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.