Today's topic of choice is the subject of law school rankings, and in particular the annual rankings published by U.S. News and World Report. There is a lot of traffic on the internet about this, and a number of law professors who weigh in regularly on the subject, including Brian Leiter of the University of Texas at Austin, David Bernstein of George Mason University School of Law, and Tom Bell of Chapman University School of Law. There is also a very good article on the subject in the fall 2006 issue of preLaw. I recommend it for reading by any new or future law student. Unfortunately, that issue of preLaw is not currently available online, but the preLaw website is located here.
Much of the dialogue over law school rankings goes something like this:
(1) Most law schools say the rankings are bad, in part because they encourage schools to value their performance based on various proxy factors (e.g., size of library holdings or student-faculty ratio), rather than "actual" performance or quality of education.
(2) But often schools trumpet their success in the U.S. News rankings, even if they have been critical of them.
Here are my two cents:
(1) Whenever you try to measure an intangible by using objective (or even subjective) proxy values, you get distortion. You see it in all facets of life, from grades in school to job promotions. And in fact it is one of the most challenging aspects of law itself: to come up with legal rules that do not offer loopholes--that is, rules that do not inadvertently incentivize or permit unwanted behavior or results.
This of course oversimplifies the matter, and yet it is worth bearing in mind, especially since the alternative--having no measures of performance or ranking--is not very attractive, either. Without any rankings, are law schools going to be somehow more noble and work more for the public good, or are they going to be less accountable and more inefficient? I tend to think the latter. And this is the reason that some commentators, including Professor Leiter and others, have focused on trying to come up with other, ostensibly better, measures than the U.S. News rankings.
(2) In chasing the U.S. News rankings, or any rankings, law schools risk sacrificing their missions for a rise in the rankings. Some schools probably do this, while some admirably resist temptation. But again, this goes back to making sure your proxies are as good as they can be. If the proxies are good, then the ill effects of chasing rankings are minimized.
(3) Based on my own study of the rankings, the U.S. News rankings put great weight on what peers at other law schools think of a particular law school--this constitutes about 25% of a school's final score. Personally, I find this troubling. On the one hand, these peers are supposedly people who should know, since law schools are their business. But on the other hand, there is some troubling circularity to concluding that a school is good because a lot of people say it's good.
Specifically, doesn't this heavily weighted subjective factor lead to reputational lag? Aren't some schools likely overrated due to their prestige amongst other law schools, while others who offer very good legal education but promote themselves poorly remain underrated? And once people's minds in the legal academy are made up, isn't it hard to change these perceptions, no matter what you do? It's like going back to your 10th high school reunion: you may be very successful, but to many people in the room, you're still just a nerd.
Add to this the fact that scores regarding facilities and student-faculty ratios are only a small percentage of a school's overall score, and the U.S. News rankings start to look a lot like a popularity contest. But oddly enough, it's a contest that does add accountability. Perhaps, then, it comes down to adjusting the factors looked at and the weight given to them.
These are just a few of my thoughts. I'd like to hear what others think as well.