Tuesday, October 25, 2022
I know this question will make readers of this blog laugh, even as they recognize the pernicious influence the USNews.com rankings have on legal education and the decisions of applicants. But I was struck when having lunch this past Spring with some talented LLM students from Japan and China that they seemed to assume the answer to the question was "yes." In a way, that sums up the problem confronted by American legal education. USNews.com is undoubtedly perceived as authoritative by many students, who lack the knowledge and resources to assess the nonsensical ranking stew (reputation, library resources, expenditures per capita, self-reported employment data and on and on) used by USNews.com.
No one outside Palo Alto (and maybe not even there), for example, thinks Stanford is the #2 law school in the country, better than Harvard, Chicago, or NYU (all ranked behind it in USNews.com). Penn is now #6 in USNews.com, but it is clearly not as strong as NYU and Berkeley, ranked behind it. Arizona State's law school is ranked ahead of the University of Arizona, but it does not have a stronger faculty. The same could be said about the University of Florida and Florida State. Many law schools outside the USNews.com top 50 are better (by many metrics) than those inside the top 50.
Consider what a little knowledge and information makes clear: Yale is the perennial #1 in USNews.com only because of per capita expenditures (unsurprisingly); it was ranked 3rd in the USNews.com surveys of both academics and lawyers/judges this past Spring. Yale--in addition to being the capital of law school melodrama--is still riding on the laurels of its over-65 faculty. But even when they retire, Yale will still be #1 in USNews.com, as long as per capita expenditures are given so much weight.
The only thing law schools can do is inform and educate prospective students. Journalists could help by educating their readers about the stew of factors, and by no longer treating them as meaningful, but as a bad joke. What will finally bring an end to the USNews.com reign of misinformation will be some combination of (1) more competitors that command equal attention from journalists; (2) further scandals involving misreporting of data; and (3) civil or criminal consumer fraud charges against USNews.com (an uphill battle). My guess is #1 and #2 are more likely.