How important is a school's ranking?

Every spring, law students, professors and deans run to the newsstand to find out where their school ranks compared to other law schools.

While many say they loathe the U.S. News & World Report ranking of the top law schools, the vast majority of people in legal education still pay attention. And over the years, the rankings have been the catalyst for deans getting fired, school’s changing policies, and students flocking to one school over another.

But is all the hype justified?

“You can complain about it until you are blue in the face, but if U.S. News is the only game in town, people will refer to it,” said Brian Leiter, a law professor at University of Chicago who compiles his own rankings based on single metrics. “There are a lot of publications that rank business schools. But for law schools it is me and U.S. News and one of us is getting rich off of this.”

Actually, there are other rankings of law schools. But U.S. News is the only one that aggregates multiple data to determine an overall ranking of the best law schools. And for that reason, U.S. News has garnered far more traction and attention from prospective law students. But most experts agree that prospective law students would actually be far better served by focusing on the rankings that use single metrics — such as employment data or rankings of best public interest law schools.

And the good news is that there are plenty of rankings and data available — even if they are not as widely known. Still, most agree that rankings work best when they are the starting point in what should be a lengthy and detailed search process.


The Problem with U.S. News

U.S. News & World Report first came out with its rankings in 1987, and almost immediately it was surrounded by controversy. It was the first ranking of law schools of its kind, and most law schools hoped it would go away. Instead, the rankings expanded from 50 to 200 over the years, and its influence grew even more.

“The problem is that U.S. News is done incompetently and has too much influence,” Leiter said. “It is a terrible charade at this point. But if students do not have other information, they will fall back on it.”

Paul Caron, a law professor at University of Cincinnati and a legal education commentator on his Tax Law blog, said U.S. News’ ranking grew in stature because of a void in data for prospective students.

“I am a critic of the ABA [American Bar Association] and AALS [Association of American Law Schools],” he said. “They are responsible for U.S. News because they abdicated their role in collecting helpful and useful data for consumers.”

The ABA started to provide data to consumers in 2000. But the data is extensive and offers no guidance to the prospective student on what is important. Some have also questioned the validity of some of the data – especially the employment numbers.

“If the ABA and AALS required better information, then U.S. News would have better data to slice and dice,” Caron said.

Leiter said one of the main problems with U.S. News is that it does not audit the data that it receives from law schools, which he said allows for “massaging of the data.”

“Because moving up in the U.S. News rankings requires no explanation, while falling invariably does, schools have grown increasingly sophisticated — or sometimes just duplicitous — in how they report data to the ABA and to U.S. News in order to secure favorable results, results that are increasingly unhinged from any actual educational or professional accomplishments,” Leiter wrote in an open letter to U.S. News in March.  “The almost exclusive way in which a school improves its US News rank is very clear: manipulation, trickery and, at worst, deceit. 

Leiter said that “schools hire unemployed graduates as research assistants, hand out fee waivers to hopeless applicants to improve their acceptance rates, inflate their expenditures data through creative accounting or simply fabrication, cut their first-year enrollment (to boost their medians) while increasing the number of transfers (to make up the lost revenue), and so on.”

But, he said the larger problem is how they weight the data in their rankings computation.

“U.S. News has 12 different factors with different weightings,” he said. “No one can explain why it is weighted [they way it is]. Some of the underlying data is useful to look at. For example, bar pass data is useful. But what they do when they massage and combine the data together is very hard to explain in a sensible way.”

For example, Leiter said it is hard to understand how the amount of money a school spends on utilities impacts the quality of education. But, U.S. News factors money spent per student into its equation.

Other critics have questioned the heavy weight afforded LSAT scores, or the use of reputation surveys.

“You’re relying on the [ratings] authors to weigh the factors that will affect your decision, and their criteria might not be yours,” said Greg Brandes, Dean of Faculty and law professor at Concord Law School in Los Angeles, one of the few law schools not ranked by U.S. News & World Report.

But, as Heather Gerkin, a law professor at Yale Law School pointed out in a recent article, there is value to rankings.

“[U.S. News & World Report rankings] are powerful and they are imperfect,” Gerkin wrote. “There is good reason to demand that they improve or to try to create a better ranking. Nonetheless, it is a mistake to use the U.S. News & World Report ranking as an excuse to demand an end to ranking. Even an admittedly flawed ranking, like this one, has its merits. Ask yourself, for instance, whether a world without the U.S. News is really as attractive as some make it out to be. It is not hard to imagine college students basing their choice on far sillier criteria.”


So, how should applicants use U.S. News?

Elie Mystal loves rankings. After all they make good copy. Mystal is an editor at Above the Law, a Website that describes itself as “a legal tabloid, covering the legal profession's most colorful personalities and powerful institutions.”

At Above the Law, Mystal regularly writes about law-school rankings, particularly those created by U.S. News & World Report. His commentary this year definitely gives the impression that rankings matter.

  • Mystal wrote: “Given the legal economy, prospective students should clearly be shooting for law schools in the top-15.”
  • Regarding the top 5 law schools, he noted: “If prospective students can get into one of these schools, they should probably go. Big law, legal academia and Article III clerkships await graduates of these prestigious institutions.”
  • For schools ranked 6-15: “The bottom line is that if you go to any of these schools, you’re putting yourself into a good position to get a job.”

