Law School Rankings

One of the most common complaints that you hear from law professors and deans is that the U.S. News and World Report rankings exert too much influence over legal education.  If given a choice between doing something to boost its ranking or doing something to help students, the incentives for a school are heavily weighted towards boosting the ranking.  This is true because rankings are widely publicized and provide a simple way for prospective students, alumni, and other interested constituencies to evaluate law school performance.

If people were confident about how the the rankings were done, then that influence might be acceptable.  But most faculty do not think that the methodology used by U.S. News is sound.  I’ve noted before that they give no weight to student or faculty diversity, and Malcolm Gladwell wrote an essay observing that the rankings do not take cost-effectiveness into account (which is especially strange in this era).  Granted, coming up with a standard that everyone would agree upon is impossible, but we can do better.

What is to be done?  The answer to monopoly is competition.  We need other organizations to conduct law school rankings. This would give people more information, especially if the alternatives explicitly take factors into account (e.g., cost) that are absent from the U.S. News rankings. It would also diminish the power of any single organization or person over law schools, and make gaming the ranking system far more difficult.

No single school can be trusted to do this for conflict-of-interest reasons, but there are plenty of other candidates.  The ABA and the AALS are two obvious ones assuming that no other commercial outfit wants to compete with U.S. News.  Or, dare I say it, a consortium of law blogs could organize and then disseminate these rankings for free.  It’s time to stop whining about U.S. News and start doing something to give schools better incentives to improve legal education.

You may also like...

15 Responses

  1. Albert says:

    Brian Leiter already presents an alternative law school ranking (, emphasizing different criteria than US News. Even if there were a number of rankings attempting to assess overall school quality, it’s likely that there would be some intersection in their methods (e.g., undergrad GPA, LSAT score, etc.), making it possible to game certain important rankings, just as it happens now.

    The deeper issues are that the criteria on which we believe law schools – and education more broadly – should be judged are not always conducive to statistical summary, and law students certainly don’t have uniform priorities. To me, the model of having several rankings, each of which focuses on specific areas, is ideal. Have one for employment in big law, one for academic employment, one for faculty strength, one for faculty accessibility, etc. I think this is Leiter’s strategy, but I don’t remember, and his site is blocked by my employer, so I can’t check.

    Thanks for the nice post!

  2. Gerard Magliocca says:

    Leiter’s site is blocked by your employer but Concurring Opinions is not?!

  3. Ken Rhodes says:

    I read Car & Driver magazine. I enjoy their comparison tests. They rate the cars on a number of specific attributes, grouped into several categories, and summed at the bottom to a “Grand Total” score.

    Last month they compared the BMW M3 to the M-B C63 AMG. The BMW edged out the M-B by one point, 214-213. But buried in the details was an assignment of points (max = 20) for Price, and the BMW, being less expensive, beat the M-B in that attribute by 20-16. In other words, in all the data that related to the question “which car was better than the other,” the M-B was slightly better, 197-194.

    I find it annoying that I have to back into the answer to the question by doing my own arithmetic. No, I’m not too dumb to do it; I just find it annoying.

    So I disagree with Malcolom Gladwell, and I do not find it at all strange regarding the rankings. If I were about to cough up a lot of money for my son to go to law school, I would want to get the best possible evaluation of available options, and then make my own cost-benefit assessment, which would necessarily include a factor unknowable by the rating agency–the utility of the money to me.

  4. Bill Reynolds says:

    The UK ranks (or once did, recently) law schools officially. The idea is to divert govt money to successful schools. It would be interesting how the UK derives those ranking.

  5. Diane says:

    Here’s how a typical conversation goes with a prospective law school applicant:
    Applicant: which schools should I apply to?
    PreLaw Advisor: It depends on what you’re looking for in a law school. Let’s start with why you want to go to law school.
    Applicant: Um. I don’t know, I just always thought I would. [Alternates include: I want an interesting career that will make a lot of money. My constitutional law class was so interesting. My parents are pushing me to go. Etc.]

    Only a minority of applicants have a real sense of why they want to become lawyers, and only some of those know what they’re looking for in a law school (beyond “one that will accept me”). Meaningless rankings like US News’ let them continue to fail to think through their decision with any real substance, simply filling their heads with the idea that there are “best” law schools. (Alternate rankings, including Leiter’s, are no better. Faculty quality as measured by scholarship production? Sorry, not that important to the overwhelming majority of law students, who have no intention of becoming law professors. Tell me how well they teach. Tell me what kinds of professional connections they can provide students with.)

    The only way to reduce the power of the rankings is to educate prospective applicants about what it means to be a lawyer, the different career paths for lawyers, the different kinds of learning environments offered by law schools, and how the latter might serve their career goals.

  6. Ken Rhodes says:

    Here’s an alternate plan for prospective law students.

    You are about 22 years old. You are close to graduating from college. You are no longer a baby. Take some responsibility. You are responsible for deciding what you want, and what questions you need to ask to decide how to get it.

