Brian Leiter posts a lengthy and informative email from Paul McKaskle, former dean of the University of San Francisco (mentioned in a comment to my earlier post, but I wanted to highlight it for those who don't read all the comments). Dean McKaskle makes some interesting points about rankings in general and suggests a two tier division of schools - the very top and the rest. He suggests that the biggest advantage of the very top schools for students is the presence of a larger percentage of other excellent students.
Dean McKaskle has some very good points in his criticism of the U.S. News rankings. There is a lot about U.S. News rankings that troubles me: the ease of gaming, the less-than-relevant measures, and so on. But prospective students need something on which to base their decisions about where to apply, which school to accept. U.S. News is clearly meeting a demand for information.
So what to do? One answer is that we're seeing a proliferation of information resources for prospective students. I get contacted by prospective students (not all referred by the admissions office) who see something in my web bio that interests them and prompts them to ask for more information about Case. Brian Leiter is publishing both his own assessments of quality for the top schools and lots of specific information on faculty movements in Leiter's Law School Reports, information that gives prospective students some sense of whether a school is trending up or down. Bulletin boards are allowing the exchange of information, including things like scholarship offers, among prospective students. This is making life harder for schools since they have better informed applicants who have more specific questions.
I think that one of the best things law schools could do is to encourage a proliferation of rankings (and not just 1-180 lists of schools, but all forms of rankings).
Consider business schools - there are multiple, major business school rankings that use different methodologies and examine different aspects of MBA programs. Prospective MBA students have better resources to assess schools than do prospective JD students. U.S. News' "rankings" of specialty programs are even more primitive than its rankings of law schools generally. I'd like to see a Business Week or Wall Street Journal ranking of business law programs, a Wired ranking of law and technology programs, and so on. Dual degree programs are currently unranked and proliferating. Let's get more information on the web and have it in a format like Jeff Stake's Ranking Game . That will let prospective students mix and match characteristics that they think are important. If they need to be educated about why certain things are important, by all means, let's educate them. But law schools ought to be embracing more data disclosure as a means of combating the influence of U.S. News.