Paul L. Caron

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

U.S. News Rankings: Law v. Undergrad

One of the perennial questions about the U.S. News & World Report rankings is how much a law school is helped or hurt by the ranking of the university of which it is a part.  Of the Top 100 (105 with ties) law schools in the most recent ranking, all but 13 are affiliated with national universities.  Here are the Top 100 law schools that have overcome the most headwind -- the law schools with the biggest positive spread between its ranking and the ranking of its parent university [click on chart to enlarge]:


Note that the chart understates the spread in many cases, because it assigns the highest possible ranking to schools in the Third (#131) and Fourth (#196) Tier of the National Universities Rankings.

Other Top 20 law schools that are ranked significantly higher than their parent universities are Michigan (#8 Law, #25 National University), Virginia (#10, #23), USC (#16, #27), and UCLA (#15, #25).

Update:  Several readers commented that since U.S News ranks more national universities (262) than law schools (184), a more meaningful measure would look at the disparity by percentiles rather than by absolute rank.  See here for a ranking by percentiles.

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» Law School Rankings vs. Parent University Rankings from Concurring Opinions
Over at TaxProf, Professor Paul Caron has a chart of law schools that outrank their parent universities in the US News rankings. Some law schools far outrank their universities. I often wonder what effect the standing of the main university... [Read More]

Tracked on Nov 13, 2007 8:51:00 AM


There are not too many law schools. There are too many law schools in the wrong places. Thus, we should treat law schools like sports franchises and allow them to be "sold" to different cities. It didn't work for Ave Maria, but that is an unusual case.

Posted by: Apep | Nov 14, 2007 6:33:22 AM

Hanah hits on a good point. I got a JD from Southern Methodist Univ. in the early 1990's. At that time , it was the only accredited law school in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex (approx. pop. 3-4 million at that time). I had two class mates who had been admitted to Georgetown Law School and another had gotten into Duke. However, two of them had spouses with good jobs in the area so they went to SMU. The third was from Dallas, he liked living there, and knew he wanted to stay there after he graduated. The closest law schools were Baylor Univ. in Waco (relatively well thought of, but in Waco) and the Univ. of Oklahoma which was ranked significantly lower. There are all kinds of reasons people choose graduate/professional schools. It is certainly nice to have a law degree from a Yale or a Harvard but it isn't necessary to get a good job at a good firm. The only place that I can think of that you might be discriminated against without a top 10-15 law school degree is academia. If you intend to practice privately or as a prosecutor, going to the best local school in the area where you intend to reside after school has a lot of advantages. Therefore, at least in regard to criteria like student body LSAT scores and GPA and number of applicants vs. available spots, it isn't surprising that law schools may have different rankings than their host university.

Posted by: jt007 | Nov 13, 2007 10:47:29 PM

Since I attended Houston for both undergrad and law, I suppose I moved up in the world just by staying put. From my observation here I would boil it down to three factors (1) prospective legal market (2) cost and (3) market for students.

Market for students v. cost is the main factor - for undergrads, Houston competes in essentially the same market for students as higher-ranked state institutions University of Texas and Texas A&M which therefore have similar price-points and with Rice as a more expensive, higher-ranked private option. For law schools only the University of Texas is in the same market among state institutions and South Texas and Thurgood Marshall are much more expensive, lower-ranked private institutions. From a cost-benefit perspective, Houston is up against more competitive schools at a equal price point for undergrads but less competitive higher price point schools for law school. The differential is probably exacerbated by the fact that the University of Houston is located in the deeply impoverished third ward neighborhood, which is generally seen as undesirable by prospective undergrads but is probably less of a factor for law students.

Then the legal market in Houston seems pretty healthy. Anecdotally at least, students who have done reasonably well (30% and up, approximately) generally seem to be able to land summer associate gigs without too much trouble. The school also benefits from a generally robust economy that lures unsuspecting future law students to the city for jobs, many of whom then choose to stay for law school. This also accounts for our fairly active evening program.

From that perspective, I would predict most of these high-differential schools are similar in that they are (1) located in a good legal market (Houston, Atlanta, D.C.) or the only market within geographic proximity (Las Vegas, Utah) and (2) are relatively low cost compared with institutions in the same market (3) those markets are much more competitive for undergrads than for law students. I would also predict that these schools would have robust evening law programs for the same reasons.

Posted by: Houston Law & Undergrad | Nov 13, 2007 8:35:24 PM

George Mason is a very interesting case in point.

The law school is located just across the Potomac from DC. The school has pursued a conservative legal philosophy a la Univ. of Chicago, and has benefitted tremendously over the last 20 years from its close proximity to conservative GOP Administrations.

Yet the parent school, while a nice institution, is generally regarded as a commuter school for the residents of Northern Virginia.

Posted by: Shipwreckedcrew | Nov 13, 2007 2:10:38 PM

I agree that a lot of this is geography-driven; some areas have lots of law schools relative to the population, and others do not. You would think that areas with few law schools would be higher ranked. Another example to ponder: The University of Minnesota Law School is ranked higher than the University of Minnesota overall, despite the fact that there are three other law schools in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area.

Maybe the real question is, are there too many law schools producing too many underemployed and debt-carrying lawyers, and the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out.

Posted by: John N. | Nov 13, 2007 1:10:21 PM

Does this adjust for the greater number of host schools overall (compared with the number of law schools) and the number of top-ranked schools without law schools (e.g., Princeton, MIT, etc.)? I would expect law schools to rank higher in absolute numbers than their host schools for just those reasons. The more appropriate question is where law schools rank in percentile terms versus their host schools.

Posted by: Jim G | Nov 13, 2007 9:58:43 AM

I wonder how much of this can be accounted for by the lack of other highly-ranked law schools in the region. University of Houston, at the top of the list, screams out for this answer. Houston is the fourth-largest city in the U.S., and has the #17 U.S. News national university, Rice University. But Rice doesn't have a law school. That leaves University of Houston and two other fourth-tier law schools to fill the entire market.

Austin, the home of University of Texas, is a three-hour drive from Houston. That makes it an impractical option for someone who has personal reasons to stay in Houston.

I'm not familiar with most of the other schools on your list. George Mason is an obvious counterexample, since it shares a market with Georgetown and George Washington. Any other thoughts on this?

Posted by: Hanah | Nov 13, 2007 9:02:13 AM