March 29, 2006

The new U.S. News law school rankings are out.

So what's going on at your school over these things? Wailing and gnashing of teeth? Jubilation? Smug boredom? Sighs of relief? A small twinge of satisfaction followed by the cranking forward of the mental gears -- how can we squeeze out another point next year? Kicking yourself because the school you picked because of the rankings is now below the school you assumed it was better than? A quick stab of pain followed by immediate retreat to the usual painkiller thoughts about how the rankings don't really mean anything -- soft variables and intangibles!

UPDATE: The rankings at the link are not yet the new rankings. I'm responding to leaked rankings that I've seen, which I won't link to.


Joel Fleming said...

Online rankings haven't been updated yet. Only real-world, like, paper copies have the new rankings as of yet.

Ann Althouse said...

These are the 06 rankings... Are the new ones the 07s??

Sloanasaurus said...

When I went to Madison is was in the top 25. Now its No. 32. That's pretty sad.

Ann Althouse said...

Joel: You're right. The on-line ones are 2006, but that is last year. My school's rank stayed the same.

Sloan: You need to take into account that all the other schools are doing what they can to rise in the rankings. Taking students with the highest LSATs and GPAs is one of the more effective techniques. There's actually very little space between the schools, point-wise, and we could play the game harder than we do. If alumni think we should do that, they should let the administration know. I think the school is better than it was years ago. (I've been here since 1984.) The rankings have given up-and-coming schools a way to fight for recognition. Of course, they do it. More established schools might be complacent or scoffing about the rannkings. How much do you think law school policy should be designed to gain rank on the U.S. News list?

Art said...

What if they added a rating category for combined hits on faculty blogsites?

University of Tennesee-Knoxville is number one?

Ron said...
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Ron said...

I'd be interesting to study what actual effect these ratings had on various groups. Alumni? Administrators? Faculty? Prospective Faculty? Students? Legislators?

Everyone says 'They aren't important,' and maybe that's true, but maybe they are to some groups. All we have now is anecdotal information.

Sloanasaurus said...

Althouse, I agree that the rankings are somewhat fixed. After all most law school professors went to palces like Harvard, etc... so its no wonder these schools will always be tops. Unfortunately, the U.S. News Rankings has little competition and is cited with impunity by people across the country. Thus, we should play along.

Sometimes principles don't help you and sometimes fiction becomes reality in the minds of people who don't have the time or energy or ability to find out the truth (take the end of the Vietnam war for example).

Thus, we should try to get our rankings up even if it means playing the stupid game.

MadisonMan said...

Everyone says 'They aren't important,' and maybe that's true, but maybe they are to some groups.

I suspect a prospective students might use the if there's a choice between School A and School B, and all other things being equal, the higher ranked school might get the nod. But all other things are never equal.

I suspect the only people who really use these lists are administrators who are trying to justify some new expense or highly paid hire in the name of moving up in the list. Or administrators who do something and then see their school rise and say "See? See? My policies are working!" To which the only possible response is "Correlation is not causation."

bearbee said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dave said...

Not being a layer I don't have any dog in this fight.

I will add, however, that my father used to tell me that the hires his corporate law firm made from harvard and yale law schools never worked very well.

And these two schools are perennially ranked numbers 1 and 2.

Sloanasaurus said...

This lists have become consumer guides for students. I don't like the lists because they raise the cost of higher ed. Years ago, a student would just go to their local law school. Warren Burger went to Willie Mitchell and Holmes went to the University of Cincy. Today, if you can get into both George Washington U and the UW Madison, students will spend the $50k extra in tuition and living and travel etc.. to go to GW because it is slightly higher ranked. Thus, the higher ranked schools will attract the better students - even though you probably don't learn anything more at GWU as compared to UW Madison.

The same is true for professors.

These rankings won't last forever. Eventually top schools, like top businesses will collapse on their own elitism and mismanagement. Who knows when that will be....

Joseph Hovsep said...

madisonman, I think you are underestimating the effect of U.S. News rankings. Law students are fond of saying they don't pay attention and the ranking didn't affect their choice of school, but if you ask the typical law student about her law school's ranking, I would wager a hunk of cash that (a) she will know what the rank was when she applied (b) she will know the ranks of the schools she applied to but didn't get into, (c) she will know if those rankings have changed significantly since and (d) she will have gone to the school with the highest ranking unless she lives in a state with good, affordable public law schools. At least this is true of top-tier schools.

Why? Because the truth is law school cirriculum is very similar across most law schools and most law students don't have a serious commitment to study a certain kind of law. Thus, getting a job hinges a lot on the prestige of the school and the "prestige" of a school hinges a lot on the U.S. News ranking.

