What Is a Tier One Law School?
As a general rule, Tier 1 law schools are those schools that rank among the top 14 in the U.S. Students from these schools tend to benefit from lower student-faculty ratios, better access to educational and library resources, higher bar passage rates, and greater employment results upon graduation.
Are you considering a law degree? If so, there are many things to consider when applying to law schools. As the first steps, you will want to be sure that you have prepared for the application and interview process. You will also need to research the best law schools that match your personal, financial, and career goals.
As with any credentialing process, there are some programs and schools that outrank others. This could be for various reasons, such as the caliber of the education, the reputation of the school or faculty, or the income level and job offers that candidates receive after graduation.
Law schools in the U.S. are divided into 14 separate tiers, based on their rankings. It’s important for current and prospective law students to understand this tier-based system to make sure they’re making the best decision for their legal careers.
What Are Law School Tiers?
Practicing lawyers are very familiar with ranking and awards systems. So, for law students that aspire to be future lawyers, this is their experience at the legal ranking systems.
There are several organizations that rank law schools. However, the U.S. News and World Report is the oldest annual law school ranking service and has been issuing annual reports since 1987.
U.S. News law school rankings report includes ratings for approximately 193 U.S. law firms and is based on factors such as the selectivity and acceptance rates, employment and bar passage numbers, and overall caliber of the educational resources provided by the school. To be included in this report, law schools must be accredited by the American Bar Association or ABA.
To determine law school tiers, U.S. News organizes schools into separate brackets which are based on how they rank with regards to their of their performance. This information is helpful for prospective law school students when evaluating law schools and deciding which ones may or may not be up to par.
As with any ranking system, the U.S. News law school tier rankings are one aspect of many factors to consider when deciding what law school to attend. No school is perfect and it’s best to pick the program that aligns best with your personal and professional goals.
How Do Law School Tiers Work?
So, how do law school tiers work? The metrics by which law schools are ranked, and tiers are awarded, can vary over time but have generally remained the same.
Below are the criteria that U.S. News &World uses to determine each school’s rankings and tiers.
Performance and Ranking Indicators
1. Quality (40% weight in the overall ranking)
- Peer assessment score: School program assessment score based on a survey by the school deans, deans of academic affairs, chairs of faculty appointments, and most recently tenured faculty members.
- Lawyers and judges assessment score: Assessment score based on feedback from legal professionals, including hiring partners, practicing attorneys, and judges.
2. Selectivity (21% weight in the overall ranking)
- Median Law School Admission Test (LSAT) and Graduate Record Exam Scores: Calculated by combined median LSAT and GRE quantitative, verbal, and analytical writing exams by all students, both full-time and part-time.
- Median Undergraduate GPA: Combined median undergraduate GPA for all J.D. students, both full-time and part-time.
- Acceptance Rate: Percentage of both full-time and part-time students accepted into the school’s J.D. program. Schools with lower acceptance rates are more selective and therefore more competitive, and those with higher rates are less competitive.
3. Placement Success (25.25% weight in the overall ranking)
- Employment rates: Percentage of law school students that are employed within 10 months of graduation. U.S. News requires that these are long-term positions, not funded by the student’s alma mater and that a J.D. is an advantage or bar passage was required.
- Bar passage rate: Percentage of students that passed on the first attempt.
- Student loan debt, both the average debt incurred and the percentage of the school’s students with loans: Calculated by dollar value in loan debt that was incurred as a result of the J.D. program, both for the students and as a comparison of the entire student body.
4. Faculty, Law School, and Library Resources (13.75% weight in the overall ranking)
- Average dollars allocated to educational resources: Calculated by average dollars spent on instruction, library, and support services as well as other items, such as financial aid awards.
- Student-faculty ratio: Calculated by the ratio of students to faculty members.
- Library resources and operations: Calculated by several indicators, including hours per day that students have access to library books, study space, and research materials; the total number of titles or licensed or owned databases available to students and faculty; the ratio of law students to library faculty; the ratio of library seats to the number of students; and the ratio of total presentations by library staff to the number of students.
While each of these four categories is weighted, the subcategories are also weighted as well. For example, students’ LSAT scores carry a weight of 11% of the total ranking whereas their undergraduate GPAs are factored at 8%.
It’s also important to note that these calculations have changed over time, with some indicators now having more of an impact on a school’s overall school. This is why it’s a good idea to consider the U.S. News rankings as only one factor when deciding which school is best for you.
What is a “Top Fourteen” or “T14” law school?
A “Top Fourteen” or “T14” school refers to the 14 U.S. law schools that are consistently ranked in the top 14 spots every year by U.S. News & World. Since these schools have frequently won the top 14 coveted spots, the legal community has adopted this title to refer to these schools in publications and law school news coverage. It’s important to note that the term “T14” has not been recognized by U.S. News, but is simply a term that is frequently used within the legal industry and among its schools.
