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)