At least that's my take.

Ryan Hatch said...

Law schools should obsess over the rankings. And they do, though they might not admit it. In my three years at Wisconsin, I only remember getting one email from Dean Davis. It was a collective pat on the back right after we moved up a couple notches in the rankings. You could tell what was on his mind.

Two customers of law schools who should care about rankings, and are justified in doing so, are law students and employers.

Of course, everyone knows the name-brand ivy-league schools, which profess not to care about the rankings. But for the other 90%, the rankings provide a useful service. How else should a firm in, say, Los Angeles (where I work), distinguish between graduates of the University of Oklahoma (ranked 80th) and University of Wisconsin (ranked 32nd)? Most Angelenos can't point to these states on a map, much less distinguish their law schools. The rankings are a boon to the national (and global) market for top legal talent.

When I was applying to law school, the rankings provided an easy way to prioritize among the 180 or so law schools in the US. I was portable: I would go to the "best" school possible, no matter where it was. And how else to know which school is "best", aside from the labor intensive and expensive method of visiting each campus and talking with alumni?

You can debate the methodology, but the rankings are a de facto measure of quality. How accurately the rankings actually measure quality is irrelevant; because students rely on the rankings, they are self-fulfilling prophecies. All other things being equal (a fair assumption for many, if not most, students), students will choose the higher-ranked school. You will spend three years in the library anyway, so why do you care if you are in Miami or Madison?

The rankings, combined with the LSAC guides, also provide valuable raw data such as GPA and LSAT percentiles bar passage rates, and employment. And what better way to train lawyers than to throw them, at the outset of their careers, a vast amount of detailed information, require them to process it, and then make a rational decision?

Glitch_the_Obscure said...

I'm presently deciding on which school to attend, and the USNWR rankings are playing a big part of my decision. I know that the rankings can be easily manipulated and thus are not necessarily respective of reality, but I am worried that law firms and other potential hires won't necessarily think the same way. I am looking at law as a career, not a passion (though that could still happen).

Right now I am trying to decide between UCONN, American U., Cardozo and Brooklyn Law. All are fairly evenly matched in terms of overall quality, from what research I've done. The Leiter Report, which is allegedly a better measure of quality than USNWR, suggests that Cardozo is the best school of the lot, in terms of both academic quality and the quality of students accepted. Right now, I am leaning towards Cardozo, though the thought of spending nearly as much on rent/food/etc. as tuition sometimes makes me want to faint.

USNWR, on the other hand, puts UCONN and American considerably higher on their list than Cardozo and Brooklyn, yet neither school is considered superior to Cardozo, according to Leiter anyway. I've asked lawyers and former law students where I should go, some say UCONN or American, others say Cardozo. I have no firm field of study in mind-perhaps International Business. I went to Hamilton for a degree in Economics and came out with a BA in Philosophy, so I am wary of comitting myself to a field of study before I even get to school.

Which leaves me, and I am sure many other prospective law students, with a condundrum. Do you go the higher-ranked school, even if you strongly suspect that the USNWR rankings are not reflective of actual quality? I dunno, but I only have a few more days to figure it out before I have to send check to someone.

Of course, I have yet to hear from Washington and Lee. If I get in there I will definetly go, so maybe this is all a moot point anyway.

Ann Althouse said...

Art: "What if they added a rating category for combined hits on faculty blogsites?"

Then hundreds of lawprofs would set up blogs and lawprofs, students, and alumni would hit those sites as many times a day as the sitemeters would register. The lawprof sites would immediately jump the top of the traffic lists, bumping Kos! It would be quite amusing to have such tangible evidence of how hard the game that everyone loves to scorn is really played.

vnjagvet said...


One thing you did not mention in your comment is where you might want to practice.

If you have any strong geographic preferences, you might want to check the opinions of lawyers at major firms in those locations. Sometimes local prejudices are as important as national reputation.

Selesai said...

Although it's kind of off-topic, to you Glitch:
The UNAWR rankings may be helping you make a decision, and that may be in part because you believe that prospective employers will be more likely to hire you if you come from a higher-ranked school. So that part of analysis is about whether THEY will pick YOU.
I submit that the second part of the analysis, one which I, as a law school applicant, did not consider, is whether I would want to chose THOSE employers. In my opinion, your choice of employment-- where you think you are able to go-- is partly confined by salary. So I think you should also be thinking of how much money you're willing to repay, and how that will affect your career opportunities. That's something the rankings don't ever consider.

Ruth Anne Adams said...

A small twinge of satisfaction

Yes. I am a UW grad who works with mostly WFU and UNC grads. Good to see we "beat" WFU.

