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Episode Notes

Joe and Elie discuss Above the Law’s annual ranking of the top law schools in America with ATL Research Director Brian Dalton. There were some major shifts at the top of this year’s ranking, and Elie isn’t happy about any of them.

Brian Dalton is the director of research at Breaking Media.

Special thanks to our sponsor Major, Lindsey & Africa.


Above the Law – Thinking Like a Lawyer

The 2018 Top 50 Law Schools



Intro: Welcome to Thinking Like a Lawyer with your hosts Elie Mystal and Joe Patrice, talking about legal news and pop culture, all while thinking like a lawyer, here on Legal Talk Network.


Joe Patrice: Hello. Welcome to another edition of Thinking Like a Lawyer. I am Joe Patrice from Above the Law, and with me, as always, my lovely co-host, Elie Mystal.

Elie Mystal: We’re in our office’s office not our fishbowl office today.

Joe Patrice: That’s true. We are in a different room, the acoustic sound different if you hear typing in the background that’s — yep, that’s what it is, it’s not actually me with my soundboard this time, that was real typing.

Elie Mystal: I’m just happy that we’re doing this from work and I’m not at home, you know why? Because there are skunks at my office, which is not what I can say about my house.

Joe Patrice: Wow.

Elie Mystal: This is what I’m pissed about this week.

Joe Patrice: Wildlife?

Elie Mystal: Westchester wildlife.

Joe Patrice: Okay.

Elie Mystal: So, it turns out — and this has been true for two summers now, this is the second consecutive summer. It turns out that my yard is some kind of triumvirate battleground between three, not two, three warring squirrels and they fight it out at 2 o’clock in the morning on my property. They sound like raccoons, they smell like skunks because they are freaking skunks.

Joe Patrice: Wait, okay yeah. And like you said they were squirrels, the second yeah.

Elie Mystal: No, skunks, no I’ve got three skunks.

Joe Patrice: Well, that’s much worse than squirrels.

Elie Mystal: Yes.

Joe Patrice: Yeah.

Elie Mystal: Squirrels are like whatever, the skunks, so they’ll fight in my yard at 2 o’clock in the morning and like if I’m finishing up or taking out, they’re like just the skunk smell then like permeates my office because my office is right next to — my office windows are right next to my yard. And I have this happening like two or three nights a week, almost all last summer, and so far twice since the weather got nice.

Joe Patrice: Wow, I have a baby bunny.

Elie Mystal: What am I supposed to do?

Joe Patrice: Yeah.

Elie Mystal: Like I’m a liberal. I’m not a PETA liberal, but like it’s not in my political nature to buy up an AR-15 and do what needs to be done.

Joe Patrice: Wow.

Elie Mystal: So what am I supposed to do?

Joe Patrice: You just live in a world that is entirely of your own creation. Yeah — no, the right answer now going to be like what is it, what was his name Jack Hanna, the wildlife expert? I’ll play Jack Hanna here for you so that you can fix this problem.

First thing you got to do is you go down to like a Sherwin-Williams or something like that, you get some white paint, you paint it on a black cat and then they’ll just follow that. I’ve learned this over years of watching cartoons. They will chase that cat thinking it’s a squirrel.

Elie Mystal: There was a long period of time where you were talking where I actually thought you were going to help me.

Joe Patrice: I know. I know, that was the best part, because the look on your face, which unfortunately everyone listening can’t see, the look on your face was great though, you were so lit up with joy that I was going to provide you an answer. Yeah, I mean, I think there are pest control areas of places that will trap and release those things into the appropriate wild which is not in fact Westchester.

Elie Mystal: I mean the only positive is that they do work as like a disciplinary tactic for the children.

Joe Patrice: Oh yeah.

Elie Mystal: Like, if you don’t do what I say I’m going to send you outside with the skunks, and that occasionally increases the speed at which they get into the bathroom or whatever.

Joe Patrice: Wow.

Elie Mystal: So they work as a boogeyman.

Joe Patrice: Oh, okay. I remember reading that in the, what, the Dr. Spock books.

Elie Mystal: I’m not joking. I threatened the children with skunks. I try to use whatever I have to make bath time work. All right, that’s not what our topic is today though.

Joe Patrice: No, but it’s something almost as entertaining. We’re going to talk about law schools and law school rankings. So, that’s what we’re going to talk about. I mean, first though we would be re-missed without noting that we have a sponsor again as usual.

Elie Mystal: Is it the Orkin Man?

