If one is interested enough to get beyond the chatter about which law schools rose or fell a couple of places in the 2009 US News ranking, one might want to ask “where are the Top 10, or 20 (or even 30) law schools of 1996 now? Click on the image (left) to find out. You might note the position gains/losses for some Top 10 schools — Penn, plus 4 from 11 to 7, Duke, minus 4 from 8 to 12, but the Top 10 list is relatively stable and that’s hardly news.
The same can be said for law schools ranked 11-20 in 1996 with two notable exceptions, Iowa minus 8, from 19 to 27; and Illinois minus 7, from 20 to tied in 27th place with Iowa in 2009. Note also that Washington (St. Louis) advanced to 19th place in 2009 from 29th place in 1996.
Note well, the above-mentioned one-on-one 1996-2009 comparisons are probably misleading because US News changed its ranking method.
Historical Perspective. Any given year, law schools’ US News fortunes rise and fall. Up 3 in US News one year, down 5 the next. The one-year comparison isn’t very meaningful. It’s just absurd fodder for University and law school PR machines. See Brian Leiter’s (Texas) comments, Hall of Shame: Schools Publicizing Their Meaningless US News Ranking.
Given that US News rankings will be used, I think prospective law students, aspiring law profs, and others should be asking, how long has a law school been in the Top 10 or 20 (or even 30)? Is the current rank a fluke? Has a school’s ranking shown incremental increases or declines during the last 5 or 10 or more years?
To answer these questions, click on the below image. It is a table that displays every law school that made the US News Top 30 at least once from 1996 through 2009. These schools are listed by name by their 2009 rank. A line chart plotting ranking change by school would have been too busy so table cells are colorized according to the following groupings: dark red for 1-10; teal for 11-20; blue-grey for 21-30; and medium gray for Below 30.
I think that by colorizing the table cells, one can visualize just how established the boundaries are for each tier. Despite US News ranking method changes only 39 schools have been ranked 30 or better during this 14-year period. It’s a small group, smaller than I expected. Smaller still but not a surprise — only 24 schools ranked in the Top 20 and 13 in the Top 10. Some sort of general US News “echo chamber” effect in play?” See Brian Leiter’s posts on the echo chamber effect of US News peer review scores here.
Mindful of 1990s rank method changes, one can view the incremental changes in an individual law school’s rank that led to the school breaking through the ceiling of a higher tier or falling through the floor into a lower tier. One can also easily spot unusual one-year declines that should be ignored. For example, how does a school like Texas go from 17-18th place for 1996-98, to 29th in 1999, then moves to 15th place in 2000 and for the next six years? The 1999 rank should be ignored. You’ll see other instances where the rank reported for a law school in a particular year is too questionable to be taken seriously.
Endnote. Why not provide historical data for the Top 50 or Top 100 law schools? Because I subscribe to the notion that if a law school isn’t listed in the US News Top 20 or its Fourth Tier, the ranking becomes increasingly more insignificant in the marketplace. “Top 20” and “Fourth Tier” mean something. Between the two lies the legal academy’s middle ground, a large dot on the map that represents 69% of the ranked schools this year. [JH]