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Before deciding which law school to attend this fall, Eric Singer flipped through the latest U.S. News & World Report law-school rankings. He eventually chose the University of Chicago over New York University, even though NYU is ranked higher overall.
Instead of relying on U.S. News, Mr. Singer scanned independent online sites and research papers and concluded that Chicago has "better clerkship placement, better placement into academia, better national-firm placement, and a stronger faculty," says the 25-year-old teacher in Ann Arbor, Mich. "Law school is a large purchase; you have to be a more informed consumer," he adds.
Since they first began appearing annually in 1990, U.S. News's law-school rankings have been the go-to list for students venturing into the field. While the magazine's business-school rankings face competition from the likes of BusinessWeek and The Wall Street Journal, the magazine has essentially had a monopoly in the law-school realm. But its list has also been heavily criticized by deans and in scores of law-journal articles. Among the complaints from prospective students: In terms of employment, the survey focuses on whether grads are employed but not where they are employed. Flipping burgers would count.
In the last two years, at least a dozen upstart Web sites, academic papers and blogs have stepped in with surveys of their own to feed the hunger for information on everything from the quality of the faculty to what a school's diploma might be worth to future employers.
Last year, a blogger and Notre Dame Law School graduate who goes by the name "law firm addict" began trolling message boards frequented by law students. The blogger invited students to share figures on school representation in law firms' summer-associate programs (one finding: Columbia is the perennial winner in New York), as well as where federal appeals clerks went to school. (This year's winner is Stanford by number of clerks as a percentage of its class.) The information is posted on lawfirmaddict.blogspot.com and lawclerkaddict.blogspot.com.
The blogs "tell you more useful information...than the percent-employed-after-graduation numbers that schools report to U.S. News," says William Rothwell, a third-year student at the University of Chicago Law School. Mr. Rothwell, who contributed figures made available by his school to the clerkship blog, says he trusts the law-firm blog because it has been accurate about summer associates at two offices where he has worked.
Brian Leiter, a University of Texas-Austin law professor, posts lists ranging from Supreme Court clerkship placement (the University of Virginia outperforms its U.S. News ranking) to scholarly reputation (outperformers versus U.S. News include the University of Southern California). In 2005 he created his own ad-suppored site, leiterrankings.com.
The U.S. News rankings weigh 12 factors, including bar-passage rate and application-acceptance rate. Among the biggest criticisms of its methodology: Figures used by U.S. News to calculate the rankings are self-reported and are vulnerable to manipulation by schools.
The law-school rankings methodology "was developed and has been refined over the years with significant input from legal educators and other academic experts in the legal field," says Cynthia Powell, a spokeswoman for U.S. News. She adds: "If law schools are fabricating data for the rankings, they are also submitting fabricated data that their own accrediting body requires them to submit each year."
Knowing the value of a school's diploma to firms that pay big first-year salaries has grown more important as law school has become a bigger investment. Between 1987 and 2005, the average public law school's resident tuition increased to $13,145 from $2,398, while the average private-school tuition jumped to $28,900 from $8,911, according to the American Bar Association. Graduates in 2006 of public and private law schools had borrowed an average of $54,500 and $83,000, respectively, according to the ABA.
Some students say it's a mistake to rely too much on U.S. News. Keyan Rahimi-Keshari last year chose to attend Vanderbilt University Law School in Nashville, Tenn., ranked 16th in U.S. News, over 36th-ranked California-Hastings in large part because of the rank differential. But he couldn't get a summer-job interview from any of the 40 firms he applied to in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he wants to work after graduation. The magazine's rankings, he has concluded, doesn't account for the fact that schools below the top 10 may not carry as much weight with employers outside their region. He's considering transferring to a California school.
The inspiration for the "addict" blogs was a research paper tracing more than 15,000 graduates from 2001-2003. It was written in 2005 by Anthony Ciolli, then a University of Pennsylvania law student. Using databases on firm associates and bar admission, he measured how many jobs graduates from various schools scored at top firms in nine U.S. regions. (Nationally, Chicago took top honors.)
Richard Posner, a federal appeals court judge, wrote in a 2005 paper that U.S. News does a "pretty good job of grouping law schools by tier," but that alternative rankings could help differentiate them further. Using LSAT data and numerous sets of rankings, Judge Posner created a "composite" ranking in which Colorado and Fordham made the biggest gains over their U.S. News rank.
Meanwhile, two law professors from the universities of Illinois and Indiana say they are in talks with a major trade publication to publish data as early as this fall. It would rank schools by the percentage of a graduating class that lands jobs at the 200 or so biggest law firms.