Joe Patrice: It is not, though, I think you did a good job of trying to get us some new sponsorship. No, this is again is Major, Lindsey & Africa; whether you’re looking to advance your legal career or grow your legal team, Major, Lindsey & Africa can help you navigate the legal landscape. With more than 35 years of experience in legal recruiting, Major, Lindsey helps law firms and legal departments thrive in today’s ever-changing market and matches lawyers and legal professionals with opportunities where they can flourish. Learn more at  HYPERLINK “” Remember that everybody because we’re going to want you to make the most of your legal career.

So anyway, so what are we talking about today?

Elie Mystal: Law school rankings, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding, ding… You notice how I am able to make sounds without a goddamn board?

Joe Patrice: I mean, okay.

[Bell Ring]

So, we’ll let everyone else guess which of those two was better.


So with that, yeah – no, we’re talking about law school rankings; obviously, there is the U.S. News rankings that everybody reads because the U.S. News is no longer a news organization, it’s a ranking organization but those rankings are always — there’s more than a few things wrong with them. One of which is they are a year wrong always.

Elie Mystal: So, today we have with us Brian Dalton; the Above the Law and Breaking Media Director of Research. He is the numbers person behind our rankings. Welcome Brian.

Brian Dalton: Thanks guys. Glad to be here, of course.

Elie Mystal: I’m always particularly proud of our rankings because I feel like our rankings are — as we’ve done them for over five years now.

Brian Dalton: This is the sixth version.

Elie Mystal: Our rankings are outcome determinative while U.S. News or Princeton Review or other places as you go to, they look at a lot of inputs, what’s the LSAT score, what’s the GPA of the entering class? We look kind of exclusively at the outputs. What kind of jobs are people getting? What’s their overall employment score? How much debt are they graduating with kind of how expensive the school is?

So we look at these kind of outcome determinative factors and I feel like that makes our rankings unique. However, Brian —

Brian Dalton: Well, Elie, I think that’s a pretty fair summary and a pretty complete summary, but I’ll just add that we are the only folks that engage in the law school ranking game that used the freshest most recent 2017, in the case of this year, ABA employment data. All others, most notably of course, U.S. News, rely on data that’s a year old.

Elie Mystal: It’s almost like you’re saying that those rankings kind of smell like they’ve been sprayed by a skunk.

Joe Patrice: Wow. We’re going to keep —

Brian Dalton: Again those are your words.

Elie Mystal: It’s really bad on 00:06:41, yeah. However, despite all of this new freshness and new hotness —

Brian Dalton: Right.

Elie Mystal: — our rankings are not all that different.

Brian Dalton: No, of course not, and that’s not to say that the U.S. News rankings are not extremely useful and actually are a accurate picture of a certain way of looking at the law schools’ hierarchy, of course they are; but, we depart sort of philosophically, ideologically from them on a couple of fronts, and one is, we are going to focus on outcomes.

What we mean by outcomes is jobs. We think of jobs in a couple of different ways and they make up the bulk of our rankings formula. On the one hand, we run something called an employment score, which is long term full-time bar passage required jobs. What percentage of your graduates’ land positions that can be so defined.

Elie Mystal: So my job wouldn’t count?

Brian Dalton: Your job is probably under mushier conceptual frameworks, maybe a JD Advantage-type position but we disregard JD Advantage.

Look, we obviously have to concede or acknowledge that all kinds of law school graduates, we’re doing all kinds of interesting and rewarding things out in all different kinds of fields.

And it’s not like those jobs shouldn’t count, it’s that they can’t really be counted, there’s no meaningful apples to apples way to count them, there’s no way to really define them, we have to depend on self-reporting, we have to make all kinds of sort of judgments that we are really not in a position to make.

So let’s keep it simple, long term full-time bar pass is required. And we don’t find the arguments against an approach like that very persuasive.

Joe Patrice: And then that’s what the — you used the term earlier “JD Advantage”. For anybody who doesn’t know what that is, that’s a — I’ll be cynical, that’s a marketing technique that law schools use to discuss all the people who were unable to get full-time long-term bar passage required jobs, but ended up being a personnel manager at a Starbucks and saying, well, they wouldn’t have gotten that management position without a JD, they were advantaged that way. So it’s a marketing ploy for these law schools to pawn off some folks who weren’t able to get into the legal profession.

Elie Mystal: Right, there are definitely a lot of like other legal commentators and judges who think that my job is akin to being a barista at a Starbucks. So, I’m with you there.

