…but you know that you shouldn’t take these rankings too seriously
Gather ’round, aspiring law students. Join the current law students checking to see if their school made a jump in the rankings, the attorneys getting an update how impressive their alma maters are today, the nervous law school officials making sure their school didn’t take a precipitous tumble down the rankings. Gather ’round, and gaze upon the brand new 2020 U.S. News & World Report law school rankings, and exalt your new king of law school admissions.
Or, you could … you know … not do that. For many, the arrival of the USNWR rankings is the biggest law school news of the year. Law school officials, for instance, care a great deal about these rankings, and are willing to shell out vast sums of lucre (and, in certain cases, engage in some questionable activities) to make sure they don’t take a tumble down the list. And less-than-savvy pre-law students also care a great deal about these rankings; these rankings are more-or-less the exclusive application research tool used by many.
But you, dear reader, are neither an ethically dubious law school official nor a less-than-savvy pre-law student. Your shrewdness is beyond reproach. You probably already realized that the arrival of USNWR‘s rankings barely registers as news, given that Mike Spivey — who is apparently the admissions-game Adrian Wojnarowski — leaked the rankings last week.
You also probably recognize that these rankings barely change from year-to-year, barring something crazy, like when Pepperdine Law got screwed out of its ranking last year.* You will not be surprised to realize that, among the top ten law schools on the list, #1 through #7 are all the same. You won’t even feign interest in the changes that did occur amongst these schools, intuiting that these changes would be at most trivial. And, indeed, you would be correct. Michigan fell back from #8 to #9. UVA happily took its place at #8. Berkeley — which was tied with UVA last year at #9 — backslid all the way to #10 this year. But both Duke and Northwestern jumped a spot to tie Berkeley at #10. The last change may cause you to arch an eyebrow and note the absurdity that twelve different schools now get to call themselves “top ten” schools.
*It seems like USNWR awarded Pepperdine Law for being a good sport about the whole thing by bumping its 2018 ranking of #72 all the way up to #51 this year.
You also, of course, know that these rankings are far from perfect, especially as a research tool for pre-law students. The rankings are based on all kinds of metrics that shrewd shoppers ignore. Like, say the number of books in the law school’s library. You’re also aware that 40% of a school’s ranking is based on what fellow law schools, lawyers, and judges think about that school. If you were a really good LSAT student, well-versed in the dark arts of the common fallacies, you might even recognize that these rankings are incredibly circular. As in, these rankings are based in large part on people’s perception of a law school’s quality. But people’s perceptions of a given law school’s quality are based in large part on the past years’ USNWR rankings. So these rankings just reinforce beliefs perpetuated by the rankings. You’re aware that Yale stays #1 every year not because it’s objectively the best — statistically, many other schools outperform Yale with regards to bar passage rate, employment rate, federal clerkships, etc. — but because every year everyone reads in USNWR that Yale is the best. In other words, these rankings “presuppose what they seek to establish.”
You — mostly concerned with whether the law school you attend is going to help you pass the bar and get a remunerative job — probably look to more “output-based” rankings, like Above the Law‘s, or just go straight to the raw data, from a site like Law School Transparency, to construct your own rankings.
So you might thumb through the rankings, taking no more than a cursory glance. If you have last year’s rankings handy, you might smirk at how both Washington and Washington and Lee experienced substantial drops — twelve- and eight-spot drops, respectively — and wonder what USNWR has against schools named after the first president. You might wonder if the deans at Florida and UNC are throwing a revelry worthy of Bacchus himself, given that they saw a ten- and eleven-spot jump, respectively.
But you, of course, know not to take the rankings too seriously. And you, unlike far too many of your peers, will not, under any circumstance, use them as your only research tool.