Although, among law school applicants, there is much talk of the supremacy and excellence of the "top 14" law schools--also known as the "T14"--it seems that many current and would-be law school hopefuls don't really know why the "top 14" is known as the "top 14." They must be the top of something, right? So what are they the top of?
The "top 14" are the top 14 law schools in the U.S. News & World Report Law School Rankings. The U.S. News rankings are the most widely used (if oftentimes debated) law school rankings available, and most readily accepted of all the different law school rankings methodologies. USN started publishing its law school rankings in 1987, but it wasn't until 1990 (after a brief rankings hiatus in 1988-89) that the rankings became a yearly staple.
Possibly the reason that the T14 denomination has taken such hold in the minds of those seeking to apply to best and most prestigious U.S. law schools is because there has been remarkably little change in the overall composition of this elite group over the years. While schools sometimes move around within the T14, it is rare that one drops out of it, and it is even rarer that a "non-T14" breaks into this select group (the exception being Texas Law, which dropped out of the T14 after the first rankings in 1987, and only came back into it in the 2011 rankings as a tie for #14 with Georgetown Law -- you can read my breakdown of the 2011 USN law school rankings here). For the most part, the schools in the T14 are always the same ones, which made it easy for the T14 reference to gain traction, and for it to continue to be relevant even 14 years after the first USN listing went to press.
The Law Librarian Blog has a great chart that tracks the ups and downs of schools within the T14 from 1987 to 2009, particularly focusing on the movement in and out of the top 10 (unfortunately, it has not been updated to include the 2010, 2011, or 2012 rankings):
Click to enlarge
Hat tip/Source: Law Librarian Blog
As you can see, there is remarkably little change even within the T14 rankings themselves. The top school has always been Yale, and the #2 and #3 spots have gone, for the most part, to Harvard and Stanford (with the exception of 1997, when UChicago Law snuck into the top 3, ousting Stanford for a season). Yale Law, in fact, is allegedly so far beyond Harvard and Stanford as per the the rankings' methodology that, unless something drastic were to change within the way things are calculated, it is doubtful that it will ever be overtaken by either.
For the most part, the rest of the schools are somewhat fluid within the top 14 spots, although there are some exceptions: Since 1999, the top five schools have remained the same (Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia,NYU--except for the 2011 rankings, where UChicago bumped NYU down to #6), and the sixth spot has been taken mostly by UChicago, although UC Berkeley has sometimes made an appearance.
So, there you have it, folks. That's why the top 14 law schools are known as the top 14 law schools.
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