Sunday, March 30, 2008

2009 U.S. News Law School Rankings

U.S. News & World Report has published its annual rankings of law schools, but the ABA Journal reports that bloggers (again) beat U.S. News to the punch with leaked rankings. The U.S. News rankings can be linked to here; an ABA Journal article on the rankings (and links to the leakers) is online here.

Much is made annually of the rankings. Many observers are critical, and some say they do not matter. But for better or worse, they do, since many current and potential students, current and potential faculty members, and current and potential donors pay attention to them.

My view is that the rankings can matter far less at the top than they do at the bottom. Harvard is not #1. Does that deter people from going to Harvard? No. NYU and Columbia traded places this year. So what? They are in the top of the top. A slip from the top 10 to the top 30 can be a crisis, but that happens not too often, I think. And as Theodore Seto has pointed out in his article Understanding the U.S. News Law School Rankings (available on SSRN here--I highly recommend it), much of what affects a law school's rankings is outside that school's control.

I also think that what matters more than year-to-year shifts are mid- or long-term trends. A school may misreport and fall from tier 2 to tier 3, or may have a temporary spike due to a new building, or some such thing that has a short-term impact for good or ill. But what really matters is a school's position over a period of years. It's like global warming in that sense. What matters is not the weather in any given year. What matters is climate change over a period of years. "Climate" can be defined as the "average of weather." Perhaps a law school's "real" ranking for U.S. News purposes can be defined as its average ranking over a period of years. So that in any given year, a school like George Mason's rise in the rankings might not mean much--but its climb in the rankings over the past decade and more is decidedly significant.

There's one other thing about these U.S. News rankings that is extremely interesting compared to years past: the online version can be used to rank schools in ALL tiers. In years past the 3rd and 4th tiers were listed alphabetically only. But now, schools in the lower tiers apparently can be ranked. And in my opinion that is where the rankings can really matter, and perhaps be the difference between life and death of a school, or good fundraising versus tuition-dependence, or strong recruiting versus weak recruiting (of both faculty and students). If you are #1, or #3, or #9, yes, that matters. But it matters much more, I think, whether your school is in the 3rd or 4th tier--and where in that tier. If you are in the 4th tier, you'd much, much prefer to be at the top than at the bottom. At the top, you can claim to be "on the cusp" of a move up. But at the bottom, or in the middle, that's a much harder argument to make.


DR said...

I think it is interesting that third and fourth tier schools can be ranked. I think, ultimately, that it will lead to more transparency in the law school selection process and result in more satisfied students after their first year.

The biggest hoax in the whole ranking system is the employment at and after graduation numbers. Law schools should ultimately be held to a strict standard of candor (much like law students are expected to be absolutely candid in bar applications) when reporting the employment after graduation. The first step should be a category of "employed in the legal profession after graduation." I understand the counter argument that not everyone with a law degree would like to practice law, but honestly most law school applicants at first have some intention of working in the legal field.

Tom said...

The ratings system both relies upon and heavily influences attitudes about reputation. Most of us can agree that, of all the things that US News attempts to quantify with that list, quality of instruction is not one of them. Graduating from Harvard makes you a more marketable attorney-to-be, yes, but not because anyone believes you got a better education. It's all about reputation, still: the firm gets to advertise that it has one more Harvard associate, and Harvard gets to advertise one more successful alumnus.