Friday, November 16, 2007

Rank and File

U.S. News and World Report has a law school ranking that you might think, upon hearing its being bashed over and over again, is the work of Satan, Hitler, and George Bush combined (though that was entirely redundant). And I'm sick of hearing about it.

First, the ranking is pretty bad in some ways. For one thing, a person in a school ranked 97th will consider himself vastly more intelligent and better qualified than someone in a school ranked 100th. The thing is, the ranking breaks down as it moves down. The precision fails and you really have no basis for assuming that your law school is substantially, or even any, better than one ranked a few slots below yours. At the top of the scale, it works well - Yale is definitely better than Penn. But is Marquette better than Mercer? No one has any idea, and ranking them as if someone does have an idea is silly.

Second, look at one of these factors in the rank:
Library Resources (.0075)
The total number of volumes and titles in the school's law library at the end of the 2006 fiscal year.
Er, yeah. That big beautiful library is surely a good thing to have, because we can't just do all our research on Westlaw. That would be silly! So schools who throw money at building and maintaining large, completely unnecessary law libraries see a small boost in their rank. I've never even cracked a book in the library this semester.

Those were some of the problems. But critics all too often move beyond the specific problems and go so far as to criticize the idea of ranking law schools. Who knows what a student's need might be? Who could possibly rank law schools? Well, people with any sense can rank law schools. Here is the problem of a law school applicant: he has literally no idea what law schools are good. He hears Harvard is good, and that's about it. Other than that, friends and family are saying, "Oh, that's a good school" about many, many schools. I had this happen to me. People said "Dickinson's a good school." I suppose that's not precisely untrue, because Dickinson offers a real JD and real prospects for employment. But if we're describing law schools that way, then Dickinson seems to be on par with Harvard, which simply can't be right.

Another problem is focusing on specific alumni to tout a school's worth. Some guy goes to a weak school, graduates first in his class, manages to actually get a federal clerkship, and makes great money. The problem is, obviously, that we can't all expect to do really well at a weak school. Or maybe his father was a partner at the first firm he worked at, giving him an easy way into the field. The aggregate success of students from a particular law school is something that this cherry-picking is not helping to evaluate. We need a ranking with some sort of objectivity.

How could you possibly rank law schools? Because you have to rank them for anyone to apply in a rational manner. If U.S. News won't do it, Leiter will. And if the solution is to drop all numerical ranking and divide things purely into tiers, with no further ranking, then artificial distinctions will still remain. That school that barely missed being ranked in the first tier? Yeah, they're going to be totally hosed by being ranked with all the vermin in the second tier (like my law school!).

So please think about what you're saying before crying out for the end of all law school rankings. People would prefer not to take hundreds of hours personally researching law schools to see which one is best. While U.S. News sucks, it's probably due more to what people think it means than what it actually is. In other words, stop feeling like you're awesome unless you get into the top 15 law schools, at which point you can pretty much brag all you want.


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