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The Cost of US News Rankings

The American Bar Association wants to study the effectiveness of law school and law firm rankings. Law School rankings have been around for a while but it wasn’t until US News announced that they would soon be ranking law firms that the ABA got excited. This comes on the heels of the GAO report that the quest for higher US News rankings has driven up the cost of legal education.

Inchoate rankings have always been with us. Everyone had an idea about the “best” law schools or “top” law firms. They were relatively few in number, served a national clientele, and had tradition behind them.  As long as there were relatively few schools at the top of everyone’s list, the rest of the law school universe were free to pursue their regional or state missions.  Being a “good state school ” was not an insult and included a large number of schools each of which was seen as relatively equal.

But the formal ranking system threw all law schools into the same pot and, consequently, exaggerated the importance of small numerical differences. Now all 200 or so schools were benchmarked against the Harvards and Yales. They began to obsess about the difference between being 46 or 49. And it is even worse for the schools ranked from 90 to 140, at the bulge of the bell curve. A small difference in input could lead to a big difference in outcome. There is virtually no difference between the 95 school and the 120 school. But the appearance is devastating.

Since US News began its rankings, law schools have become more expensive and less diverse. Schools pursued the same vision in the same way: spend more and more money on merit scholarships and star professors. As long as the job market held up, everyone was happy. The recession has caused some law schools and law firms to rethink their approach. The Carnegie Report on Legal Education and the proposed ABA outcome measures have sent ripples through law schools. It remains to be seen, however, whether or not things will return to “normal” when the economy picks up.

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