Joe Patrice: We don’t charge $7 for anything we do.

Elie Mystal: Right. I was going to go with luckily we don’t call the cops if you’re just sitting in our office.

Brian, I was going to ask, one of the things that U.S. News has going for it, is that every year, I know which law school to go to, because U.S. News tells me every year, I’m supposed to go to Yale. And failing that, I should go to Harvard and Stanford.

Brian Dalton: Right.

Elie Mystal: And that’s always what you’re shooting for.

Brian Dalton: Right.

Elie Mystal: Our rankings this year — you said it’s our sixth year, it’s like what, our fourth, fifth different number one law school?

Brian Dalton: Sure, sure.

Elie Mystal: What’s up with that?

Brian Dalton: It’s a fair point and if you do look at the number one slot in our rankings, we’ve had four number ones — and by the way, we haven’t even like sort of buried the lead, Chicago is the number one school this year for the first time in 2018.


Brian Dalton: Other schools that have been number one include Harvard, Stanford, and then Yale, three times. And so —

Elie Mystal: Chicago, that’s the Chicago campus of University of Illinois or —

Brian Dalton: Is it? I don’t know. Yeah, it’s the venerable University of Chicago of — renowned in certain circles.

Joe Patrice: First school to offer a JD, University of Chicago.

Elie Mystal: Oh really?

Joe Patrice: Yeah, that was a trivia question on our website. If you read our website you would know that.

Elie Mystal: Sorry, I was making coffee.

Joe Patrice: Yeah, I know you’re running from skunks.

Elie Mystal: So, yeah, so fourth different number one.

Brian Dalton: Right, and so that might suggest a certain kind of volatility and flakiness about the outcome of our formula, but if you take a little bit of a step back, you’ll see that those four schools are always sort of clustered around the top and that since we’ve been doing this over the past six years, we’ve had 14 different schools that have been in our top ten, and that’s pretty stable, it’s not as kind of carved on a stone tablet as the USN T14 nor would we want it that way really.

And then, if you take another step back and look at the whole universe of 50 because of course we can find our rankings till 50 schools because arguably even that’s a stretch because we only want to be concerned with national schools, schools where either have a reach in terms of employment prospects beyond their local market and/or schools from which students who aren’t necessarily at the top of their class still have a legitimate shot at securing a decent employment outcome.

And this year the turnover in the top 50 was seven schools. So, seven schools left, seven schools came in. So we feel like that’s sort of a desirable level of continuity and stability with also the ability to reward schools for excellent performance year over year in terms of the jobs and their grad score.

Joe Patrice: That rewards point I think is important because I think when we say how reliable are rankings that are moving around a lot? Well, part of it is rewarding people, right? You have a ranking system based on the outcomes, when it’s based on placing people in jobs, when it’s placed on doing better on the Bar Exam, having schools change their ranking because they are performing better is actually important.

Brian Dalton: Right. The only way to game our rankings —

Joe Patrice: Yeah, is to do better.

Brian Dalton: Is to do better.

Elie Mystal: Yeah, but, if you really start to look at our rankings, look, again, I am generally proud of this work, but if you look at our top three this year, we have got what, we have got Chicago, we have got UVA and we have got Duke Law School in the top three. Yale Law School ranks number seven. If I told a young student, a young college graduate that they should go to UVA over Yale, they would have a right to punch me in the face.

Brian Dalton: Sure. I would like to see that actually, that would be hilarious. But we are very careful and very thoughtful, I think, about the way that we frame this. This is just one bit of information out there in the great marketplace of ideas and we all know that if you get into Yale, you really ought to go to Yale.

Yale is an outlier and that it raises all kinds of problems methodologically in terms of ranking it, because a lot of the sort of nuances and eccentricities and really a lot of the amazing qualities that that institution has aren’t really capturable by what is essentially a reductionist ordinal list by definition.

Joe Patrice: But one that’s legal base, right, like a University of Chicago graduate is going to go on to work in a full-time long-term Bar passage rate job, or if somebody in a bad school might go to a “JD advantage job”, which is the aforementioned Barista. But at Yale, they might be going to a JD advantage job like foreign minister of a Central American country.

Brian Dalton: Or they really are the proverbial McKinsey consultant with a freshly minted JD or something.

Joe Patrice: Yeah.

Elie Mystal: Editor of Above the Law, for instance, from Yale you can do that.

Joe Patrice: Yeah.

