By Elizabeth G. Olson
FORTUNE -- Deans of the country's law schools are either kicking back and breathing a sigh of relief, or quivering in their boots, amid the release of the much-feared U.S. News & World Report on national law school rankings.
The annual rankings, released Tuesday, frame the pecking order for law schools in the U.S. and help determine such practical items as the amount of tuition they can charge for the three-year professional degree. And that is no small matter considering that the country's 200-plus law schools are vying as never before for students as enrollment continues to tumble and more students face a disappointing job market.
As expected, Yale Law School claimed the No. 1 spot, followed by Harvard at No. 2 -- a rivalry with historical roots beyond the U.S. News & World Report listings, which launched in 1990. This year was sweet for Harvard, as it swapped positions and beat out Stanford, for second place. Columbia, University of Virginia, and other prestigious institutions rounded out the top 10, with little surprise.
Critics routinely denounce the rankings as misleading and incomplete, but almost anyone connected in any way with the legal profession obsesses over the results.
For the institutions that moved down the yardstick, second-guessing came fast and furious. Washington & Lee Law School, for example, sank 17 notches, to No. 43, showing how the overhaul in job placement numbers are affecting the rankings.
Last year, the report gave a heavier weight to job placement, which served to shake up the middle law school tiers. It also encouraged some deep-pocketed law schools to fund a swath of their unemployed graduates (essentially, giving them jobs) for the nine-month period in which employment is reported to the American Bar Association.
Funding sources can be harder to discern, but there is no question that the post-graduation employment figures are pulling down some schools' rankings. Washington & Lee reported that slightly less than 60% of its 2012 graduates had found jobs, a decline from about 63% the previous year.
Dean Nora Demleitner attributes the school's drop to "the poor employment and bar passage numbers from 2012, the year that figures into this year's rankings." The Lexington, Va.-based school, she says, has begun to give "stronger bar support and changes in our approach to the employment market," which already has shown improvements for the class of 2013.
At the same time, enrollment at Washington & Lee was down 40%, which also could have been affected by its overhaul of the third year to focus on "practice ready" skills, which has been all the rage as law school administrators try to push back against evaporating enrollment and jobs. Demleitner says she does not believe the ranking "reflects on our third-year curriculum reform," noting that it is likely to "take five to 10 years for the benefits of the program to become apparent."
American University's law school plunged 16 slots, from No. 56 last year -- likely a sign that its nine-month-out employment placement of 53.6% does not pass U.S. News & World Report muster. That compared to an 83% employment figure, for the same period, from Louisiana State University law school, in Baton Rouge.
"There's no question that employment is a major driver for the rankings," said Mike Spivey, a law school consultant.
On the upswing are Emory University's law school, which rose four places, to No. 19, and the College of William and Mary's Marshall Wythe law school, which moved up nine places, to No. 24, tied with University of Washington. Penn State jumped 13 places to No. 51, after tying at No. 64 last year with several other law schools.
Emory has expanded its career counseling to match its graduates with available openings, which Spivey praised as "a longer-term effort that will pay larger dividends than schools that take the shorter-term route of funding their recent graduates. After 18 months, the funding generally runs out, and graduates are left to fend for themselves."
William & Mary Dean Davison Douglas attributes the law school's better showing to "improved graduate job placement figures," noting that more than 85% of 2012 graduates had jobs within nine months of graduation, compared to 68% the previous year."
On the opposite end, Suffolk Law in Boston fell completely off the top 150 this year from No. 144 last year. New York Law School, which has faced accusations that its job placement promises have been misleading, beat out Suffolk, going from unranked to No. 140 on this year's list, tied with Pace Law, in White Plains, N.Y.
Despite reorienting the rankings to include more real-world concerns, Kyle McEntee, founder of Law School Transparency, writes on Law.com that "despite the importance of job outcomes, they account for only 18% of the rank and credit schools for jobs few attend law school to pursue."
McEntee also takes the rankings to task for making national comparisons when "only a handful of schools have a truly national reach in job placement. The rest have a regional, in-state, or even just local reach." So comparing two schools in broadly different geographical locations is "virtually meaningless. Graduates from these schools do not compete with one another," he writes.