Why do I remember UW being in the top 20 in the late 80s? Am I remembering that correctly?

Ricardo said...

Law school is very much like college. The right place for a student to be is "where they fit the best". Some students thrive in big metropolises, and others thrive in small rural settings. Some love the competition of large classes, and others do better with the nurturing of smaller groups. Just "going for the ranking numbers" causes many people to avoid doing what should be an important element of the law school admission process: analyzing themselves (what kind of persons they are, what they are really looking for) as well as analyzing the schools. It's the "fit" that makes or breaks the law school experience.

Goatwhacker said...

Just an observation - since the scores are partially based on undergrad and LSAT scores, schools heavily invested in affirmative action would tend to underperform those who are not. Wouldn't this leave law school administration in something of a quandary, sort of trying to serve two masters, ie the stated goal of diversity versus the objective goal of a high ranking?

Sloanasaurus said...

The better question is do law schools get credit in their rankings for engaging in affirmative action. And if they do...should they get credit? does affirmative action at to the value of a law school?

Balfegor said...

Then hundreds of lawprofs would set up blogs and lawprofs, students, and alumni would hit those sites as many times a day as the sitemeters would register. The lawprof sites would immediately jump the top of the traffic lists, bumping Kos! It would be quite amusing to have such tangible evidence of how hard the game that everyone loves to scorn is really played.

From the law schools' and law professors' perspective, though, isn't that a pretty good outcome?

One of the criticisms made of law school academics and of academics in general is that in their ivory tower, they're out of touch with the sensibilities and concerns a) of ordinary people, and b) of ordinary lawyers. Having alumni click on their webpages all the time -- even if just to improve their alma mater's US News ranking, would also (if only incidentally) have the effect of giving professors a significant platform from which to express their ideas to a general public, and a significant means for the public to interact with and criticise those professors' ideas.

For students, the deal is, if anything, even better, since a law professor's blog (if it touches on legal issues) is likely to give them much more of an appreciation for their professor as a legal and personable (as opposed to didactic) intellect, and also give them a more immediate and accessible sense of their professors' professional interests as well, making it easier for them to seek out professors (and schools with professors) who teach what they are interested in, and improving the discourse between professors and students.

High traffic rankings will also probably drive high link rankings, and so have the effect of bumping qualified legal commentators' rankings in Google and other spider-driven search engines, meaning that when the public searches for commentary on legal issues, they will be that much more likely to encounter, say, Orin Kerr blogging about search and seizure, and that much less likely to encounter J. Random Journalist talking about something he knows nothing about.

That seems like a pretty good outcome to me, even if it is ratings driven.

The biggest problem I can see would be visitor-count fraud (like ad fraud) -- where you set up a bot to ping the site repeatedly so as to inflate your traffic numbers. But I think there are ways to get around that, for hit counts.

Ann Althouse said...

Balfegor: You assume that writing and reading would actually be going on. That's not a good assumption.

Goatwhacker: Absolutely! This is one of the reasons for scorning the rankings. A school that goes all out for the hard variables is rewarded. Would you want to go to a school that selected its students entirely based on LSAT and GPA?

Balfegor said...

You assume that writing and reading would actually be going on. That's not a good assumption.

But do alumni and students have so much free time that they're willing, in significant numbers, to sit there clicking blank pages, or pages full of lorem ipsum dolor sit amet? Even if you love your alma mater, that seems like it would carry an awfully high opportunity cost. Particularly for a lawyer.

AlaskaJack said...

My experience with graduates of elite law schools, at least at the appellate level, is they are predisposed towards policy arguments. Consequently, their arguments tend to be structured much like someone who is testifying before a senate committee about some piece of legislation. Although it is only a personal observation, it does seem to me that their arguments, more often than not, do not place much stress on logical form or analysis in the sense of showing that their opponents' arguments rest on a false premise or a logical fallacy.

Glitch, your degree in Philosophy should serve you well in law school. This background will give you a decided advantage in analyzing legal arguments. It's hard to come up with a better set of skills for the study of law than those honed by the study of philosophy

Ron said...

When I discussed this a friend today, he felt the group of people who would care most are employers. But I still stand by my wish for a more systematic study.

CatoRenasci said...

Despite all of the flaws which can be argued inhere in the USNews and other rankings of law schools, graduate schools, and undergraduate institutions, I think they are valuable because they do attempt to compare apples with apples and come up with relative rankings. Especially if one looks behind the pure rank order to see what the components of the rankings are, I think they are useful. Obviously, one should be very skeptical that there is a meaningful difference in quality between schools ranked within one or two places of each other, but I think as a guide to which tier an institution is in, and approximately where it fits within a given tier, the ratings are reliable. Certainly, they are better than the sort of merely anecdotal evidence that was available when I applied to law school in the mid-1970s.

