Brooklyn Law School Dean Nicholas Allard doesn’t think much of U.S. News’ ranking of America’s best law schools. “It’s about as timely as a note in the bottle, it’s about as readable as an Ouija Board, and it’s about as accurate as the map that ‘Wrong Way’ Corrigan used when he took off from Brooklyn in the 1930s,” he says emphatically.
Mini-history lesson: Pilot Douglas Corrigan was supposed to fly from New York to the West Coast, but he ended up in Ireland instead—so that comparison doesn’t exactly reflect well on U.S. News. “I suspect that the reason that the U.S. News rankings have been so stubbornly, persistently a matter of discussion and attention is Americans’ penchant for beauty contests and America’s Got Talent-type competitions,” Allard surmises.
Cynical readers might say Allard is just bitter that U.S. News latest rankings put Brooklyn Law in the 83rd spot. The thing is, Allard isn’t alone in his low opinion of the ranking. Many prominent thinkers—both within and outside of the law school world—have criticized it just as harshly. Among them is Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. “I really don’t like this categorization of schools as first, second, and third-tier,” he told The American Spectator in May. “The U.S. News and World Report rankings of law schools are an abomination. The legal profession and the country would be better off if they were eliminated. I gather that all these rankings are one of these things that keeps U.S. News and World Report in the black . . .”
“THE TAIL THAT WAGS THE DOG”
The non-lawyer group of critics includes bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell. In the New Yorker, he took a look at the way U.S. News ranks colleges; much of his criticism applies to the law school ranking as well. For one, the list, “doesn’t simply compare schools along one dimension—the test scores of incoming freshmen, say, or academic reputation,” he wrote. “An algorithm takes a slate of statistics on each college and transforms them into a single score: it tells us that Penn State is a better school than Yeshiva by one point.” That doesn’t make much sense, because the two schools have completely different selling points, he explained. Penn State is a big state school with a diverse student body and a famous football team. Yeshiva, on the other hand, is a small, private Jewish school with two campuses, one for men and one for women. Whether one is objectively better than the other really depends on what someone wants out of college in the first place.
U.S. News first started ranking law schools in 1987, about a quarter of a century ago. Michael Krauss, a professor at the George Mason University School of Law who began teaching around that exact same time, believes rankings in general have become much more important over the years. “There’s a lot more of them,” he says. “There’s much more widely diffused information. I believe that when I started at Mason, students were aware of the quality of law schools in their immediate vicinity but had much less knowledge about the national market.”
In recent years, the decrease in demand for lawyers—and the subsequent competition in the job market—has made the U.S. News ranking even more powerful. Now, few people would dream of applying to law school without consulting it. Krauss says that to some schools, it has become “the tail that wags the dog.”
AN ACADEMIC ARMS RACE
You could make the case that law schools, which provide a specific kind of professional training, are easier to compare. After all, most students want the same outcome: a good job in the legal field. But what constitutes a “good job” still varies widely; a corporate lawyer is different from a public defender, and a public defender is different from a solo practitioner.
Krauss explains that most incoming law students don’t know what kind of law they’d like to practice. So, instead of comparing law schools’ individual academic strengths and weaknesses, they wind up defaulting to their U.S. News ranking. Law schools are aware of that mentality—and it affects the way they make decisions. “Many law schools now think, ‘Okay, we have to put more into this particular field, not because we may think that it’s most important for our students or for the people who apply to us, but because this is what will raise us in the U.S. News ranking,’” Krauss says.
Classes aren’t the only things law schools tweak to get ahead. Krauss says schools hire statistics experts who understand how to leverage the admissions process for ranking gains. An expert would predict, for example, how many spots the school would rise in the ranking if it were to improve its median LSAT score by a certain amount. “It becomes like an arms race,” Krauss laments. It’s no wonder schools invest in high scorers at the expense of students with legitimate financial need.