Sunday, February 4, 2007
ORIGINALLY POSTED MARCH 19, 2006; MOVING TO FRONT BECAUSE STILL TIMELY AND SOME OF THE UNDERLYING DATA HAS BEEN UPDATED IN THE LAST YEAR, CONFIRMING THE MAIN THESIS
In the real world of lawyers, judges, and law professors, it has been conventional wisdom that there are 15 top law schools, with a few others (UCLA, USC, perhaps Vanderbilt) on the cusp, and then a drop-off in quality and reputation (though not necessarily in national placement). I can recall this as my perception when applying to law schools more than twenty years ago; I can recall it as the conventional wisdom when I practiced law in New York in the late 1980s, and when I entered law teaching more than a dozen years ago. It seemed to be the operative premise in Justice Thomas's dissent in Grutter when he singled out Michigan, UVA, Boalt, and Texas as the top state schools, and it seems to be borne out by almost all measures of educational quality of law schools, including even U.S. News since they corrected in 1999 for the most horrendous methodological mistake in their rankings, namely, their failure to make any adjustments for cost-of-living in expenditures.
Outside the real world, though, in the bowels of Cyberspace, a new and very odd category seems to have caught on, at least among some pre-law students: "top 14" (or "T14") has become a popular locution on some prelaw discussion boards (another example). The "top 14" excludes Texas, UCLA, USC, and Vanderbilt from the top ranks of law schools, but includes Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Chicago, Columbia, NYU, Virginia, Michigan, Boalt, Penn, Georgetown, Cornell, Northwestern, and Duke.
Here's the bizarre part: the only rationale for this grouping is that all these schools have been ranked in "the top 14" by U.S. News and World Report since roughly the early-to-mid-1990s! (Since 1999, the same 16 schools have been in the top 16, and perhaps in a few years that locution will catch on too!)
It's hard to quarrel with the fact that the same 14 schools have been ranked in the top 14 by U.S. News since circa 1994. The question one might have expected someone to ask is: so what? The "top 14" by this measure correlates with nothing of any interest to anyone: it does not correlate with faculty quality, quality of student body, job placement, placement in law teaching, or Supreme Court clerkships. In other words, "top 14" correlates with nothing that would matter to anyone informed about legal education and the legal profession. (Needless to say, "top 15" doesn't correlate much better.)
My correspondence with pre-law students over the years suggests that the better students realize that this category makes no sense. But for a significant number of students, including some admitted to "top 14" and "top 16" and "top 18" law schools, they seem to think it means something. And, in one sense, it does: it means that the damage done by U.S. News is gradually seeping into the public legal culture. As noted above, I wouldn't be surprised to find in a few years that "top 16" is the category of choice, insofar as the U.S. News rankings stabilize into a new pattern.
To be sure, far more serious than the distortion of perceptions about schools at the elite end of legal education is the damage done by the meaningless and arbitrary demarcations among law schools lower in the great U.S. News hierarchy: between, e.g., those ranked in the 90s, and those in the "third tier," and so on. Rankings--even carelessly designed and gameable rankings like U.S. News--can provide genuine information; but they provide nothing but naked misinformation (misinformation that can even change careers and lives) when they turn into literally meaningless categories like "top 14" and "third tier."
UPDATE: For more on the subject, see here.