US News Law School Rankings: the 2010 Rankings are Out

trent_why_rankings_lame

I managed to sprain/break my ankle last week while lightly jogging to my car. I’ve been claiming I fell on a curb, but really, it was just a slight incline (hey, it was dark!). I then fainted, like a lady in Victorian England wearing a corset too tightly. I say “sprain/break” because my ankle a) is still swollen and slightly disjointed to one side, and b) could be either sprained or broken and I have yet to see a doctor about this, and probably will not for at least two more weeks.

The reason why I share this with you is as a sort of disclaimer. I am not a guy who overflows with common sense. So you should understand what follows in exactly two veins: 1) any infelicities of language and logic are mine and mine alone and 2) the very fact that I can pick holes in the subject matter below (the US News Rankings) should be further evidence that the entire endeavor to “rank” law schools according to some ineffable, yet still wholly arbitrary logic is fraught with such abject stupidity that even a guy whose knee is starting to hurt because he probably has a broken ankle and hasn’t gone to the doctor can see the error.

(And, yes, if you were keeping track at home, there were 95 words in that sentence).

Anyhoo, here’s to getting to the point! The US News Rankings came out this week, and as with any release of the rankings, there was much hubbub. At the University of Missouri (which fell 28 spots), the US News Rankings were as meaningful harbingers of the apocalypse as the four horsemen, while at Arizona State University (which went up 17 spots), they were as full of good tidings as the three wise men. There was a great deal of moving and shaking throughout the top 100, and very little throughout the top 20 (although George Washington made quite a push to number 20 from 28; we at MSS award them a gold star).

Some other big movers: Alabama fell nine spots from 30 to 39, UC Davis made a jump from 35 to 28 (go Aggies), USD went from 61 to 56, and Loyola went from 71 to 56. For Californian kids, that means Davis (28) is now a much “better” option than Hastings (42), while Loyola is back on the upward tick, which is great for LA kids who don’t get in to USC or UCLA.

What does it all mean? To be honest, way too much. Many top students will likely try to transfer from Missouri in pursuit of a school with a better ranking and thus better job opportunities. More people will apply to ASU and artificially inflate ASU’s ranking, with the end result that way, way too many seemingly intelligent people will be spending way, way too much time in Arizona. Will the quality of education be any different in either place? Is the quality wildly different from a year ago? Has Missouri deteriorated so much in respect to its peers in the last calendar year? Has ASU (really? ASU?!) become such an academic powerhouse in the past year?

If you can’t tell, I’m leaning toward “no” on all of those questions. The speculation on Missouri is that the law school hasn’t been placing students in good enough jobs, while the speculation on ASU is that the people ranking the school were just so drunk on Mill St. that they accidentally wrote 38 instead of 58 (good enough reason as any).

If we learn nothing in our LSAT classes, and from the great Colin Elzie yesterday in this very space, it’s that you really need to be critical of studies. It’s one of them fallacy things, I reckon, to just accept a study (or, in this case, a ranking system), without analyzing and agreeing with the methodology for the study.

And frankly, anyone who agrees with this methodology shouldn’t be running a lemonade stand, let alone a law school.

Trent has already gone over this to such an educated extent that even jaunting into this territory seems silly, but, honestly, the methodology is almost moribund with stupidity.

40% of the ranking is based off of the aggregated subjective opinions of law school deans, administrators, recently tenured faculty members, lawyers, and judges; you know, people who only have inherent knowledge of, at best, a couple of law schools. And those law schools about which they do have knowledge are either places they attended or places they worked.

It’s not like they’re scouting basketball players and devising some ranking after seeing them all play (even then, that would probably be hopelessly deficient in actually assessing their skill based off of one viewing). They’re not polling people who have experienced each law school and can actually hope to have an educated opinion about the broad expanse of law schools. They’re doing the equivalent of polling the Mayor of San Francisco about the overall efficiency of his own municipal government, and the overall efficiency of municipal governments in Kansas. In the first case, I would speculate that you would not be getting an unbiased opinion and in the second, I would speculate that you would not be getting an educated one.

And, through what mechanism of logic do they decide that “hmm, 40% sounds like a good number”? I’m going to devise my own ranking, and I’m placing 90% of the weight on my opinion of law schools based off of their mascots, and 10% on whether or not their law school has some bizarre name like Sturm or Boalt instead of just the overall university’s name. Sound good?

Arbitrary, kids. It’s a great word. Learn it, love it, live it. Arbitrary makes the world go round. Arbitrary gets things done. Arbitrary will decide where you go in life and how much money you make.

All that said, unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world where people realize that law schools all pretty much offer the same education and there’s no real reason to rank them except to make some Ivy-leaguers 40 or 50k extra per year. We also don’t live in a perfect world where there is actually a more than half-hearted attempt to make the rankings something beyond completely subjective. And we definitely don’t live a perfect world where the US News Rankings are released every year to rejoicing because it means we’ll have fuel for our fires.

So keep being slaves to the rankings. Go to the highest place you get in, with consideration for how much money they’ll give you to go, depending on how tight your finances are. Play the game; it may be crooked, but it’s the only one in town.

5 Responses

  1. Shaw Davari says:

    GO AGGIES!!!

  2. Cory says:

    I wouldn’t mind it so much if so many schools didn’t directly cater to it as the “be all end all.” My top-5 choice of schools all went down in rank. That doesn’t change their professors or programs so it shouldn’t matter, except for their Admissions department which is probably freaking out. They’re going to be a lot more selective when I apply next in a already hyper competitive market. I just hate how softs increasingly mean diddly.

    “Oh you, spent five years as a P.O.W. and stayed in a shallow hut in Guatamala researching Human Rights Law, surviving off bugs?” “Well that’s nice, but you only have a 160. Thanks for your $75, please leave us alone.”

  3. Dave says:

    Cory,

    It’s a rum world out there. Soft factors do still matter (to what extent depends on the school), but it’s increasingly becoming a numbers game. I sympathize with all of your concerns. It’s just absurd that the rankings have attained such a sacred place in the law school admissions perspective. What essential relevance is there to say that UCLA is exactly the same education as Texas, or that NYU is just a teeny bit worse than Chicago? It doesn’t make a damn bit of sense.

    The very idea of a ranking conforms to people’s need for order, but I don’t think there is anything derived from the order except the very general (Yale is probably better than UC Davis, Loyola is probably better than Gonzaga) which, frankly, anyone with a few functional synapses could probably nail down.

    It’s just bizarre that seemingly intelligent people (law school admins) put so much weight on ranking system that is so obviously flawed.

    But hey, don’t let this get you down before you’ve actually applied. Individual cases, thankfully, are individual cases. What the rankings influence are broad trends, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is judged on a numbers scale. Best of luck with everything.

    -Dave

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