FORTUNE — Deans of the country’s law schools are either kicking back and breathing a sigh of relief, or quivering in their boots, amid the release of the much-feared U.S. News & World Report on national law school rankings.
The annual rankings, released Tuesday, frame the pecking order for law schools in the U.S. and help determine such practical items as the amount of tuition they can charge for the three-year professional degree. And that is no small matter considering that the country’s 200-plus law schools are vying as never before for students as enrollment continues to tumble and more students face a disappointing job market.
As expected, Yale Law School claimed the No. 1 spot, followed by Harvard at No. 2 — a rivalry with historical roots beyond the U.S. News & World Report listings, which launched in 1990. This year was sweet for Harvard, as it swapped positions and beat out Stanford, for second place. Columbia, University of Virginia, and other prestigious institutions rounded out the top 10, with little surprise.
Critics routinely denounce the rankings as misleading and incomplete, but almost anyone connected in any way with the legal profession obsesses over the results.
For the institutions that moved down the yardstick, second-guessing came fast and furious. Washington & Lee Law School, for example, sank 17 notches, to No. 43, showing how the overhaul in job placement numbers are affecting the rankings.
Last year, the report gave a heavier weight to job placement, which served to shake up the middle law school tiers. It also encouraged some deep-pocketed law schools to fund a swath of their unemployed graduates (essentially, giving them jobs) for the nine-month period in which employment is reported to the American Bar Association.
Funding sources can be harder to discern, but there is no question that the post-graduation employment figures are pulling down some schools’ rankings. Washington & Lee reported that slightly less than 60% of its 2012 graduates had found jobs, a decline from about 63% the previous year.
Dean Nora Demleitner attributes the school’s drop to “the poor employment and bar passage numbers from 2012, the year that figures into this year’s rankings.” The Lexington, Va.-based school, she says, has begun to give “stronger bar support and changes in our approach to the employment market,” which already has shown improvements for the class of 2013.
At the same time, enrollment at Washington & Lee was down 40%, which also could have been affected by its overhaul of the third year to focus on “practice ready” skills, which has been all the rage as law school administrators try to push back against evaporating enrollment and jobs. Demleitner says she does not believe the ranking “reflects on our third-year curriculum reform,” noting that it is likely to “take five to 10 years for the benefits of the program to become apparent.”
American University’s law school plunged 16 slots, from No. 56 last year — likely a sign that its nine-month-out employment placement of 53.6% does not pass U.S. News & World Report muster. That compared to an 83% employment figure, for the same period, from Louisiana State University law school, in Baton Rouge.
“There’s no question that employment is a major driver for the rankings,” said Mike Spivey, a law school consultant.
On the upswing are Emory University’s law school, which rose four places, to No. 19, and the College of William and Mary’s Marshall Wythe law school, which moved up nine places, to No. 24, tied with University of Washington. Penn State jumped 13 places to No. 51, after tying at No. 64 last year with several other law schools.
Emory has expanded its career counseling to match its graduates with available openings, which Spivey praised as “a longer-term effort that will pay larger dividends than schools that take the shorter-term route of funding their recent graduates. After 18 months, the funding generally runs out, and graduates are left to fend for themselves.”
William & Mary Dean Davison Douglas attributes the law school’s better showing to “improved graduate job placement figures,” noting that more than 85% of 2012 graduates had jobs within nine months of graduation, compared to 68% the previous year.”
On the opposite end, Suffolk Law in Boston fell completely off the top 150 this year from No. 144 last year. New York Law School, which has faced accusations that its job placement promises have been misleading, beat out Suffolk, going from unranked to No. 140 on this year’s list, tied with Pace Law, in White Plains, N.Y.
Despite reorienting the rankings to include more real-world concerns, Kyle McEntee, founder of Law School Transparency, writes on Law.com that “despite the importance of job outcomes, they account for only 18% of the rank and credit schools for jobs few attend law school to pursue.”
McEntee also takes the rankings to task for making national comparisons when “only a handful of schools have a truly national reach in job placement. The rest have a regional, in-state, or even just local reach.” So comparing two schools in broadly different geographical locations is “virtually meaningless. Graduates from these schools do not compete with one another,” he writes.
“It turns out,” he says, “that 161 schools place at least half of their employed class of 2012 graduates in one state. The top state destination for each school accounts for 67.3% of employed graduates.
“A much smaller 7.7% of employed graduates go to a school’s second-most popular destination, with just 4.4% of employed graduates working in the third-most popular destination. Only 20.6% of employed graduates (16.9% of the entire class) end up in a state other than the top three,” he says.
However, “rankings are not inherently bad,” he concludes, adding that “credibility may be lost when methodologies are unsound, through irrational weighting or meaningless metrics, or when the scope is too broad.”
Spivey agrees, but he notes that “my phone has been ringing off the hook [with] people concerned about whether they should go to a school which dropped one place, or [if] they [can] transfer to another school if their current school lost out.
“The rankings do dramatically impact behavior.”