U.S. News Rankings and BigLaw Placement

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The annual ritual of debating the U.S. News and World Report law school rankings is being acted out again, as the former magazine issued its 2012 rankings. (U.S. News is now an entirely Internet-based presence, and its school rankings are its raison d’etre.) While Yale Law School is unsurprisingly ranked first again, it is notable that the University of Texas has cracked the virtually static “T-14,” albeit as the fifteenth school (due to a tie with Georgetown). The complete rankings are available here.

Though U.S. News is widely considered the definitive source of rankings for national law schools, when held up against actual placement data it is less clear that these rankings correlate with what arguably matters most, particularly in a bad economy: getting jobs at prominent law firms. The National Law Journal recently came out with its own rankings of the so-called “Go-To Law Schools” (available here). In this list, which purports to rank schools by likelihood of graduates landing BigLaw jobs, two of the perennial top-three U.S. News law schools—Yale and Stanford—do not even make the top 10, while the University of Chicago, Cornell, Columbia, and Penn place first through fourth (ahead of #5 Harvard Law School).

The public policy implications of the country’s legal recruiting process are significant. If plaintiff firms are to compete meaningfully for top legal talent, fee-shifting statutes (and judicial interpretation of them in the form of fee awards) must take into account the economic realities of firms that rely entirely on contingency-fee arrangements. Otherwise, BigLaw will maintain its hold on debt-ridden graduates from elite law schools, ultimately skewing the debate on key legal issues and undermining the enforcement of employee and consumer protections.