Stanford tops new ranking of America's best law schools

October 17, 2013: 10:25 AM ET

Stanford students' post-graduation success—arguably the most important thing to consider when choosing a law school—tips the balance in favor of the Silicon Valley powerhouse over perennial rankings favorite Yale Law.

By Maya Itah

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(TippingTheScales) -- A new analysis of legal education shows that Stanford University Law School has the best J.D. program in the country, narrowly edging perennial favorite Yale Law School. The debut ranking of the nation's best law schools comes from TippingTheScales.com, a new website devoted to the coverage of J.D. degrees and law schools.

No. 2 Yale is right on Stanford's heels, followed by No. 3 Harvard, No. 4 Penn -- which is No. 7 on U.S. News & World Report's list -- and No. 5 Columbia. Aside from Stanford, every top five school in Tipping the Scales' ranking is an Ivy League institution in a large, Northeastern metropolitan area.

The new ranking differs in both subtle and substantive ways from U.S. News & World Report's annual take on law schools, which has always put Yale at the top. TippingTheScales' ranking zeroes in on two key dimensions of the J.D. experience: the quality of the students getting into a law school and the success of the graduates going out. These metrics are simple to understand and they get at what really counts in a law school education. Applicants want to know that their classmates will be as good as they are, that a school is highly selective in crafting its classes, and that at the end of the experience they will have a job and sizable compensation.

In the new ranking, the scores for schools' acceptance rates and median LSAT results are weighted 25% each. TippingTheScales rewards schools that can be choosy about the students they accept. Another 25% depends on the percentage of graduates that don their caps knowing they have jobs lined up. Finally, median private sector salaries and median public interest salaries count for 12.5% each. Money isn't everything, but it's undeniably important for the many lawyers saddled with student loans.

TippingTheScales left out information that's harder to quantify and far more likely to be suspect, if not downright flawed. For example, in U.S. News' ranking, input from deans and other faculty members accounts for 25% of schools' index scores. Those opinion surveys are little more than popularity contests because deans and faculty have only limited knowledge of what is going on at schools other than their own.

For similar reasons, TippingTheScales also did not include the opinions of legal professionals. Most of them would only vote for their alma maters, anyway. Yet, U.S. News annually polls law firm partners, state attorneys general, and federal and state judges, whose opinions count for 15% of that magazine's ranking scores. The new ranking also doesn't include a fuzzy category used by U.S. News called "faculty resources"—expenditures per student, student-faculty ratio, and library resources. Frankly, that only gets in the way of the more important criteria to determine the true quality of a law school.

The result: Stanford ekes out a win over Yale, even though it is harder to get into Yale than Stanford. Stanford's acceptance rate is slightly higher, and its median LSAT score is slightly lower. Stanford's index score in TippingTheScales' ranking is just 0.125 higher than Yale's. Admittedly, that's not statistically meaningful. Still, a win is a win.

And how does Stanford come out ahead? Its students' post-graduation success—arguably the most important thing to consider when choosing a law school—tips the balance in favor of the Silicon Valley powerhouse. Stanford's biggest gain comes from the percentage of students who have jobs at graduation: 93.2% compared to Yale's 90.7%. The median private sector starting salary for graduates of both schools is $160,000, which is typical for elite law schools, but at $62,401, Stanford's median public interest starting salary is higher than Yale's $60,000. The difference isn't enormous, but it breaks Stanford's way.

It's fitting for Stanford to do well in a ranking that puts tradition aside. The law school brands itself as an "incubator for innovation." "Our neighbors include most of the world's leading high-tech, biotech, and venture capital firms," its website proclaims. Students who choose to focus on science and technology have the opportunity to engage with industry leaders, work on cyberlaw cases, and combine their JDs with degrees in STEM fields like computer science and bioengineering—fields in which Stanford University has a stellar reputation.

Though collegiality doesn't factor into our ranking, it's worth noting that Stanford Law School's small size makes fostering community easier. First-year sections generally have 30 students—not 60—and most upper division classes have fewer than 25 students. (It's probably no coincidence that No. 2 Yale is a small school, too.)

The new list yielded a few other surprises. Georgia State, No. 54 in U.S. News' ranking, is No. 24 on TippingTheScales' list. For one, Georgia State has an acceptance rate of 26.8%, which means it's harder to get into than NYU, UT-Austin, Georgetown, and a number of other well-regarded law schools. Combine the competitive admissions process with the fact that 64.5% of Georgia State students graduate with a job lined up—not too bad for a law school—and the fact that the median public interest salary is a respectable $54,268, and you have a winner. No. 25 George Mason also fared surprisingly well: in U.S. News' ranking, it's only No. 41. Like Georgia State, the school has a slightly lower acceptance rate than NYU.

Some of the surprises were less positive. Iowa, ranked No. 26 by U.S. News, is off TippingTheScales' list entirely. Though the school still enjoys a solid reputation, it has a 48.7% acceptance rate, and almost the exact same percentage of the class of 2011 graduated with a job lined up. Washington and Lee, tied with Iowa in the U.S. News ranking, made the cut—but it's at No. 44. A dismal 27.9% of the class of 2011 was employed at graduation; it's hard to recover from that.

Rankings are important, but they occasionally make it hard for applicants to think in terms of return on investment. The top 10 schools have promising statistics, but they also tend to be incredibly expensive. And though the schools farther down might not look as good on paper, their price tags alone make them worth considering. No. 16 Alabama costs $32,920—for out-of-staters. That's $15,148 less than California residents pay to go to Berkeley. And the difference between the two just about pays for a year of in-state tuition at Georgia State. That's one area where Stanford simply can't compete.

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