April 01, 2004

Rankings insanity

This year's USNews rankings of American law schools have been leaking out all week in advance of their official release. Brian Leiter's blog has an interesting discussion of the rankings insanity that has inevitably followed. Please follow the links on Leiter's page to get a sense for what this insanity is like.

But don't stop there. The insanity runs deeper than that.

It isn't just that, as Brian Leiter points out, USNews' ranking methodology is not credible. It isn't just that students overestimate the influence of USNews' rankings on hiring. It isn't even that any attempt to rank law schools individually from best to worst, whether done poorly (USNews), or better than that (Brian Leiter), becomes ridiculous and silly as soon as you treat the resulting list as anything more than just a list of selectively compiled statistics.

The real insanity is what the furor over school rankings reveals about the priorities of law students. To wit: get a job with a lot of prestige that pays a lot of money.

To the extent that employers rely on the rankings, their insane behavior is revealed as well: hire students from highly-ranked schools whose interest in the legal profession is limited to the amount of their compensation.

Fortunately, this extreme characterization does not apply to many prospective law students who use the rankings merely as tools to gather information that they will then thoughtfully integrate with their own interests and reasons for attending law school, in order to decide where to apply. One of Professor Leiter's posts quotes a letter from a student like this.

But I think this extreme characterization does apply more often than you might think.

It isn't that the students are bad. They're not (most of them). They are simply unsure of why they want to be lawyers. I don't mean that they don't know what legal specialty they'd like to pursue, or that they don't know if they'd prefer to work in government or in the private sector. What matters is that they don't know how or why a legal career will allow them to contribute anything of value to their fellow citizens. And this uncertainty is what draws so many law students into the insane world of Biglaw: big prestige, big money, big spending. Why? They don't know. They don't know why they do what they do. So they do what others tell them to do. It starts with automatically picking the higher-ranked law school. It continues with automatically working for the most prestigious firm which will hire them. And it ends with doing work which may be meaningless, unfulfilling, and occasionally simply evil.

It isn't that practicing law at a prestigious firm is boring or evil. Usually, I suspect, it's the opposite. Especially if the lawyer knows why she is there, if she's thought about how her work contributes to the community and is valuable beyond just the paycheck it earns her. If she hasn't, though, she's an automaton, and that can sometimes be evil, not just at Biglaw but at small-law, government law, and non-law (doctoring, accounting, street-sweeping, and bus-driving).

The rankings insanity is insane because it reveals the occasional thoughtlessness which can ripen by force of habit into blindness. This blindness can lead to scandals like Enron and Tyco. It can lead to governmental evil, like Naziism, fascism, and Stalinism. But usually, the blindness merely leads to the daily, low-level grunginess and lack of joy that plagues modern working life.

Posted by Carey at April 1, 2004 09:10 PM

The U.S. News ranking is fundamentally flawed. I don't understand how a school like Tulane that was ranked as number 40 in 2002 could have fallen to 56 in 2004. This is 16 places people. It is time for Law School Deans to wake up and hire a strategy consultant that can guide them as to the best way to rein in USNEWS ranking. The business school people have already succeeded in undermining it and majority of people do not rely on USNEWS ranking of business schools any more. They look at Business Week and World Street Journal. Just telling students that rankings don't matter is not going to help.

Law firms use it in deciding where to do OCI. It also determines if students shortlist law firms at OCI or vice versa. It determines who gets invited to certain Off-Campus job fairs. Potential junior faculty use it to pick the offers to accept. It significantly affects students choices as to where to go to law School. People like Ann Israel and many other Legal Headhunters all advise students in their write-ups to choose to go to the law school with the highest rank no matter how insignificant the difference. For instance, if Ann Israel told you this two years ago while trying to choose between Harvard and Stanford, you would have chosen Stanford. Now you are stuck, you are in your second year at Stanford, it is too late to transfer to Harvard which admitted you 2 years ago. You did not go to Harvard because it was number 3, now it is number 2. Next year Stanford may become number 2 again. This is crazy and affects schools verY negatively because resources that should be spent on other top priorities are re-directed towards those things that significantly impact a school's ranking.

