of salt. Instead, think about what you want out of a school and check out the objective facts. If you care about how much money you will make after school then rank schools based on median income. If you care about student-faculty ratio then rank schools based on that (but one person’s opinion: student-faculty ratio are kinda useless because they have no impact on how big classes are, and are really just an indicator that a school employs a lot of people AKA has a big endowment). 

Also, you should look outside of rankings and USNews to get information on schools. If class diversity matters to you, then you should check out school websites to pull demographic information on the most recent class. If you want to join clubs or journals at school then look into what is available at the school. Neither of these pieces of information (as far as we can see) is a significant factor in USNews school rankings, but both are important to a lot of people. 

Did you write this article because you are connected to Harvard and it dropped from 3 to 4 and you are bitter and your feelings are super hurt and so you want to say that rankings don’t matter?

Good question, but no. I am/was not a Harvard student (though my Significant Other was) but my words are completely my own. Unless USNWR is reading, in which case, yes Harvard made me write it.   

But why did Harvard Law drop from 3 to 4 in the rankings?

Since the USNews ranking methodology is a secret it is nearly impossible to tell exactly why. There are a lot of theories floating around Harvard Law though. If you go to UChicago and have theories, let us know.

So should I go to UChicago instead of Harvard now?

For this answer I will assume that you have already gotten into both programs. If you are still applying, then you should apply to both. If you are only applying to T-3 schools based on USNews then you are setting yourself up for sadness as law school admissions are a nebulous process. 

Let’s assume you have gotten into Harvard Law and UChicago, and you are deciding between the two. First, Congrats! That is awesome. Second, you should choose the school where you think you will be happiest, and/or will lead you to the most success in the future. Do USNews rankings actually matter for that? No. Even if we assume that the USNews rankings are a perfect representation of value, then the difference between 3 and 4, 10 and 15, or 149 and 101 are all pretty irrelevant. 

What really matters is that you will succeed at the school you attend. So what should you consider when choosing a school? It really depends on what you want out of your experience, but some things that everyone considers: 

  1. Total Cost (including scholarships and financial aid)
  2. Employment outcomes (keep in mind that USNews (and LSD) reports employment percentage based on how many people go into jobs that require a JD
  3. Location (Cambridge and Chicago are pretty different cities)

Some things to consider when choosing a law school that are not as apparent in ranking systems:

  1. Loan repayment assistance programs (LRAP). Only a few schools have LRAPsbut they can have major impacts on the real cost of school, especially if you are planning on pursuing a lower pay job like public interest after law school. 
  2. Enrollment numbers. There is nothing inherently good or bad about a large or small class year so it doesn’t play into many rankings, but the feeling at a big school vs a small school is very different.  
  3. Legal ideology. Some schools lean towards conservative legal thinking and some towards liberal thinking. If it matters to you, then you should consider it when picking a school.
  4. Academic mentality. What I mean are things like collaboration vs competition for grades, focus on grades vs social life, honesty between students regarding goals and grades. This one is really hard to pin down, and you can really only get a sense by talking to current students.  
  5. Where you want to live after law school. Unless you are going to a top-ranked law school it can be hard to find a law job outside of the state you graduate from. So when you are thinking about school location, you should think beyond the three years of law school.

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Windsor MIT '22, Harvard College Advisor

I am the half of LSD that didn't take the LSAT, or go to law school (Sorry about that). But I did go to MIT business school while surrounded by law students and lawyers, so I am somewhat qualified to talk about the intricacies of law school apps and finances.

Windsor (the dog) didn't write this but he WAS a Resident Tutor and career advisor at Harvard College with me, so deserves some credit.


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