The new (2005) U.S. News rankings

of law schools are being posted and discussed all over the web. Biggest surprise: Boalt drops to thirteen. George Mason continues its climb, to 38. I’m sure Brian Leiter will have some choice words to say about the rankings, as usual. I’m not a huge fan of U.S. News’s methodology. As an example of why, GMU typically gets approximately the same “academic reputation rank” as schools whose entire faculties are outproduced in any given year by one or two of my colleagues, and GMU’s actual peer reputation is much, much higher than U.S. News’s methodology determines.

However, the reaction of the Association of American Law Schools to the rankings, which has been to simply condemn them, is unproductive. Prospective law students are going to invest a lot of time and money in law school, and they are looking for as much information as they can get. Rankings, including even U.S. News’s rankings, provide useful information. If nothing else, the rankings themselves influence the decisions not only of students, but to a lesser extent of junior faculty choosing among competing offers, law review editors selecting among articles, and employers, and thus become a self-fulfilling prophecy that can’t simply be pooh-poohed.

The real problem is not rankings, but that U.S. News has had a virtual monopoly on the rankings, though Leiter has provided more useful (at least for those concerned with the academic quality of the faculty and students at various schools), though less used guidance for students for several years now. One hears of such things happening, but it’s absurd, for example, when a student turns Chicago for NYU because the former is “ranked” sixth and the latter fifth. Both are excellent schools, with very different characteristics, located in very different cities. Which one a sudent decides to attend is a personal choice that should be influenced not a whit by a marginal difference in rankings. If there were competing ranking systems, students would recognize that there is a certain arbitrariness in any ranking, and be less hung up on whether a school has moved up or down slightly in any given year. Let a thousand rankings bloom! Newsweek, Wall Street Journal, American Lawyer, rise out of your collective stupors and do your own law school rankings!

UPDATE: My own advice to anyone [edit: any prospective law student that is, the rankings below are based on student preferences, not faculty quality or other “academic” measures] trying to determine a school’s overall “ranking” is to look at the quality of students it attracts, as determined by LSAT scores (a much more objective measure than GPA). A huge amount of information is encapsulated in the actual revealed preferences of students who decide to attend or not to attend a law school, because most of these students will have done some research before choosing a school. Such information includes desireability of geographic location (clearly a big factor if one compares, e.g., U.S. News rankings to LSAT rankings), local reputation, job placement, quality of life, tuition costs, bar passage, faculty quality and commitment to teaching, student satisfaction, national reputation, and, of course, U.S. News ranking. Ranking by LSAT at the 75th percentile for 2003 gives the following top 45: (1) Yale (2) Harvard (2) Columbia (4) NYU (5) Chicago (6) Stanford (7) Duke (7) Georgetown (7) Northwestern (10) Michigan (10) Boalt (10) Penn (10) Virginia (14) UCLA (15) BYU (15) Fordham (!!!!) (15) USC (15) Cornell (15) Washington & Lee (15) BU (21) GW (21) BC (21) Colorado (21) Emory (21) Notre Dame (21) Texas (21) Vanderbilt (21) U. Washington (21) Wash U. (21) Minnesota (21) William & Mary (32) George Mason (32) Georgia (32) Georgia State (32) Hastings (37) Davis (37) Illinois (37) Lewis and Clark (37) Ohio State (37) North Carolina (37) Rutgers-Camden (37) Wake Forest (37) Cardozo. Statistics found at “The Ranking Game.” Note that a more accurate accounting of LSATs scores would also look at the 25th percentile. A small, wealthy school like Washington and Lee, or a school with a niche market like BYU, will find it relatively easy to attract an excellent top quartile, but more difficult to fill the bottom half of the class. Note also that midwestern state schools tend to have weaker LSATs than the schools’ reputations would allow–Iowa does not even make the top 45. These schools have excellent reputations, faculties, resources, and connections, but top students from the Coasts generally won’t apply to or attend them so, for the geographically flexible, they are great places to apply (despite possible in-state quotas).

FURTHER UPDATE: Southern Appeal has published his own idiosyncratic ratings.

ALSO, via email, Brian Leiter objects to using LSAT scores as a “student desireability ranking”:

Such information is not given very clearly, however, by median or even 25th and 75th percentile LSAT scores, and for a reason you allude to, in effect, in your comments on Washington & Lee: differing class sizes. Needless to say, we are vividly aware of this issue at a school with roughly 500 students in each entering class. It turns out, for example, that we attract more students each year with LSATs over 169 than Duke, even though Penn’s 75th percentile LSAT is 169 and ours is 166. The difference, of course, is that Duke is less than half the size of Texas.
On the other hand, Texas has a relatively captive in-state market as an inexpensive state law school that is by far the best law school in a populous state, so one would expect the very top of its class to be extremely strong. Each school has its own “story” (how much better GMU would do if we didn’t have to compete with Georgetown and GW in the DC area, and William and Mary and U. Va. for in-state Virginia students!) so any single ranking has to be taken with a large grain of salt.
Leiter has more comments on U.S. News here.

UPDATE: More on rankings by me here and here.

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