The Utility of the Washington and Lee Rankings
As this fall’s law review submission period winds down, I am forced to ponder yet again the utility of the Washington and Lee law journal rankings. My aim is not to question their methodology here; rather, I wonder whether counterintuitive results — that is, results that don’t comport with a law school’s U.S. News and World Report rankings — can override the prestige rankings in the heads of law professors (rankings that generally match up with USN&WR). I would be the first to admit that W&L’s ranking methodology based largely on citation counts appears to be a more legitimate way to differentiate among law journals than a gut reaction that a higher-ranked law school must have a better journal. But it’s still a struggle to overcome the little rankings voice in my head repeating a mantra that has been with me since I first applied to law school almost fifteen years ago.
So, for example, a friend with an offer from the Virginia Journal of International Law — ranked first among international journals by W&L — sends me an e-mail to ask if she should expedite with the Harvard International Law Journal (ranked #2 by W&L) and the Yale Journal of International Law (ranked #6 by W&L). I don’t dispute that VAJIL may garner more cites than the Yale and Harvard journals, and as a scholar of international law, I’m fully aware that it’s considered the top specialty journal in the field. However, if I’m looking at a publication on an AALS form or a resume, particularly if it’s in a specialty journal in a field that I’m not familiar with, I have to admit that the fancier law school names would jump off the page at me a bit more energetically.
The issue might arise with more frequency in specialty journals, but we see it also in flagships. So, for example, if you were weighing an offer from the Ohio State Law Journal and the Washington University Law Review, which one would you take? I might be inclined to Wash U, which I’m well aware is a top 20 law school. However, the Ohio State Journal outranks the Wash U Journal by 10-16 places in W&L’s book, depending on how you slice it. But the prestige, the prestige, the prestige, the little voice chants — it’s hard to move beyond that factor.
So which is more important — citation counts or prestige? I’m interested to hear what readers think, and my instinct is that it may depend on the purpose of the publication. So, for example, if you’re on the job market or pre-tenure, you might be inclined to jump on the prestige factor, which may be more impressive to people judging your qualifications for a teaching job or tenure. If you’re already tenured or looking to lateral, you might lean towards the citation count (assuming that your work will be more widely read and cited in such a journal, which may be a questionable assumption) because you might care more about engaging in dialogue with your peers and looking beyond your own law school.
What about you? Are you really going to turn down that offer from the Georgetown Journal of International Law to go with the Houston Journal of International Law, which is consistently ranked several slots higher by W&L? Or does the little voice win that battle?