Northwestern University

After flirting with the top 10 on the U.S. News & World Report’s annual law school rankings for most of the past decade, Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law has finally broken through.

Northwestern tied with Duke Law School for the No. 10 spot, one of several notable changes among the top schools on this year’s list, which was released Tuesday. Those changes did not include Yale Law School, which retained its position at No. 1.

Stanford Law School elbowed out Harvard Law School to claim the No. 2 spot—the two schools had tied for second the past four years. Harvard last held the No. 3 spot in 2013.

Duke moved back into the top 10 after falling briefly to No. 11 last year. The gains achieved by Duke and Northwestern came at the expense of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, a longtime fixture in the bottom half of the top 10, which fell from No. 8 last year to No. 12 this year.

Law school administrators love to hate the U.S. News rankings, but the annual list has an outsize influence on law school applicants and on a school’s perceived prestige. Unlike business schools, which are ranked be numerous entities, U.S. News is the only major ranking of overall law school quality.

Interim Berkeley Dean Melissa Murray said in a written statement that she expects the rankings dip to be an anomaly caused by small declines in several areas measured by U.S. News, including the school’s graduate employment rate and its peer assessment figure—which reflects what other legal academics think of the school. Murray alluded to the sexual harassment scandal that engulfed former dean Sujit Choudhry last year and led to his ouster.

“This is not particularly surprising given the leadership tumult that we experienced last spring,” she wrote. “Although it had no material effect on our academic program, Berkeley Law was prominently in the news for all the wrong reasons for much of the past year. As a consequence, our reputation among other law schools likely suffered.”

The move into the top 10 is a welcome development for Northwestern, according to Dean Daniel Rodriguez. The Chicago school has spent most of the past decade at No. 12, but came tantalizing close in 2011 then it was No. 11. The school’s employment metrics remained fairly stable, and its peer assessment score nudged up.

“It’s a morale boost and a shot in the arm for our community and shows us that that world has seen the progress we’ve made,” Rodriguez said, while also acknowledging that the rankings don’t capture every aspect of a school’s quality and that schools frequently move up and down. “There something to being able to say to your community, ‘We’re a Top 10 school.’ There’s an artificiality about that, but in the public consciousness, there are these lines that we draw.”

Among other changes high on the list, the University of Texas School of Law and Georgetown University Law Center flipped, leaving Texas at No. 14 and Georgetown at No. 15. That seemingly small change has somewhat larger implications since it pushes Georgetown out of the so-called T14 schools, an informal designation of the top 14 schools that is widely used in legal circles.

Rutgers Law School saw the largest increase this year, rocketing up 30 spots to snag the No. 62 position.

For the first time ever, U.S. News incorporated GRE scores into its law school rankings methodology. Only one American Bar Association-accredited law school accepted GRE scores last year—the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law—and only 12 Arizona students were admitted with those scores. But use of the GRE is law admissions appears poised to increase. Harvard Law School announced last week that it will accept GRE scores starting in 2018, and that decision is expected to spur others to follow suit.

The rest of the methodology was unchanged. Peer assessments by practitioners and other legal educators account for 40 percent of a law school’s ranking. Selectivity, including median LSAT and undergraduate grade-point averages and acceptance rates, account for another 25 percent. Job placement accounts for 20 percent and faculty resources the remaining 15 percent. U.S. News assigns more weight to full-time jobs in which a law degree is required or an advantage, and gives lesser weight to part-time, short-term jobs, as well as jobs funded by the law schools themselves.

U.S. News this year dropped the Charlotte School of Law from it ranking, citing the ABA’s decision to place the school on probation for violating its admissions standards. The U.S. Department of Education last December announced Charlotte students would no longer be eligible for federal student loans as a result.

The University of Maine School of Law saw the largest decline this year. It dropped 28 spots to No. 139, due in part to a lower peer assessment score, lower LSAT scores and a drop in graduate employment.

Dean Danielle Conway said in an interview that her school is in a unique position due to its small size, its status as the only law school in a relatively poor state, and its location outside of an urban area and without a major legal center. Legal employers don’t hire students until after they’ve passed the bar, she said, which hurts the school in the employment portion on the U.S. News ranking. Conway added that improvements in the bar pass rates and employment rates of the latest graduating class should boost the school’s U.S. News ranking next year.

“Rankings like U.S. News & World Report don’t really account for small schools like ours,” she said. “At schools such as ours, every individual student is more than a percentage point. One or two students performing well or performing poorly has a more significant impact on us than it would at a larger school.”

Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and Washburn University School of Law had the next-largest decline, at 21 spots each. Cleveland-Marshall and Washburn fell from No. 106 to No. 127. The University of New Hampshire School of Law fell 18 spots to land at No. 100.

Plenty of other schools fared better. Rutgers’ leap this year is tied closely to the merger between its two campuses in Newark and Camden into a unified entity two years ago. That decision seems to be bearing fruit, at least as far as the rankings are concerned. The school notched a more modest increase last year as well. Rutgers Co-Dean Ronald Chen said that the merger has boosted the strength of the faculty and increased the school’s curricular offerings, which may have helped boost its peer assessment score this year. Employment outcomes have also improved, he added.

“We are humble enough to realize that rankings can be volatile,” Chen said. “We’re not going to take any victory laps, but we think this puts us closer to where we should have been anyway.”

Washington and Lee University School of Law saw an impressive 12-spot increase, and moved into the top 30 at No. 28. The school fell 17 spots on the 2015 list and had hovered around No. 40 until now.

“While we certainly are pleased to have moved back up in the U.S. News rankings, we are more pleased with the student output metrics that were a factor in our performance this year,” said Dean Brant Hellwig in a written statement. “Our priority, irrespective of any ranking regime, is to offer an innovative program of legal education that leads to great opportunities and fulfilling careers for our students.”

Notre Dame moved into the top 20 by picking up two spots.

Texas A&M’s acquisition four years ago of the former Texas Wesleyan School of Law continues to pay off in the rankings arena. The Texas A&M University School of Law climbed 19 spots this year to land at No. 92. That comes on the heels of 38-spot improvement the previous year.

Despite their popularity, the U.S. News law school rankings have plenty of critics  who say it takes a one-size-fits all approach to legal education and incentivizes schools to make decisions that don’t necessarily benefit student and drive up tuition costs. That phenomenon was chronicled in a book published last spring by a pair of sociologists who spent years studying the impact of the rankings on law schools. “Engines of Anxiety: Academic Rankings, Reputation and Accountability,” concludes that the U.S. News rankings have hurt law school diversity; spurred law schools to pour more money into merit-based scholarships instead of need-based aid in order to bring in students with high LSAT scores; and pushed schools to lie and cheat about their metrics in order to move up.