I don't understand why Chicago is ranked below, NYU and Columbia. Chicago has a higher reputation among lawyers, judges and Academics than both schools. Many of the methodologies used are flawed as was pointed out by the AALS report of a couple of years ago. Prof. Leiter's ranking of Academic quality is a more sensible ranking and should replace the U.S. News ranking.

Posted by: Ranker at April 4, 2004 01:46 PM

totally agree!

Posted by: Chris at April 4, 2004 03:24 PM

I think it's pretty clear that small differences in reputation rankings don't factor heavily into the US News ranking, and small differences in selectivity/student numbers do. I think this is fair, because, while admissions numbers may not say a lot, small differences in reputation can't be given a lot of significance, given the imprecision suggested by the US News survey's low response rate.

The LSAT medians at NYU and Columbia were a full two points higher than Chicago's for the JD class of 2006. That's a big difference; those 170+ students are aggressively courted, and Chicago has been less successful than NYU and Columbia in recruiting them in recent years. I don't see why a survey measuring the academic production of faculty is more salient than US News.

The idea of being "stuck" at Stanford is pretty ridiculous. You go to Stanford if you're a superstar and want to practice on the west coast, and you go to Harvard if you are a superstar and want to practice on the east coast. Nobody made a decison between those two schools based on USNews rankings.

I think plenty of people chose Chicago over Northwestern, or Georgetown over GW for USNews reasons, and I think Ann Israel's advice to make that call would be right.

Posted by: D.F. at April 4, 2004 03:54 PM

One other complaint I have about the rankings: they tend to favor 'national' schools, without looking at local impact. If you're in Chicago, you have a choice among nine law schools: U of C, Northwestern, Loyola, Chicago-Kent, DePaul, and John Marshall are all in the city proper. Northern Illinois University is just an hour west, and Valparaiso is about an hour southeast. And Notre Dame, and U of I are within two hours, which pushes the number of quality schools to eleven. If you add another hour, you can be at Michigan.

But what does that really mean? U of C and N'western grads rarely practice here. And I'd venture few of them started here, either. Loyola, Kent, Marshall and DePaul grads fill law firm rosters, and NIU and Valpo grads stay south and west of the city. All in all, even though we have top schools here, few natives aspire to them. They pick the local schools, because the elite schools don't really represent who they are. And neither does US News.

Posted by: greg at April 4, 2004 05:17 PM

I am writing in response to Chris.

Chicago beat NYU on the number of grads employed at graduation. Beat NYU on reputation. Beat NYU Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and Columbia on Bar passage rate. Beat NYU on student/faculty ratio.

I am sure most University of Chicago law students will laugh at your statement that students who pick Chicago are students who would have gone to NorthWestern. A lot of people who got admitted at Harvard and Stanford have chosen Chicago ahead of these schools. Get your facts right before you make assertions.

You may not agree with me, but it is known fact that some people chose Stanford instead of Harvard because of a minor difference in ranking. Some may choose Harvard because they want to practice in the Northeast, and some may choose Stanford because they want to practice in the WestCoast, but most of the students at both schools can work in the Northeast or WestCoast or anywhere for that matter. They are not regional law schools. Rather, they are national and international law schools. What bothers me is the schizophrenic and topsy-turvy nature of the ranking. Tulane crashing 16 places and University of Washington that has consistently ranked in the 20s for a number of years suddenly finding itself in the mid-30s. Something is definetely wrong with the USNEWS ranking and it is time to start rejecting it.

Posted by: Ranker at April 4, 2004 09:18 PM

Thanks to everyone who's commented. Now I'm going to make fun of some of you.

Why oh why does everyone get so worked up about whether USNews ranks NYU ahead of Chicago by a place or two? Why do you care so much about USNews' relative rankings of Harvard and Stanford?

Do not pretend that these trivialities don't stir the passions. All I need to get a lot of traffic on my blog is to talk about rankings. It's a sure bet that rankings fanatics will come out of the woodwork to comment.

A question for all of you who seem to care so much about the the relative rankings of top-flight schools like Chicago, NYU, Stanford, Northwestern: why does it matter so much to you? Would any of you claim that any of these schools is objectively "better" than the others?

Posted by: Carey at April 5, 2004 11:02 AM

Tulane being ranked at 56 is absolute insanity. I don't think much more needs to be said.

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