As this story about Northwestern Dean David Van Zandt well-illustrates:
Pride in your product, Van Zandt says, is crucial to a successful business. So as dean of Northwestern University School of Law, he wears something with the school color or a Northwestern logo every day.
The attire makes him instantly recognizable on the school’s Chicago campus.
That’s just a small piece of Van Zandt’s marketing and business plan, which includes seeking advice from lawyers and clients about legal education, and changing the application process to include applicant interviews and establish a preference for candidates who have professional work experience.
It’s his businesslike approach that has brought real change to the top-10 law school.
It’s a tack that’s been successful, if the U.S. News & World Report law school rankings are the measure. Van Zandt was named dean in September 1995. A few months later the U.S. News rankings listed Northwestern at 13, a fall of two highly competitive places. Since 2004, the school has consistently placed in the top 10 (with the exception of a slip in 2006, when it ranked 12th).
Yet, as Tom Bell's analysis makes clear (see also this), Northwestern's overall ranking in U.S. News is attributable primarily to its unusually high reported per capita expenditures, while the school's academic reputation score fell most recently to 15th, its lowest ever. I'm not sure that means much either, but surely it's more notable than the overall rank, i.e., the "nonsense" number. But the inescapable message of a story like this, which is not atypical, is that journalists focus on the overall ranking as evidence of something, without either analysis or understanding of what goes into the result.
Which is why law schools ignore U.S. News at their peril.