Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Law School Rankings

That time of year is fast approaching: the time when US News & World Report will release its rankings of colleges and graduate schools, including law schools. Most law schools that see a dip in their rankings typically adopt a public pose of unconcern, while engaging in private handwringing. Most schools that move up in the ranks publicly note that this is not really a contest, and then privately gloat at winning the contest.

All of this has been said before, but the question still must be asked: are the rankings good?

A lot of people say no. Any rankings system is based on criteria, and if the criteria do not match exactly what the study purports to measure, then there are distortions and disincentives. In the case of the US News rankings, stats such as LSAT scores, GPA scores, and peer and practitioner evaluations, are used as proxies for "how good a law school is." But schools are more than the sum of their parts, so there are clearly distortions occurring, as schools seek to improve scores based on inaccurate proxies.

Mine is not an original position, but overall I think the US News rankings do far more good than bad, at least in the quality of the educational experience students are getting. There is at least some sort of public accountability involved. The ABA and AALS (American Association of Law Schools) do periodic site visits--audits, if you will--of ABA accredited law schools, and those visits do a great deal of good too. My law school just went through one. But that is not really a public accounting. Sure, accreditation can be revoked or the school put on probationary status, but the details are pretty much a private matter.

Not so with the US News rankings. Though imperfect, they establish criteria for schools to measure themselves against. Yes, they do hurt smaller schools with fewer endowments, and they tend to hurt conservative institutions (although this may be changing with our continued cultural shift to the right in this country). And other ranking systems have been created to try and rectify perceived imbalances in the US News rankings. (See below.) But overall, I think rankings are better than no rankings, and like it or not the US News rankings are more visible and more accessible than other rankings currently out there. That might change, of course, and perhaps it should change. But right now, the US News rankings serve an enormous public accountability function.

I say all of this as a faculty member of a small, regional, private law school that ranks as a "regional school" year after year. Not that there is anything wrong with that, because there's not. Regional schools serve regional and national needs, and turn out many graduates who have excellent and successful careers and serve society. My point is that I don't defend the rankings from a position at a top 20 law school that wins the rankings contest year after year.

Check out an interesting post from last week on TaxProf Blog, which discusses a rankings-related article from the March 13, 2006 issue of National Review. It talks about George Mason Law School and how it has played the rankings game with great success. (You can get the full National Review article on Lexis if you have access to it; the link is listed in the TaxProf Blog post.)

And for bonus points, here's today's trivia question: where did Prof. Todd Zwywicki, a George Mason law prof quoted in that article, start his law teaching career?

(Answer: my law school: Mississippi College School of Law)


Michael McCann said...

To supplement this post, Professor Brian Leiter of the University of Texas School of Law has developed a ranking system that incorporates only three factors: 75th Percent LSAT; 75th Percent GPA; and Class Size (he uses the 75th percentile for several reasons, including the theory that the number of "top students" is more important the "average" students, since the top students "set the tone"). He also argues that individual school rankings are less important than the "clustering" of schools within the rankings, and I think he is absolutely right about that -- I don't buy that a school ranked #8 is "better" than one ranked #10 etc., and the notion that the 8th and 10th schools are in the same cluster makes more sense.

Here is his ranking: http://www.leiterrankings.com/students/2005student_quality.shtml

Gregory W. Bowman said...

Excellent point. And perhaps Leiter's system will gain traction with the public. But for now, US News still rules the public imagination, and so that is what I have focused on. #8 versus #10 is a distinction without a difference to be sure, and I think on the whole people understand that.