ATL Law School Rankings

May 29th, 2015 / By

Above the Law (ATL) has released the third edition of its law school rankings. Writing about rankings is a little like talking about intestinal complaints: We’d rather they didn’t exist, and it’s best not to mention such things in polite company. Rankings, however, are here to stay–and we already devote an inordinate amount of time to talking about them. In that context, there are several points to make about Above the Law‘s ranking scheme.

In this post, I address an initial question: Who cares about the ATL rankings? Will anyone read them or follow them? In my next post, I’ll explore the metrics that ATL uses and the incentives they create. In a final post, I’ll make some suggestions to improve ATL’s rankings.

So who cares? And who doesn’t?

Prospective Students

I think potential law students are already paying attention to the ATL rankings. Top-Law-Schools.com, a source used by many 0Ls, displays the Above the Law rankings alongside the US News (USN) list. Prospective students refer to both ranking systems in the site’s discussion forum. If prospective students don’t already know about ATL and its rankings, they will soon.

If I were a prospective student, I would pay at least as much attention to the ATL rankings than the USN ones. Above the Law, after all, incorporates measures that affect students deeply (cost, job outcomes, and alumni satisfaction). US News includes factors that seem more esoteric to a potential student.

Also, let’s face it: Above the Law is much more fun to read than US News. Does anyone read US News for any purpose other than rankings? 0Ls read Above the Law for gossip about law schools and the profession. If you like a source and read it regularly, you’re likely to pay attention to its recommendations–including recommendations in the form of rankings.

Alumni

Deans report that their alumni care deeply about the school’s US News rank. Changes in that number may affect the value of a graduate’s degree. School rank also creates bragging rights among other lawyers. We don’t have football or basketball teams at law schools, so what other scores can we brag about?

I predict that alumni will start to pay a lot of attention to Above the Law‘s ranking scheme. Sure, ATL is the site we all love to hate: Alumni, like legal educators, cringe at the prospect of reading about their mistakes on the ever-vigilant ATL. But the important thing is that they do read the site–a lot. They laugh at the foibles of others, nod in agreement with some reports, and keep coming back for more. This builds a lot of good will for Above the Law.

Equally important, whenever Above the Law mentions a law school in a story, it appends information about the school’s ATL rank. For an example, see this recent story about Harvard Law School. (I purposely picked a positive story, so don’t get too excited about following the link.)

Whenever alumni read about their law school–or any law school–in Above the Law, they will see information about ATL’s ranking. This is true even for the 150 schools that are “not ranked” by Above the Law. For them, a box appears reporting that fact along with information about student credentials and graduate employment.

This is an ingenious (and perfectly appropriate) marketing scheme. Alumni who read Above the Law will constantly see references to ATL’s ranking scheme. Many will care about their school’s rank and will pester the school’s dean for improvement. At first, they may not want to admit publicly that they care about an ATL ranking, but that reservation will quickly disappear. US News is a failed magazine; Above the Law is a very successful website. Which one do you think will win in the end?

US News, moreover, has no way to combat this marketing strategy. We’ve already established that no one reads US News for any reason other than the rankings. So US News has no way to keep its rankings fresh in the public’s mind. Readers return to Above the Law week after week.

Law Professors

Law professors will not welcome the ATL rankings. We don’t like any rankings, because they remind us that we’re no longer first in the class. And we certainly don’t like Above the Law, which chronicles our peccadilloes.

Worst of all, ATL rankings don’t fit with our academic culture. We like to think of ourselves as serious-minded people, pursuing serious matters with great seriousness. How could we respect rankings published by a site that makes fun of us and all of our seriousness? Please, be serious.

Except…professors spent a long time ignoring the US News rankings. We finally had to pay attention when everyone else started putting so much weight on them. Law faculty are not leaders when it comes to rankings; we are followers. If students and alumni care about ATL’s rankings, we eventually will pay attention.

University Administrators

People outside academia may not realize how much credence university presidents, provosts, and trustees give the US News rankings. The Board of Trustees at my university has a scorecard for academic initiatives that includes these two factors: (1) rank among public colleges, as determined by USN, and (2) number of graduate or professional programs in the USN top 25. On the first, we aim to improve our rank from 18 to 10. On the second, we hope to increase the number of highly ranked departments from 49 to 65.

These rank-related goals are no longer implicit; they are quite explicit at universities. And, although academic leaders once eschewed US News as a ranking source, they now embrace the system.

Presidents and provosts are likely to laugh themselves silly if law schools clamor to be judged by Above the Law rather than US News. At least for the immediate future, this will restrain ATL’s power within academia.

On the other hand, I remember a time (in the late 1990’s) when presidents and provosts laughed at law schools for attempting to rely upon their US News rank. “Real” academic departments had fancier ranking schemes, like those developed by the National Research Council. But US News was the kudzu of academic rankings: It took over faster than anyone anticipated.

Who’s to say that the Above the Law rankings won’t have their day, at least within legal education?

Meanwhile

Even if US News retains its primary hold on academic rankings, Above the Law may have some immediate impact within law schools. High US News rank, after all, depends upon enrolling talented students. If prospective students pay attention to Above the Law–as I predict they will–then law schools will have to do the same. To maintain class size and student quality, we need to know what students want. For that, Above the Law offers essential information

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  • smwolfson

    FWIW, from my informal polling of my own classes, my law students students don’t commonly read ATL. I don’t think they are too different from students around the country, including students who are not yet in law school. But who knows, really…

    • DC

      Thank God. I didn’t even know ATL existed until halfway through my law program, and then immediately got turned off by how ugly it is (both the humor and the commenting community). I actually almost dropped out of law altogether because I was convinced lawyers as a social group were smug, snide, not-so-secret assholes once you gave them anonymity, and I didn’t want to become one or deal with them. Now I see it’s just a gossip site full of disaffected groupies, so it’s easier not to take it seriously, but I sincerely hope other law students don’t either. Unless it changes somehow to make it worth taking seriously. As they say in Russia, “Humor is no laughing matter.”

      • One of their columnists is awesome. The best ever.

        http://abovethelaw.com/author/kylemcentee/

        • DC

          Really? I’m sorry I insulted you without realizing it, but since you’re here–is the current commentariat culture normal, or am I only seeing one particularly offensive side of it? I’m looking at some of the recent posts on racism, Scalia, etc.–admittedly magnets for readers with conservative political views–and the nastiness (combined with what I see as unproductive and unfunny pseudo-argumentation) is just appalling. I don’t want to write off the whole site based on a brief and coincidental recent impression, so if you tell me to give it more of a chance, I’d be happy to. Just let me know where the less free-for-all-oriented people gather to read.

          ETA: Or, for that matter, let me know some other blog with a similar slant but less bile! I’m always on the lookout for content I can enjoy.

          • Oh, you didn’t insult me! I just write a weekly column, and was being funny. (When you tell someone you’re being funny you are decidedly not funny.)

            I just don’t read the comments on anything but my own columns. They treat me a lot better than they treat other writers, mostly because I am always writing substantive pieces that analyze data, discuss policy, and breaks news.

            I don’t regularly read anything else though. It’s a lot to dig through to get to the decent stuff.

            I also write for Bloomberg Big Law Business. It’s a different readership than ATL — more specialized — but there’s a lot of really good stuff on there.

          • DC

            Awesome. I’ll definitely give both a look.

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