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.