    But you are not alone. You are surrounded by more experienced people who can help you. More likely than not you have one or two parents you can talk to about this challenge facing you. Definitely, you have teachers at your college you can talk to. If you don’t know what questions to ask, then that should be your first question: “What should I be asking myself, and what information should I be seeking?” Between your parents and your teachers, you can get a lot of good advice, not on what law school to go to (though that might be forthcoming as well), but on the more fundamental things you should be concerned with–how to set goals, how to establish priorities, how to cope with constraints. People a generation older than yourself, even if they are laborers who never graduated from high school, may have a lot of good advice for you on those fundamentals.

    After you have thought a lot about your goals, your priorities, and your constraints, you will be much better able to cope with your practical question of school selection.

  7. Orin Kerr says:

    What, you’re not persuaded by the Cooley Rankings?

  8. Gerard Magliocca says:

    I lost faith when they ranked themselves one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

  9. A.J. Sutter says:

    Gerard, I don’t see where in the Gladwell piece ( he specifies what he means by cost-efectiveness. He refers to “provid[ing] a good legal education at a decent price,” but this begs the question of the sense in which it’s “good” — fun and interesting? having highly-ranked profs? adequate for passing the bar in, say, Utah? adequate for passing the Utah bar and finding a lawyer job there? adequate to get a median-salary job in the NY/DC/L.A./Silicon Valley/Chicago market? I don’t see how a one-size-fits-all measure of “cost-effectiveness” could be anything but misleading.

    @Ken, apropos of “Definitely, you have teachers at your college you can talk to”: not everyone makes the decision to go to law school while still in college. And the only profs who knew me well enough for me to have spoken to were in astronomy, Classics or English, so they’d have been clueless. True, my mother had been telling me for years, “Oh, you argue so well you ought to be a lawyer” — but this was usually followed by something like “Now eat your cauliflower/turn down your music/go to bed already,” which suggests something other than a career counseling context.

  10. PrometheeFeu says:

    I remember some time ago being on the army website and they had this cool application which allowed you to select the relative importance of different criteria at which point it would rank the different “professions” for you.

    I think that’s what you would want. Instead of a one-size fits all ranking, you would have an interface which would allow students to indicate what they care about in the school and then produce a ranking that is applicable to that student’s goals and desires.

    That said, I think it’s important to ask why this ranking is so influential. Colleges don’t seem to have that problem. What is it about law schools that makes them so different?

  11. paean says:

    One possible cause of USNWR’s preeminence is the utter lack of useful and accurate information available from the law schools themselves. Ken Rhodes is correct that applicants should consider the decision to go to law school very carefully. But will you ever find this advice on a law school’s website? Do admissions offices counsel people to think twice about their decision?

    Of course not; we’re talking about institutions that are designed to shovel as many incoming students into their halls as they can with basically no regard for the long term consequences. (I realize many law professors will disagree with this characterization. I also realize that few, if any, students will.) Pick a school; its website will be full of identical and misrepresentative promises about what you can do with their J.D., which is why USNWR rankings exist in the first place. Absent will be any acknowledgement of the tough jobs market and anything you could actually use in making this decision.

    So the problem with the “you’re not a baby, you should have known better than to do business with us” argument is that it’s not particularly compelling in the presence of so much misinformation.

    If a school wants to attract students with something outside of USNWR, they should tell potential applicants about the employment outcomes the school provides. If that information isn’t sufficiently compelling to attract students, or turns students away, then guess what? That school is probably going to be facing a significant crisis in the near future anyway.

  12. Gerard Magliocca says:

    In practice, getting accurate post-graduate employment data is hard. You can try to survey alumni, but the response rate is typically not great. So what are you really supposed to tell people?

  13. Ken Rhodes says:

    @AJ–I respectfully submit that not only would your Astronomy, English, and Classics profs not been clueless, but in my answer to Diane’s hypothetical conversation with a prospective applicant, they would have been *excellent* profs to ask the questions I suggested. Not “what law school should I go to,” but “how should I (a) decide on my goals, (b) figure out the right questions to ask, and (c) cope with the inevitable constraints that may limit my choices?”

  14. paean says:

    Simply accurately publishing what data the school has, including the response rate, would be better than current practice, which seems to consist mainly of counting every temporary and school-created job as “currently employed” and other nice little tricks to game the USNWR system. One statistic that might even be available directly from the Department of Education is default rates on student loans for that school.

    Response rates might be a matter of attitudes; if students are told from day 1 that they will be expected to keep in touch after graduation then response rates will probably go up. Especially if the school is upfront about the importance of those numbers to the financial health and continuing feasibility of the institution.

    And maybe it wouldn’t be necessary to keep hounding graduates for this data the rest of their lives. But it shouldn’t be too hard to get in touch with the class who graduated last year. Thus a school could provide at least some information on the percentage of graduates who are able to pay for the education they just received.

    Schools already spend time and money tracking down alumni to solicit donations. This probably has a self-selecting effect for more successful alumni, but expanding the scope of these inquiries wouldn’t hurt.

    One question lurking here is what factors we should really take into account and how they should be weighted when we compare schools. Nationally-recognized faculty, excellent scholarship, a challenging curriculum, etc. But for most students, law school costs so much that the financial consideration simply expands to push these other factors out of the way. I’m sure every student would love to get the kind of education available at any law school in the country; they just can’t afford it. Unfortunately they only find this out after they’ve graduated.

  15. John says:

    I came across another rankings based solely on student reviews, It’s an interesting take on what actual students have to say.