Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Who are law school rankings meant to help? (Michael Simkovic)

Approximately 12 law schools, including Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, have refused to compile data to facilitate the U.S. News rankings. 

Statements by the deans of the protesting law schools suggest that they hope to pressure U.S. News to modify its ranking system.  This raises a fundamental question: What is the purpose of ranking law schools?

I would argue that there are three purposes of law school rankings:

  • To help students choose which law schools to apply to, and which law school to matriculate to
  • To help employers decide where to recruit employees and to help them compare different candidates for hire
  • To place competitive pressure on law schools to use their resources to serve particular policy goals embedded in the rankings

These purposes can help guide discussion of what should ideally be included in law school rankings.  If law schools hope to displace U.S. News, they will need to agree on an alternative ranking system or several rankings systems.  This will be difficult given the collective action problems facing institutions that view each other as competitors.

The first purpose of rankings—informing students—presents an obvious problem.  Students are heterogeneous in their life goals, their idiosyncratic preferences, and their reasons for attending law school.  No one ranking system can capture these differences and serve all students well.  A school that invests heavily in preparing students to pass the bar exam may be ideal for students who would otherwise fail, but wasteful for those who are likely to pass with a few weeks of studying.  A school that pours massive resources into preparing students for the rigors of private practice may be a poor fit for students who intend to be stay-at-home parents or only work part-time after graduation.  A school that emphasizes constitutional and criminal law may be a poor fit for students who view law school as their family’s ticket out of poverty and financial insecurity and are therefore only interested in lucrative areas of law with abundant employment opportunities.  A law school that teaches only practical skills and doctrinal law may be a poor fit for those who wish to become law professors or who see law school as an opportunity to explore interesting theoretical questions. 

In other words, there should not be a single ranking of law schools, but rather multiple rankings of law schools tailored to identifiable subgroups of students, as well as tools that help match students with the right law school for them.

The second purpose of rankings—informing employers—presents a similar problem.  Employers and jobs are heterogeneous.  A law school that excels at preparing law students to be Supreme Court clerks or Public Defenders may be less effective at preparing them to be Tax or Capital Markets lawyers or Investment Bankers or Employment lawyers or IP lawyers or Immigration or Bankruptcy lawyers or Real Estate lawyers or Family or Immigration lawyers.

Differentiating law schools—rather than ranking them on a single scale—would better serve both students and employers by creating a greater variety of offerings that better serve particular needs.  Differentiation would also better serve law schools.  Instead of competing with each other head-to-head to provide a commoditized service at the lowest possible cost, law schools could instead operate within smaller niche sub-markets where the focus is on providing more value to the students and employers who best fit their offerings.

AccessLex and LSAC have attempted to develop tools and resources to help students decide which law schools are right for them, including virtual pre-law advisor software.  However, to date, infighting among law schools—who constitute the members of these non-profit organizations—have derailed these efforts and limited their influence.

A relatively simple approach that would encourage differentiation would be to rank law schools based on the resources that they place into teaching various areas of law, as measured by the number (or quality-adjusted-number) of their full-time faculty FTEs dedicated to teaching and researching particular areas of law as well as based on practice-area-specific outcome measures.  This approach would naturally lead law schools to prioritize particular practice areas (and de-prioritize others), facilitating better sorting of students and faculty according to their areas of interest.  Geographic-specific rankings would also be helpful, because most law schools have alumni networks and employer relationships that are denser in particular areas of the country and weaker in other areas.

Guest Blogger: Michael Simkovic | Permalink