Brian Dalton: Actually, Yale Law grads at one point wildly over-represented and like the 12 full-time employees that we had at Breaking Media. But yeah, Yale is a special case. And I mean, on one hand —

Elie Mystal: It’s also so small, right?

Brian Dalton: We are almost — well, it is, but then if you really look, Chicago is smaller and Stanford is smaller. So you think of Yale as this tiny little operation, but it’s really — there are equivalent schools in its tier, so those small changes in proportion have kind of an outsized effect sure in terms of the metrics that we use.

But I mean, I like a joke that an acquaintance of mine said that he relayed to me that we really should have an aspect of our formula where it’s just a yes or no question at the top. Are you Yale, yes or no, and then if it’s yes, you get 100 points, and if it’s no, it’s zero points, and then we just go from the rest of it there in terms of the various components. And that would address the Yale question, the Yale problem, but we just never got around to doing that.


Elie Mystal: Do you think that we are seeing a bit of a Trump effect in our rankings this year? I look at our top and I see Chicago, I see Virginia, I see people who are going to get jobs as clerks by judges that Trump appoints.

Joe Patrice: You mean Chicago, that school that Barack Obama taught at?

Elie Mystal: Yeah, as opposed to Harvard, that school that he graduated from.

Joe Patrice: Yeah, 30 years ago was really interesting.

Brian Dalton: I was a little bit — I mean, I was genuinely impressed and little awestruck by your ability to tease out a Trumpian kind of angle to these rankings, because certainly myself, I had not considered that at all that that top three cluster probably leans a little right in the scheme of things.

But I mean — and that would be reflected in the political affiliations of the federal judges who are taking students out as graduates and yada, yada. But the truth is the clerkships that are reflected in our current set of rankings, the wheels would have already been turning for those before our great national calamity of 2016. So you may be right, but we haven’t seen it yet.

Elie Mystal: Well, not something to look forward to.

Brian Dalton: Sure.

Elie Mystal: Brian, who sticks out, we have been focusing on the top because I mean we just picked but what —

Brian Dalton: Right, I mean sure.

Elie Mystal: You have ranked 50 schools, give me a school or two that does better than people would expect?

Brian Dalton: I will tell you sort of a category of schools that I am gladdened to see perform really well using our approach, and these are the large public state schools in the South and in the Midwest; roughly speaking about the Big Ten in the SEC. So if you look at Georgia, you look at Alabama, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio State, Minnesota, Wisconsin, the list is longer than I am even saying here.

But all of those schools perform better in our approach than they do in the U.S. News approach or any other that you come across. And I think that this really reflects that these schools offer really good value, really good outcomes for their students and that they are really underserved by approaches that depend on kind of reputation or prestige survey. So that’s something I would like to highlight.

Elie Mystal: That’s a good point. I mean like the southern schools, we talk a lot, Joe and I when we do our decision podcasts about how like if you know where you want to work, then there is no reason to pay out of state private school tuition if you know you want to work in Georgia. Georgia is right the hell there.

If you want to be a lawyer in Atlanta, Georgia is probably offering you a very good deal as opposed to —

Brian Dalton: An unbeatable network and at a reasonable cost and a good school, so.

Elie Mystal: Who is crappy? Who is crappier than we think?

Brian Dalton: Oh God. Well, you know who gets kind of hit hard by our approach, because we use the cost of living factor are large urban schools; NYU gets hurt, Columbia gets hurt, my alma mater Fordham just falls out of the top 50; they come in and out every year.

Elie Mystal: Are they in or out this year, I forgot?

Brian Dalton: They are out this year. They are out this year. They are always right on the bubble. They were like 48 last year, and that’s just strictly a cost of living thing that hurts in our approach.

But obviously, NYU and Columbia are great schools and other city schools that might not perform as well as they do on more kind of qualitative surveying, they don’t perform as well.

Joe Patrice: And yet Chicago.

Elie Mystal: And yet Chicago, right.

Joe Patrice: Yeah.

Brian Dalton: Yeah.

Elie Mystal: Because of Trump.

Brian Dalton: Well, I will tell you, the Chicago thing — the thing is we can pretty much explain movements and a rule of thumb that I have is if it’s a 5% change year-over-year in one of the employment data points, that usually translates into movement. And for Chicago, their big law placement, which is a big part of the equation, went up 11%, which in this scheme of thing is quite significant. And their clerkship numbers went up I think around 5%. So those two things combine explain the whole thing.

