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., 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.


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?


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

, View Comments (6)

About Law School Cafe

Cafe Manager & Co-Moderator
Deborah J. Merritt

Cafe Designer & Co-Moderator
Kyle McEntee

ABA Journal Blawg 100 HonoreeLaw School Cafe is a resource for anyone interested in changes in legal education and the legal profession.

Around the Cafe


Enter your email address to receive notifications of new posts by email.


Recent Comments

Recent Posts

Monthly Archives


Have something you think our audience would like to hear about? Interested in writing one or more guest posts? Send an email to the cafe manager at We are interested in publishing posts from practitioners, students, faculty, and industry professionals.

Past and Present Guests