Mystal, who graduated from Harvard Law School, said that he too studied the U.S. News rankings when he decided to attend Harvard law. However, Mystal believes the decision-making process should be vastly different for today’s potential law students.

Mystal said he believes students should look at which schools produce the outcome they want rather than the school’s prestige as judged by a bunch of magazine editors.

“It seems to be that getting a job is the only point to going to law school. So you need to think proactively and creatively as to what law schools can get you to the job that you want in three years,” Mystal said.

Anne Levine has seen pre-law students make some surprising decisions recently. The author of the Law School Admissions Game and an application consultant, she counsels dozens of prospective law students.

“U.S. News is a tool,” she said. “It is one of many tools. But just because U.S. News says a law school is in the top 25 does not mean it should be in their top 25.”

Levine said she is surprised that students are still choosing higher ranked schools over scholarships, even in this economy.

“Applicants are really excited to get scholarship offers,” she said. “But very few are considering the scholarship when they get into a higher ranked school. Students are taking the higher ranking every time. It almost comes down to an ego factor.”

Levine said most applicants right out of college rely on brand names, and U.S. News  helps define the value of those brands.

She said she explains to her students that the rankings change each year, and a law school could change four or five places from year to year.  She said she understands why a student would choose a top ten school over a third tier school that offers a scholarship. But it does not make sense to select a school ranked 14th over one that ranks 20th and offers a scholarship.

Caron agrees.

“The old advice to go to the highest ranked law school is far more questionable now,” he said. “Students need to factor in the financial side of things.”

He said law school tuition and debt loads, combined with fewer job prospects, make this more important than ever.

Levine said the U.S. News rankings have little, if any, value for students who are choosing schools in the third and fourth tier.

“There really is not really much difference,” she said of schools in those tiers. “These are national reputation rankings. Students should focus on regional reputation and job prospects.”


What other rankings should you look at?

There are several other sources for rankings, including preLaw magazine.

Brian Leiter updates his own rankings on a regular basis.  He recently ranked the top 40 law schools by student quality. In this ranking he averaged the 75th and 25th percentile LSAT score for each school.  He has also ranked schools by law faculty scholarly impact, where law professors went to school, and where Supreme Court clerks went to school.

Levine said his rankings are essential for any student planning to enter legal academia, even if that is a very small number of applicants. She said his rankings are not helpful for students who are applying to schools in the third and fourth tier of the U.S. News rankings.

Super Lawyers published its first ranking in November 2009. The magazine bases it’s ranking on the number of graduates selected for inclusion in Super Lawyers, an annual guide to the best lawyers in the country. The numbers are significant, the editors argue, because only 5 percent of the lawyers in each state are selected to Super Lawyers lists.

But Leiter and other critics say the system for selecting the Super Lawyers is suspect. Instead, Leiter recommends the The Amercian Lawyer report on where AMLAW firms hire graduates. But he said, students should understand that AMLAW is based on gross revenues for law firms, and that skews for certain markets. For example, New York law schools will fare better in that ranking than schools in Los Angeles.

The Princeton Review publishes is own employment ranking, as well as ten other rankings.

Robert Franek, publisher of The Princeton Review’s “Best 172 Law Schools,” said the book is the result of wide-ranging surveys completed by more than 18,000 students at 172 law schools and data from school administrators. Princeton’s rankings do not provide detailed data or methodology, but do include some unique lists —such as law schools that have the most competitive students and have the best classroom experience.

“Our value is that we reach out to whom we consider experts: current law school students,” Franek said. “It is nearly all based on student opinions, and it is a wide cross section of the law-school population.”

Although the lists are inclusive, Princeton is quick to note: “None of these lists purports to rank the schools in terms of overall quality.” However, using the lists along with the “Students Say” profiles and the school statistics, students can make a well-informed choice as to which law school will best fit them, Franek said.

“Each [list] brings you a different part of what you need to know,” Franek said.

preLaw magazine also produces rankings. Its Best Value law schools, best schools for public interest law, and best law libraries can all be found online. And a new addition to the website allows students to compare schools based on the various rankings.

It should be noted that the American Bar Association generically does not believe rankings give a complete picture of a law school’s qualifications.

The ABA notes: “The factors that make up a law school’s reputation –strength of curriculum, faculty, career services, ability of students, quality of library facilities, and the like – don’t lend themselves to quantification.”

Greg Brandes, Dean of Faculty and law professor at Concord Law School is among those who believe students need to create their own rankings based on the criteria that really matters to them. For example, a spreadsheet that pits a school’s tuition against its employment prospects would be far more enlightening than some of the data U.S. News provides, he said.

Edward Poll, a nationally recognized coach, law firm management consultant and author of “Growing Your Law Practice in Tough Times,” believes students should try to attend the law school where they will get the best education possible. That said, only a handful of law schools such as Harvard, Stanford and Yale have rankings so prestigious that attending them has long-term career implications.

“Law school is important. Which one you go to is important. But other than the top 10, it really doesn’t matter,” Poll said. “After your first job, it’s totally irrelevant.”

Poll feels students who attend so-called “lesser schools” end up at good law firms. And that experience can be just as influential, especially if you have a strong mentor who can show you the ropes. Having a firm with leadership that teaches you how to interact with clients as well as the technical side of a law practice will set you up for your entire career, he said.

Published in the 2010 Back to School issue of preLaw Magazine by Karen Dybis and Jack Crittenden.