Law School Rankings and the Wisdom of Crowds:

As Orin notes below, the U.S. News rankings are out, and, as usual, many students will pay too much attention to them. The rankings themselves are methodologically silly for a variety of reasons, with ample demonstration from this year's rankings. Does anyone think that G.W. has really gotten significantly worse in the last year? Or that Indiana-Bloomington has gotten so much better (making perhaps the most astounding rise in the rankings to date)? (Sure, to some extent the rankings can be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but annual blips rarely make a significant difference.)

In an attempt to curtail cheating by some schools, U.S. News has made the rankings invalid for year to year comparisons by suddenly including part-time student statistics in its rankings. My own school, George Mason, went down slightly in the rankings (from 38 to 41), I assume because our part-time students are a big weaker than our full-timers (given that the other statistics appear to be better than last year's), yet if U.S. News had used the same criteria as last year, we would likely be up slightly.

For that matter, consider how U.S. News ranked part-time programs--it sent out a survey asking professors and deans to list fifteen schools with outstanding part-time programs. I am rather confident that no more than a tiny percentage of those who responded to this question are familiar with the particularities of different schools' part-time programs. Unlike some of our worthy competitors, for example, at George Mason (ranked 5th in the part-time rankings) ALL tenured and tenure-track professors teach in the evening, and evening students are eligible for all students activities including law review. I can't imagine why a professor at, say, Valparaiso Law School, would be aware of such details, but U.S. News didn't bother to even attempt to take such factors into account.

Anyway, two pieces of advice for prospective law students. First, there are three groups of law schools: the handful of truly "national" law schools, which place almost everywhere; the somewhat larger group of "strong academic" law schools, which place many graduates regionally but also have the reputation to get you a job elsewhere with a little legwork; and the regional law schools, which don't have placement pull nationally but place their grads locally, often with great success. If you have been admitted only to regional law schools, rankings and the such should be almost entirely irrelevant to you; you should be attending law school in the city in which you would like to live and practice.

Second, if you must rely on ranking and desire a superior alternative to U.S. News, look at matriculating students' LSAT scores. The wisdom of crowds suggests that tens of thousands of law students making hundreds of thousands decisions about accepting and rejecting offers of admission, taking into account everything that prospective law students take into account--location, academic reputation, faculty quality, clinics, placement, specialties, cost, and so forth--provide far more useful information than the hamhanded U.S. News rankings. And unlike GPA, LSAT scores are both a reasonable proxy for student quality (at least when considered across an entire school's student body) and are not really manipulable by the law schools.

Of course, no student is the average student, and anyone about to devote three years and a lot of money to law school should consider how his individual interests and needs may vary from the median. But as a rough approximation as to the true desirability of a law school, I don't think you can go very far wrong with LSAT scores.

Sage advice David, I wish that every potential law school applicant could get the message contained in your post.

Further to your discussion of part-time programs- another clever dodge by schools, so I've heard, involves transfer students- transfers don't (or used to not) count in the schools' LSAT/undergrad GPA rankings, so they could pad their bottom line with paying transfers whose credentials might have been a drag on their stats had they been accepted as 1Ls.

Of course, this is a great deal for the savvy 1L at a regional school, who blows the doors off first-year exams- such a student has a good shot at making a step up to a top-tier school.
4.20.2009 11:21pm
Dreadnaught (www):
My undergrad school went down, my law school went up. Thus, the new rankings are only partially correct.
4.20.2009 11:24pm
Pizza Snob:
The point that these things are irrelevant is well taken, but if they must be analyzed: How did Georgetown (home of the most notorious part-time program padding) stand its ground while the rest of the DC contingent (all of whom rely, I'd think equally, on the city's ample supply of political science majors with a Congressional term's worth of job security to fill their rolls in the evening) took such a hit?
4.20.2009 11:57pm
David Bernstein:

our part-time students are a big weaker than our full-timers

Paging Dr. Freud!
4.20.2009 11:57pm
Meh Neh:
4.21.2009 12:03am
Vermando (mail) (www):
Your first advice is perhaps the cleanest summary of the decision facing most law students that I've ever read. Especially nice to read it since it's something that gets so confusing for many applicants and which many therefore unfortunately overthink.
4.21.2009 12:47am
So, your advice is basically:
1) If you are going to a top national school, don't sweat the rankings, you're set no matter which you choose.
2) [strong academic schools]
3) If you are going to a regional school, don't sweat the rankings, you need to go where you are going to practice.

That's not very comforting for someone trying to decide among "strong academic" tier schools. It leaves you back at "well, you know the rankings mean something over time, but little as individual data points, so go about trying to discern the pattern and figure out what's noise and what's signal."

Oh, well, back to obsessing about clerkship numbers and <.5 differences in mean LSAT numbers while waiting for the last few rejection letters to straggle in.
4.21.2009 1:03am
Ok, so I realize that my previous comment was inappropriately snarky. Sorry about that.

But I think my point is that choosing a law school is a huge financial decision that not only commits the applicant for three years, but is also going to have a significant affect on a person's life far beyond the easily foreseeable future.

And this is a decision that may have to be made only a short time after all the options are known and on relatively little information — people who have applied various places in the country may be able to get a short visit at each school, consisting of a class and a tour, and that's all that's really feasible. And sure, there are all sorts of statistics available online, but it is hard to know how to aggregate it all together and most applicants have never chosen a law school before.

What this means is that every bit of information has some small effect on a decision that is already very difficult. So people are going to pay attention to the US News ranking, and if they are already stressed by a difficult decision they may be prone to overreacting.
4.21.2009 1:28am

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