"It turns out," he says, "that 161 schools place at least half of their employed class of 2012 graduates in one state. The top state destination for each school accounts for 67.3% of employed graduates.
"A much smaller 7.7% of employed graduates go to a school's second-most popular destination, with just 4.4% of employed graduates working in the third-most popular destination. Only 20.6% of employed graduates (16.9% of the entire class) end up in a state other than the top three," he says.
However, "rankings are not inherently bad," he concludes, adding that "credibility may be lost when methodologies are unsound, through irrational weighting or meaningless metrics, or when the scope is too broad."
Spivey agrees, but he notes that "my phone has been ringing off the hook [with] people concerned about whether they should go to a school which dropped one place, or [if] they [can] transfer to another school if their current school lost out.
"The rankings do dramatically impact behavior."
More people are working longer and retiring later than ever before, but very few make it past 50 years at a single employer.
By Vickie Elmer
FORTUNE -- More people are working longer and retiring later than ever before in U.S. history -- yet very few toil long enough to receive a 50-year pin or party from a single employer.
Those who reach the 50-year mark are rare enough to merit articles MOREFeb 28, 2014 5:00 AM ET
Going back to school for a year or two can qualify job seekers for one of 4.6 million new health care jobs in the years ahead.
FORTUNE -- Dear Annie: I've spent my whole 16-year career so far in the commercial real estate brokerage business, and I'd like to make a complete change, ideally by moving into a job that really helps people. I keep hearing that health care is booming MOREAnne Fisher, contributor - Dec 13, 2013 10:48 AM ET
Conventional wisdom says higher wages for employees always mean higher prices, lower profits, or both. But what if that's just not true?Anne Fisher, contributor - Dec 12, 2013 10:34 AM ET
More than 200,000 skilled factory jobs are going begging. A wave of Boomer retirements could make the labor shortage even worse.
FORTUNE -- "Manufacturing has an image problem," says Paul Gerbino, head of industrial-supply trade publishers ThomasNet News. "People think of it as dirty, dark, and low-paying." That stereotype is one reason why companies that make tangible products are struggling to find candidates for about 237,000 job openings. To put that MOREAnne Fisher, contributor - Nov 5, 2013 5:00 AM ET
The workers who have emerged from the rough economy are more weary and skeptical than before the financial crisis.Aug 30, 2013 5:00 AM ET
Smaller applicant pools mean more aid, and potential students are using it to their advantage.
By Elizabeth G. Olson
FORTUNE -- As law schools open their doors this month, they are expecting the smallest class of students since the 1970s. The drop in student numbers means fewer student loans, which could dent law school coffers by almost $500 million, according to some calculations.
To stanch the losses, law schools are taking steps MOREAug 15, 2013 10:16 AM ET
This is an all-hands-on-deck issue, and we cannot rest until every single veteran and military spouse who is searching for a job has found one.
By Michelle Obama and Jill Biden
FORTUNE -- Two years ago, we launched Joining Forces, a nationwide campaign to rally all Americans to support our veterans and military families. We did this for two simple reasons: because we were both awed by the courage and sacrifice MOREApr 30, 2013 7:00 AM ET
A scientific calculation of a critical personal metric.
By Stanley Bing
FORTUNE – Now that we're through the lethal Christmas Firing Season, when corporations celebrate what should be the happiest time of the year by heaving people from the balustrades, it may be a good time to assess our chances of making it through all four quarters of the current calendar year. I believe I've stumbled upon a powerful mathematical tool MOREFeb 6, 2013 5:00 AM ET
As your health history moves from the file cabinet to the hard drive, technicians are needed to make the switch.
By Alex Konrad, reporter
FORTUNE -- Why it's hot: Just two years ago, about one in five hospitals used electronic health records (EHR). Thanks to an incentive program from the government, the number is growing fast: More than 3,600 hospitals (about 72%) received payments to transition to EHR as of the MORESep 18, 2012 5:00 AM ET
|Fears grow over China property flameout|
|Detroit to auction vacant homes online. Starting bid: $1,000|
|How Zuck met Oculus: Facebook's big bet on virtual reality|
|Researchers claim to hack fingerprint sensor on Samsung's new Galaxy S5|
|China GDP slows to 7.4% in first quarter|