April 10, 2024

Beyond the U.S. News & World Report “Best Law Schools” Ranking

Paige Wilson, Senior Research Analyst, AccessLex Center for Legal Education Excellence®
Research and Data


U.S. News & World Report released its highly anticipated annual “Best Law Schools” list this week, continuing to adapt the methodology behind the rankings amid an ongoing boycott of some law schools that declined to participate in the publication’s annual survey. Despite legitimate and long-standing critique of the rankings, their use and influence have persisted, primarily because U.S. News caters to a real consumer need for comparative information about law school quality. Nonetheless, admission advisors such as Spivey Consulting caution against weighing rankings significantly in the law school choice process, and counsel applicants to “never put much stock in year-to-year changes.”

To that end, what alternatives to the U.S. News & World Report “Best Law Schools” ranking exist to help students identify the best law school for them? Below are three additional resources that prospective law students and pre-law advisors should consider.

XploreJD by AccessLex®

XploreJD enables students to generate their own list of law schools based on the factors that are most important to them. It is intentionally designed to educate students about the law school experience and encourage them to consider schools that align with their priorities. With students weighting law school factors, XploreJD’s results are inherently more transparent than the rankings.

How do you use it?

XploreJD elicits careful thought from pre-law students in exchange for greater payoff. The website guides students through a set of questions that ask about their preferences on a host of factors. Students can specify preferences including location, class size, curriculum specializations, employment and bar passage outcomes, and student and faculty diversity. Items that are not interesting or important can be skipped. After providing their responses, students weight up to 10 factors that are most important to their law school choice. Finally, the website provides a custom list of law schools that best match their needs.

Value-added Modeling

XploreJD is a great resource for aspiring law students to select and compare a custom list of law schools. However, pre-law advisors may benefit from information that contextualizes law school value for their students using empirical approaches to measure a law school’s return on investment. Value-added modeling is one promising method for achieving this goal.

What is it?

Value-added modeling is an evaluation approach that allows researchers to determine how much law schools exceed their expected outcomes based on student inputs. The difference between the expected and actual outcome is interpreted as the law school’s value-add. An AccessLex publication calculated the extent to which law schools over and under perform on their bar exam rates given baseline characteristics of their entering classes, including LSAT and UGPA (read a brief summary of this research). Other research takes a similar approach, examining employment outcomes in addition to bar passage.

Why is it different than U.S. News rankings?

The value-added approach gives access-oriented law schools greater footing by accounting for entering class credentials. This differs from the U.S. News methodology, which gives schools credit for both attracting students with high LSAT scores and undergraduate GPAs and having high outcome measures (e.g., employment), without considering the extent to which entering classes predict those outcomes. Instead, value-added modeling rewards what matters in a law school: how well it prepares students to enter the legal profession given the characteristics of students they admit. Notably, our report found that the top value-adding law schools reflected a vastly different list than the top-ranked law schools according to U.S. News. This approach can help demonstrate aspects of law school value that are difficult to measure, such as the totality of services, supports, and experiences schools offer and their impact on student outcomes.

ABA Data and Related Tools

Finally, indexes and rankings aside, all comparisons of law school quality above rely on underlying data sources. Aspiring law students as well as law schools, accreditors, and researchers can go straight to the source to answer their own questions about law school. The most complete publicly available datasets describing American law schools come from the American Bar Association. Analytix by AccessLex®, MyRank by Spivey Consulting, and Law School Transparency are three examples of free online resources that repackage this data in a user-friendly format. The American Bar Association Standard 509 Information Reports are published every winter, and ABA Bar Passage and Employment data is published every spring. This law school-level data includes LSAT and UGPA percentiles, enrollment counts, attrition and transfer counts, degrees awarded, and much more. 

The influence and market for rankings may never fully dissipate, but pre-law advisors should continue encouraging students to leverage other resources to inform law school choice. XploreJD, value-added modeling, and Analytix are just a few options that pre-law advisors and aspiring law students can use and embrace to make the most informed decisions possible. U.S. News rankings may have a place in the decision-making process of prospective law students, but a school's ranking is just one of many factors that should be considered when making such an important, high-stakes decision and investment.