‘Slap A Number On It, Who Cares?’: The US News Law School Ranking Story

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It’s hard to believe, but U.S. News & World Report used to be a publication that delivered domestic news and a world report. But almost no one remembers USNWR for that role. For most people, the only time the USNWR even crosses their mind is when they’re scanning the latest rankings release of the best colleges, business schools, med schools, or, obviously, law schools. The percentage of Americans who believe the “R” in USNWR stands for “rankings” is certainly non-zero and probably enough to keep them in the Democratic primary until at least Super Tuesday.

The rankings game is so essential to the USNWR business model that they’ve started throwing rankings on everything, knowing that the public has a bottomless appetite for their proto-listicles. They started breaking down schools by specialties to give folks more numbers, even if they provided a prospective student with dubious informative value. They’re ranking law schools by “Legal Writing” programs! It’s a subject so tangential that most schools don’t even grade it! Imagine some 0L choosing a school to be the best Bluebooking unemployed attorney in America.

Alas, the current specialties aren’t enough and USNWR wants to rank even more subjects:

On the one hand, these more accurately track the areas of law graduates end up in than ranking “International Law.” On the other hand, ranking 1L courses as specialties may finally have crossed the line into the absurd.

Professor Orin Kerr of UC Berkeley certainly thinks this has gone too far. After noting that USNWR creates its existing specialty rankings by asking professors in that area to rank programs at other institutions on a 5 point scale, Kerr explains that he would have no clue how to meaningfully rank Criminal Law programs:

Going after core subjects may have heightened the lunacy, but the ranking never had a great way of gauging which schools provide the best, say, “Dispute Resolution” education based on a 54 percent response rate from professors starfucking their conference hall idols from afar.

Law schools are not the same as undergrad. Finding the best architecture program for a budding Frank Lloyd Wright isn’t the same as finding the right Crim program for a budding Jerry Callow or Jerry Gallo. Law school isn’t really teaching the practice these days anyway. Maybe they should be, but until that shift happens, go to the school offering the most well-rounded legal education and wait for future employers to explain the subtleties of ERISA. Ranking schools by practice area just muddies the waters for students — especially those students who are the first in their family to pursue law. This is the sort of thing that pushes students with no one around to tell them any better to head to a top three “Environmental Law” program when they could go to a T14 school on a scholarship. With no offense to those specialty programs, I promise the T14 school will set the student up with everything they need to build a career in that field.

This exposes one of the long-standing problems with the USNWR rankings: they are so easily gamed. Looking for a quick boost? Jack your acceptance rate. Tighten up on LSAT scores. Hire more adjuncts to artificially improve student to faculty ratio. Hell, the size of the library used to be a big factor in law school rankings. Buy more books… move up a slot. Not to self-promote, but it’s one of the virtues of the Above the Law Top 50 Law School rankings that the only way to game them is to provide better value for students.

Just build a “center” and shoot off a press release. Bring in a flashy speaker. Hire a scholar and tell them they don’t need to actually teach. There are so many ways to mess with this ranking.

Some things just don’t need a number on them. Just stop.

But they won’t. They’re in too deep. USNWR is riding the rankings bubble — the only way to drive revenue is to offer newer, fresher numbers. And then even newer and even fresher numbers. Over and over until every aspect of the law school experience is tagged and catalogued.

Every aspect except the ones that might actually help students make a meaningful decision.

HeadshotJoe Patrice is a senior editor at Above the Law and co-host of Thinking Like A Lawyer. Feel free to email any tips, questions, or comments. Follow him on Twitter if you’re interested in law, politics, and a healthy dose of college sports news. Joe also serves as a Managing Director at RPN Executive Search.

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