Joe Patrice: Yeah. I mean, to what extent — I mean, I am not positive, but to what extent the raises a couple of years ago might have had on since those hit markets outside of just New York and DC historically, those sorts of top dollar was only paid out here, to the extent that they are being paid in the Midwest, were those Midwest firms hiring more people locally then?

Brian Dalton: I would have thought it would have had the opposite effect that you are sort of Jones Day in Cleveland or BakerHostetler, they would have been less inclined to take on more associates, so I would have guessed the opposite effect, I don’t know.

Joe Patrice: Or maybe they are taking — I am saying maybe that they might be more — yeah, no, just wondering if maybe it was a sign. I mean because we have been trying to explain why somebody would pay more in these markets that aren’t quite as elite and sure some of the reason is there is more business in those markets. And if there is more business in Chicago now than we thought, that might be a reason why more Chicago grads are getting gigs, I don’t know.


Elie Mystal: Another reason could be just that there is more competition in those markets, and certainly a school — Midwestern schools, Big Ten schools placing very well suggest that there is a lot of legal work to go around, I meant in my head west of the Hudson; I was going to say west of the Mississippi to try to be, I don’t know.

Joe Patrice: And I certainly see a lot of Texas schools doing well on this list too.

Brian Dalton: Yeah, they do.

Joe Patrice: SMU, Baylor, Texas, they are all clocking in which —

Elie Mystal: Yeah. That’s weird because I don’t really know what an energy lawyer is supposed to do anymore since there are no regulations anymore.

Joe Patrice: That’s the issue, that whole area is just —

Elie Mystal: What do you need your lawyer for, to handle like your pre-nup?

Joe Patrice: I mean energy law has — okay, anyway, anyway, as anybody who may not know as much about the legal industry or be similar to where Elie was saying, the point is energy law is, while a very valuable practice area in Houston, is not necessarily the entirety of the Texas legal market which is booming on kind of all scores right now, because software companies are there, everyone is there now.

Brian Dalton: All the plaintiffs work there.

Joe Patrice: Yeah, all the plaintiffs work.

Elie Mystal: God help us all. Well, these rankings depress me, but I just don’t think it’s really good work.

Brian Dalton: Elie please, thank you.

Elie Mystal: Thanks so much Brian. Thanks fellas, carry on.

Joe Patrice: Yeah, so there we go, quick little rundown on the rankings. Now, you are depressed mostly because your school doesn’t perform as hyperinflatedly well here, is that the issue?

Elie Mystal: You always want to stand for your alma mater.

Joe Patrice: I fully accept his argument; it just cost too much, which is true.

Elie Mystal: Right, there is obviously a little bit of that.

One of the things that I think our rankings are showing is that the legal market is moving and if you look at our last episode about salary raises, I mean like the new normal — the market has been the way it has been from about the recession until let’s say two years ago, right, but that new normal seems to be giving way to yet another new situation. I think that’s starting — I think that’s what you saw last week with salary raises. I think that’s what you are seeing here with our rankings, the legal market is shifting and changing and so I am still trying to figure out how and whether or not it’s shifting and changing in a good way.

Joe Patrice: Fair enough. So anyway, thanks everybody for listening. Thanks Brian for joining us. He has already had to run, but thanking him anyway.

Thanks for listening. Always be subscribing to this podcast, giving it reviews, giving it stars, writing things that helps it move up the podcast ratings.

Read  HYPERLINK “”, as you should be anyway. Follow us on Twitter. I am @JosephPatrice, he is @ElieNYC and listen to the rest of Legal Talk Network’s offerings too. You can get the Legal Talk Network App and get access to all of them.

Elie Mystal: Actual skunks.

Joe Patrice: Yeah. Okay, with that, we will talk to you next time.

Elie Mystal: Thanks.


Outro: If you would like more information about what you heard today, please visit  HYPERLINK “” You can also find us at  HYPERLINK “”,  HYPERLINK “”, iTunes, RSS, Twitter, and Facebook.

The views expressed by the participants of this program are their own and do not represent the views of, nor are they endorsed by Legal Talk Network, its officers, directors, employees, agents, representatives, shareholders, and subsidiaries. None of the content should be considered legal advice. As always, consult a lawyer.


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Episode Details
Published: June 21, 2018
Podcast: Thinking Like a Lawyer - Above the Law
Category: Law School
Thinking Like a Lawyer - Above the Law
Thinking Like a Lawyer - Above the Law

Above the Law's Elie Mystal and Joe Patrice examine everyday topics through the prism of a legal framework.

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