I do think the rankings are systematically biased against public institutions, and that this bias runs through the law school rankings (with only 2 public law schools in the top 10), the graduate school rankings and the college and university rankings (where the highest rank for a public national liberal arts college is 73- Virginia Military Institute - and the highest rank for a public national university is 20 - Cal Berkeley - and in total the University of California holds 5 of the top dozen public universities rankings). My own suspicion is that the top five public law schools (Michigan, Virginia, Berkeley, UCLA and Texas)are better bargains for residents of their respective states than even Harvard, Yale or Stanford.

Overall, information is good in helping students make decisions about where to attend college and law school. I think the ratings encourage schools whose appeal has been primarily regional to broaden their appeal, and help students cast their nets more broadly than they otherwise might.

deano said...

Personally, I chose UW because I thought I would stay in the midwest, and being a Wisconsin kid it was a great deal financially, at least back then. That has proved to be a very wise decision for me, both personally and in terms of my career and "success."

Since then, I have come to recognize that you can go to any major city on either coast and find a UW network of people. And you also find out that UW is VERY well respected in the field. ranking of 32 or whatever, being able to say "I went to Wisconsin" gives you instant credibility, different, I think, than, "I went to Uupper Outer East Urbania."

Finally, the ranks of school debt-burdened Americans are swelled with people who thought they needed to borrow the huge bucks and attend a top five school on the east coast for $150,000, all because their hometown school wasn't in the top 20 on some list. If those folks don't want to spend the rest of their lives doing something they may not really want to do in order to repay that debt, they need to find a money press and the right kind of paper. Otherwise, they get to find out that attending the top five school costs them quality of life for a long time, and a lot of them start to wonder if it was worth it. Someone should tell them about that fact before they make the decision to go, especially where a great deal like UW for in-staters is available.

The only thing worse is people who spend the $150,000 to go to some third tier school that will take them but which will be unable to hook them up with a job that pays enough to service the debt and live in something other than a tent, and when you ask them why, it's "I wanna be a lawyer."

Enough said. On Wisconsin (or your favorite in-state school)!

Doug H. said...

I think way too much emphasis is put on the rankings. I'm trying not to pay too much attention to them. Geographic location and cost are way more important.

One positive I've noticed is that some schools appear to be increasing the amount of scholarship money they offer in order to entice top students and improve their ranking.

Joseph Hovsep said...

I second deano in advising anyone considering law school who lives in a state with a decent public law school should very seriously consider going to that school. Looking over rankings and such from the perspective of a kid in his mid-20s, law school just seems expensive whereever you go. Its a bit hard to fathom how much the debt will saddle you for decades to come. The advantage of a state school is that they usually are well known, usually have at least decent reputations, and there's a certain amount of cred that comes with a degree from a mediocre state school that doesn't come with a mediocre private school (but I'm not saying Wisconsin or any other particular school is mediocre).

I have to dispute some other comments though that suggest its important to find the right "fit" of school for each applicant's personality. There are a few factors to consider, like area of the country, urban vs. rural, big factory school vs. more intimate setting, and a few schools that have unusual programs or specific ideological bents or joint degree programs, but other than that, as a law school applicant its hard to really choose based on things like the quality of faculty. Few applicants know anything about law faculty, let alone know what substantive area they'd be interested in, you can choose your profs to a pretty limited degree and most of the classes you take are required or strongly advised). So, US News can distort some things but the idea of their rankings is still a fair proxy for deciding on a good school to go to.

CatoRenasci said...

Deano colorfully makes my point about the bias in the rankings against public universities and law schools. It also raises the question whether the rankings cause talented students who would otherwise go to a top flight public university or law school to go into significant debt for a perceived advantage for a private college, university, or law school that might not be real. Is this bias self-reinforcing, then, as the private schools are rated higher, do they in turn glean an ever larger share of the best students, increasing their gap over the public institutions?

deano said...

I don't practice law anymore, now being in what is referred to by the Bar as a "law-realted field" with a great career, but when I did practice, I always had to laugh at how often opposing counsel from some mega-firm who only hires grads from "elite" law schools out east would continually "misunderestimate" us graduates from "local" schools. Often, one would get the impression that they believed we were roasting squirrels on sticks for the evening's dinner, (assuming the wife was able to trap said rodent or knock it over with a slingshot.) It's all a matter of perspective, there are smart people all over.