So, what are these coveted 14 schools? These are the 14 schools that appear at the top almost every year:
- Columbia Law School
- Cornell Law School
- Duke University School of Law
- Georgetown University Law Center
- Harvard Law School
- New York University School of Law
- Northwestern University School of Law
- Stanford Law School
- University of California, Berkeley School of Law
- University of Chicago Law School
- University of Michigan Law School
- University of Pennsylvania Law School
- University of Virginia School of Law
- Yale Law School
Typically, the students that graduate from these law school programs are considered strong candidates for some of the most coveted associate positions at the world’s largest law firms. The students that call these schools their alma mater have an advantage by being able to be tapped into a prestigious university system with access to distinguished alumnae, professors, and student networks.
What are Tier 1 Law Schools?
The term “Tier 1” or “T1” is not a predefined category, but rather a term that has been adopted within the legal community throughout the years. Generally speaking, the term “T1” can apply to those schools that are in the “Top Fourteen” rankings or the top 50 ranked schools, depending on who you speak with.
What are Tier 2 Law Schools?
As with the “T1” category, the same applies to “Tier 2” or “T2” schools. There is no specific delineation, but rather a social or cultural association that has been created within the legal industry. This term applies to those schools that are below the Top 14 schools and typically refer to the top 15-50 or 15-100 law schools.
These schools may still have excellent programs and be highly competitive to get in, but they have not won the coveted top 14 spots year after year. It’s important to note that each student’s pursuit of their J.D. will be different and so will their credentials. For example, a “T2” student that has outperformed the rest of the class and clerked with elite firms may receive a better job offer than a “T1” student that performed poorly and may not have tapped into their school’s alumnae resources.
Instead of relying on these categories, it’s a good idea to dig into the data from these schools to evaluate your goals and determine which program is the best fit for you.
Why Do Law School Rankings Matter?
When law firms or corporations are hiring new talent, they will begin the recruitment process by seeking out talent at various law schools. Law school tiers matter because each school’s rankings can be tied directly to how well each institution prepares its graduates for legal practice. Their students’ level of preparation can be measured directly by their performance, such as with their GPAs or passage rates for their state’s bar exam. Therefore, law school graduates from top-ranked, high-tier schools, such as Harvard or Yale, may be more attractive to firms that expect a high level of performance and serve clients that are looking for the best-trained attorneys.
If you’re a law student looking to start a solo practice or work at a small firm, you may not care about whether your alma mater has a high rank on U.S. News & World Report. However, if you’ve set the goal to climb the corporate ladder at an elite AmLaw 100 firm, then it’s a good idea to evaluate what kind of training and preparation your chosen law school offers. This isn’t as important if you’re choosing between two similarly-ranked schools; however, if you’re considering attending schools within different tiers, you’ll want to pay attention to details such as student body size, class sizes, faculty quality, and the school’s overall reputation among employers.
Are There Criticisms of the Law School Rankings?
It’s important to point out that, while U.S. News & World requires that any of its ranked schools be accredited through the America Bar Association, the ABA does not openly support or take part in any law school ranking system. Instead, the organization asks that law school students do their due diligence and personally research the schools that they are evaluating.
To help prospective law school students in their research, the ABA has created an independent report that they issue every year which evaluates over 200 J.D. programs. This report does not include specific rankings, but rather an analysis of the most essential information that students need to make a decision. The list of ABA-approved law schools is listed in their report here.
If you’re considering going to law school and are researching your list of potential programs, it’s important to factor all information into your decision in order to make the best decision for your career.
Can a Law School be Unranked?
Yes. According to U.S. News, for a school to be ranked, it “must be accredited and fully approved by the American Bar Association.”
There are some schools that are not ranked, such as Inter-American University in Puerto Rico, the University of Puerto Rico, and the Pontifical Catholic University of Puerto Rico. Another school, the University of North Texas at Dallas, is not yet ranked because, as of February 2021, it has only been provisionally approved by the ABA and awaiting its formal approval.
