The US News peer assessment component. Brad Leiter has analyzed the US News rankings too, and he seems to find the most value in the peer assessment score, which is derived from a survey about faculty quality. My school has always done relatively well on this factor, and we invariably call attention to how well we do and (of course it's self-serving!) how this is the factor that matters most. But how can the surveyed profs know enough about all the schools they are asked to score? You are most likely to think of the people you know at the school--are the school's most well-published scholars in your field?--and judge the whole school by that standard. Are you thinking about the present or the long history of the law school? Do you really know if the scholars who exemplify a law school are still active on the faculty? If someone prominent moved to a school you are more likely to know, because the schools--especially the richer schools--put great effort into glossy reports to show off information precisely with the purpose of affecting the US News survey. At what point, in judging so many schools, are you resorting to general opinions about the prestige of the school? And where does that opinion come from? Oh, certainly not from the US News survey! No, no, no! That couldn't happen. Do you think reputation is some sort of echo and US News a huge echo chamber?
UPDATE: Leiter's discussion used faculty quality rankings not from the US News peer assessment factor, but based on an independent survey. It differs from the US News faculty survey results. For example, he shows Yale first, but US News puts Harvard and Stanford above Yale. Well, UW is at 19 for US News and only 22 for his survey, so you can guess which survey I think is more ... accurate. US News surveys "the dean and three faculty members at each school." Leiter surveyed "150 leading legal scholars." [UPDATE ABOUT THIS UPDATE: US News, when re-sorted by the peer assessment factor puts Harvard, Stanford, and Yale at the same level. H & S are only above Y as a matter of alphabetical order. Leiter puts Yale alone in first place and Harvard and Chicago tied for second, and Stanford 4th.]
ANOTHER UPDATE: I was just rereading that update (blog tending can get pretty damned involuted) and it struck me that surveying "the dean and three faculty members at each school" versus "150 leading legal scholars" makes a big difference. I'm sure Leiter's survey has been dissected elsewhere, and excuse me for not looking up previous comments, but these 150 "leading legal scholars" are a particular sort of person, likely to interact with other profs at a very elite level and to think well of the people who cycle through elite events. They will have their preferences and allegiances. US News is surveying a much larger group, which includes many much less elite faculty members, who are going to bring quite different ideas to the process of participating in determining who has the opportunity to become the new elite. These are people who struggle to bring recognition to their schools, and they may feel that schools that outrank them on the reputation score are riding on longstanding prejudice. It's not at all clear to me that Leiter's survey takers are more trustworthy. I wonder, do scholars with big reputations read more of other scholars' work? Maybe profs who write more read less. Maybe people who build their own reputations pay less attention to exactly what everyone else is doing.