Frankly, "smart" students and their advisors should be clever enough to see through some of this, and to make some financial calculations as a part of the thought process. The rankings are clever marketing, a bit like convincing you that you need to pay $57 for a polo shirt with a pony on it, instead of $12 for the Walmart version. Maybe in some cases you do, but most often you've simply bought the pitch.

You can't eat a diploma, and tweleve years from now that $1,500 a month school debt will be old. But it'll be paid off at 45, and then you can finally start to put something away for retirement. Hopefull by then you are still actually practicing law and/or using your law degree.

This analysis entirely ignores the intangibles associated with attending an "elite" school, I recognize that. But that is a different discussion.

WAL said...

I don’t like the extent of academic snobbery in law. The education that you’ll receive in a top school really isn’t much different than the one you’d receive in a school US News puts in the 4th Tier. At the top schools you’ll deal with more theory than black-letter law, but the classes you take are same, the teaching ability of profs is the same, professors will have elite pedigrees almost everywhere, you use the same textbooks, etc.

That said, if you’re considering law school, anybody would be foolish not to follow these rankings. If you’re in a situation where you’re choosing between a school ranked 50 vs. 55 or 23 vs. 27, that’d be extreme-take the location you want to practice in and toss the numbers aside. If you’re looking at a 10th ranked school vs. 45, a person should go to the 10th ranked school. If you’re not in law yet, it me seem callous and it may seem hard to get this across without coming across as a jerk, but as much as I dislike the level of school snobbery in law - there is a ton of school snobbery in law. This is going to significantly affect your career - The avg. job prospects of somebody at a 10th ranked school are incredibly different than the avg. prospects at 45 and that just isn’t disputable.

It doesn’t do any to sugarcoat it and let people find out the hard way; and as flawed as US News is, the fact that it allows someone without any legal connections, who wants to go to law school, to make these differentiations is a good thing. I think a lot of it is ridiculous. I don’t think there’s much of a substantive difference between the school that someone attends - but the law school you go to may actually make much more of a difference in your career than picking elite vs. non-elite schools for undergrad. That ought to be made clear to people before they shell out 10s of thousands of dollars for it.

Balfegor said...

You can't eat a diploma, and tweleve years from now that $1,500 a month school debt will be old. But it'll be paid off at 45

Wow -- is the interest on student loans that bad? Cor. I don't think that's as much of a problem if you end up at a megafirm -- you should, if you don't insist on conspicuous consumption -- be able to pay off rather more than $1,500 each month. Twice that rate or more should be easily manageable. But for the people attending schools in the middle, where the pricetag is like a top school, but the megafirm prospects are not, that has to be a horrible squeeze.

deano said...

Balfegor- Maybe it isn't quite that bad, but it is bad. I am so happy I didn't do that, and I could have.

Frankly, it may seem that the worse case is to be at a mid-tier firm and wind up with a big pile of debt and no mega-firm prospects, but it would be equally as bad to go big-time, spend the money, get the big job, and then realize after about two years at the Megafirm that you hate it but can't afford not to do it because of the school debt and the lifestyle to which you've grown accustomed. You're just as stuck, and maybe moreso. No Disney for the kids, because you are time and money bankrupt. It doesn't happen that way for everyone, and a lot of people love it. But the point is that you need to really understand what you are getting into, and know what you want to get out of it.

Ann Althouse said...

Cato: "Is this bias self-reinforcing, then, as the private schools are rated higher, do they in turn glean an ever larger share of the best students, increasing their gap over the public institutions?"

Clearly, there is a spiral that can be upward or downward. The school needs the rank so that the students deciding based on the rank will pick us. Then, their coming to the school produces the statistics for the next year. If you lose rank, you will get different students the following year, and they will bring different statistics to feed into next year's rankings. That's why schools know they must guard their rank and try to move up. A fall one year forbodes a fall in the next year -- and the next! We are all locked into the game, really.

But public schools play the game too. Some of the public schools are among the highest ranked ones: Michigan and Virginia are in the top 10. There are many public schools in the "top tier" (top 100).

Jim H said...

Sloanasaurus said:

I don't like the lists because they raise the cost of higher ed.

A butterfly flapping its wings in Indonesia raises the cost of higher education.

John(classic) said...

My studies have shown that a butterfly not flapping his wings in Indonesia raises the cost of higher education. In fact, no matter what the butterfly does, and no matter how hard he does it, he raises the cost of higher education.

The only answer will be the legalization of DDT.

Todd said...

Having graduated from a bottom-tier school, I think the only way we'd care is if we moved from the bottom-tier to the next to the bottom-tier. Then our celebration would shake the stars.

My advice to someone going to a lower-tier school is find the least expensive place you can live with. I don't care what your salary is, the nut on over $100K in loans is a hard one to crack.