Comparing the Top Law Schools
|U.S. News & World Overall Rank||Law School||2020 GPA Median||2020 LSAT Median||S/F Ratio||2020 Bar Passage Rate||Empl @10 mos||Volume of Library Resources|
|5||University of Chicago||3.89||171||5.1||93.90%||79.00%||707,136|
|6||New York University||3.79||170||5.3||90.90%||75.70%||1,059,572|
|7||University of Pennsylvania (Carey)||3.89||170||4.9||96.90%||79.60%||1,224,184|
|8||University of Virginia||3.89||169||6.5||93.90%||75.70%||806,421|
|9||University of California–Berkeley||3.80||168||5.8||90.20%||58.30%||1,133,024|
|11||University of Michigan–Ann Arbor||3.77||169||6.8||92.80%||75.70||1,052,608|
|12||Northwestern University (Pritzker)||3.84||169||3.6||91.90%||79.00%||827,547|
|14||University of California–Los Angeles||3.72||168||5.9||83.80%||58.30%||709,053|
|U.S. News & World Overall Rank||Law School||2020 GPA Median||2020 LSAT Median||S/F Ratio||2020 Bar Passage Rate||Empl @10 mos||Volume of Library Resources|
|16 (tie)||University of Texas–Austin||3.74||167||4.0||84.70%||74.50%||1,129,100|
|16 (tie)||Vanderbilt University||3.80||167||7.4||88.30%||75.70%||656,173|
|16 (tie)||Washington University in St. Louis||3.81||168||6.8||90.20%||85.70%||773,390|
|19||University of Southern California (Gould)||3.78||166||5.9||87.60%||58.30%||428,076|
|21||University of Florida (Levin)||3.72||163||5.8||86.10%||67.90%||625,286|
|22 (tie)||University of Minnesota||3.76||164||5.0||86.80%||80.10%||1,134,058|
|22 (tie)||University of Notre Dame||3.71||165||6.3||86.00%||79.00%||746,789|
|24||University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill||3.59||161||8.5||83.60%||65.30%||583,453|
|25||Arizona State University (O’Connor)||3.76||163||7.0||88.90%||63.80%||95,735|
|25 (tie)||University of Alabama||3.88||164||6.4||89.30%||69.60%||676,336|
|27 (tie)||George Washington University||3.71||165||5.9||81.20%||70.10%||756,712|
|27 (tie)||University of Georgia||3.67||163||8.0||90.10%||71.80%||551,145|
|29 (tie)||Boston College||3.62||164||6.9||84.90%||77.30%||550,554|
|29 (tie)||Brigham Young University (Clark)||3.80||164||6.1||73.10%||82.60%||488,438|
|29 (tie)||Emory University||3.79||165||8.3||79.30%||71.80%||306,321|
|29 (tie)||University of Illinois–Urbana-Champaign||3.65||162||5.0||86.60%||79.00%||829,306|
|29 (tie)||University of Iowa||3.61||161||7.7||83.20%||85.80%||1,455,063|
|29 (tie)||University of Wisconsin–Madison||3.58||162||5.9||82.40%||77.10%||1,361,485|
|35 (tie)||Fordham University||3.60||164||6.6||76.80%||75.70%||431,024|
|35 (tie)||University of California–Davis||3.63||162||7.7||77.20%||58.30%||508,592|
|35 (tie)||University of California–Irvine||3.57||163||5.8||79.20%||58.30%||36,498|
|35 (tie)||Washington and Lee University||3.51||163||6.9||82.80%||75.50%||497,250|
|35 (tie)||William & Mary Law School||3.80||162||6.4||80.80%||75.50%||447,497|
|40||Ohio State University (Moritz)||3.75||161||7.2||86.10%||75.40%||721,005|
|41 (tie)||George Mason University||3.76||163||4.6||77.60%||75.50%||300,137|
|41 (tie)||Wake Forest University||3.60||162||5.5||89.80%||65.30%||419,198|
|43 (tie)||Indiana University–Bloomington (Maurer)||3.72||162||6.0||79.70%||72.90%||800,168|
|43 (tie)||University of Utah (Quinney)||3.56||159||4.8||88.90%||86.70%||285,277|
|45||University of Washington||3.69||163||5.4||76.30%||74.10%||705,321|
|46 (tie)||Pepperdine University (Caruso)||3.63||160||6.4||75.30%||63.80%||386,296|
|46 (tie)||University of Arizona (Rogers)||3.70||161||4.5||80.50%||63.80%||314,970|
|48 (tie)||Florida State University||3.63||160||6.3||80.30%||81.10%||306,650|
|48 (tie)||University of Colorado–Boulder||3.71||162||6.4||83.90%||75.10%||552,673|
|50 (tie)||University of California (Hastings)||3.44||158||6.9||67.10%||58.80%||608,069|
|50 (tie)||University of Maryland (Carey)||3.56||158||4.3||76.2%||76.7%||610,617|
What Are Some Other Law School Ranking Systems?
The U.S. News is not the only magazine or organization that ranks law schools. While it is the most widely adopted, there are several other accreditation organizations that are considered reputable.
- National Law Journal’s Go-To Law Schools
- QS World University Rankings
- Social Science Research
- Thomas E. Brennan’s Judging the Law Schools
- Above the Law’s Top 50 Law School Rankings
- The Princeton Review’s Best Law Schools
- Paul Caron’s Law School Rankings By Graduates in BigLaw Jobs
There are also raw data reports which allow you to sort data received by all U.S. law schools. One great resource is Public Legal’s database and the 2020 raw data can be accessed by clicking here.
Many legal education professionals and organizations criticize these accreditors, claiming they are for-profit and therefore have a self-interest when undergoing their annual research. Despite this, schools continue to play the game in order to get favorable reviews and ultimately bring in high-caliber students and more tuition dollars.
In all, a law school’s rankings are only one factor that you should consider when evaluating the next steps in your legal career. And, while these rankings do play a part in most big law firms’ hiring practices, it is not the primary metric by which they evaluate prospective candidates.
As a student, it’s important to do your due diligence and research all of the programs that are available to you and apply to the schools that offer the best education and resources to meet your goals. Now, more than ever, firms want candidates with diverse perspectives and strong soft skills such as problem-solving, adaptability, and emotional intelligence (or “EQ”). If you prepare, research, and plan properly, you’ll be on the right path and achieve your professional goals.