Ranking Law Schools

Read the earlier sections of this article:

I. Paths to Law Teaching
II. Chicago Alumni in Academia
III. The Mechanics of the Academic Job Market in Law

IV. Ranking Law Schools

When you look for academic jobs, you will no doubt start wondering about the "quality" of different schools. What people think about "quality" or "reputation" of different schools is often various and controversial, reflecting regional and intellectual biases, as well as sometimes ignorance. When the time comes, you should consider talking to faculty here for their impressions. There are some general resources available as well. Although the annual U.S. News rankings are produced using an indefensible methodology (as even the consultants U.S. News hired told them in 1997!), U.S. News does (as part of its overall ranking) conduct "academic reputation" surveys, and the results of that will give you some rough indication of the national standing of various schools. These rankings come out usually in late March or early April each year. You may also want to look at my ranking site (www.leiterrankings.com), which collects a lot of different kinds of information about many (not all) law schools.

As a prospective law teacher, however, there is much more to consider than simply the national academic reputation of the school.  The following factors are ones you may want to take into account:

(1)  Opportunities for Scholarship:  Does the school encourage scholarship? Is the teaching load reasonable (2 courses per term is the norm; 1 course each year is usually a seminar)? Is there adequate research support? What is the sabbatical policy of the school? Is scholarship an important part of getting tenure? If a school is committed to scholarship, then regardless of its "national" standing, you will have the satisfaction of being able to pursue research and writing, and thereby perhaps also create other professional opportunities for yourself down the line.

(2)  Quality of the Student Body:  Quality of student body does not always track national reputation. The median LSAT of students at the University of Iowa--often regarded as one of the top 20 law schools--is about the same as for students at the University of San Diego--a strong regional school, usually ranked in the top third of America's roughly 180 accredited law schools. The reason is simple:  USD is the leading law school in San Diego, one of the nation's largest metropolitan areas, plus San Diego is an attractive place for students to spend time. Thus, factors having nothing to do with national reputation conspire to produce a fairly good student body.

Almost all state law schools, whatever their reputation, will have some outstanding students, lured there by the bargain cost of a legal education. Schools with a special identity--e.g., religious institutions like Notre Dame or Brigham Young or Baylor--will often attract excellent students who want to study law in that environment. In short, you can find satisfying teaching opportunities at numerous schools throughout the country. As a crude measure, schools with median LSAT's around 160-162 and median GPA's around 3.3 are the best bets for having a certain number of quite strong students.

(3)  Teaching Environment:  What is the student-faculty ratio like? How big are the classes (first-year, upper-level electives, seminars)? How much flexibility will you have in deciding what courses to teach and in designing courses or seminars? Are students encouraged to work with faculty on independent research projects? Does the faculty take teaching seriously? Teaching is an enormous pleasure, as well as a wonderful learning experience; if you don't think you'll enjoy teaching, you probably want to re-think whether you want to pursue an academic career.

(4)  Institutional Resources:  How good is the law library? Does the library provide good service to the faculty (ask faculty!)? Does the law library have special collections of value or interest to you? Does the school have up-to-date computer facilities--for faculty use, for research, etc.? Does the school provide each faculty member with a personal computer? If this is a law school that is part of a full-scale university, what are the strengths of the university? Are there particularly good departments of interest to you? How is the general university library? All these factors can make a difference in the quality of intellectual life and your ability to pursue research efficiently.

(5)  Special Strengths:  Many law schools, though not nationally ranked, have special areas of distinction. I began my career at the University of San Diego, where there was a strong commitment to jurisprudence and law and philosophy:  there were several faculty with interests in that area, as well as regular outside speakers and conferences on jurisprudential topics; the library, though not especially large, had an exceptional collection of philosophical materials. The University of Houston is known nationally for its program in Health Law. The University of Nebraska has an excellent program in law and psychology. There are many other examples of this sort.

(6)  Collegiality:  Relations among the faculty members are an important part of your quality of life as an academic. Do members of the faculty get along with each other? Do they interact professionally and/or socially? Are there "factions" and acrimony? Do faculty help their colleagues with their work:  e.g. reading drafts, discussing ideas, etc.? Are faculty around the school, in their offices, or do they teach their classes and leave? Are the faculty committed to being academics, or do many of them spend lots of time practicing law "on the side"?

Continue to the next section of this article:

V. Upward Mobility

Appendix A: University of Chicago Law School Alumni in Academia

Appendix B: Model Resume for On-Campus Interviews (PDF)