Ed. note: In advance of the soon-to-be-released U.S. News and World Report law school rankings, we wanted to get a fresh take on why the rankings are something we should care about. So we reached out to one of the most well-known proponents of law school rankings, Dean David E. Van Zandt of the Northwestern University School of Law. His guest post appears below.

By David Van Zandt

The debates about the merits of the U.S. News & World Reports annual law school rankings undoubtedly will escalate with the imminent release of the new rankings. The rankings indeed are far from perfect. (I myself think there should be a different weighting of variables.) And we, as legal educators and practitioners, should continue to share our concerns about the methodology and weightings used by U.S. News.

That said, my unpopular position on law school rankings essentially remains unchanged for the past decade. I strongly believe in them. Rankings offer prospective law students an important source of consumer information with which to evaluate law schools.

Frankly, I believe we need more rankings. I especially would welcome additional rankings that would focus on employer perspectives and employment outcomes. Business Week’s rankings of MBA programs, for example, do a much better job of focusing on employers and allowing them to rank graduates of schools based on specific desired qualities and outcomes. However, just having more independent publications (as occurs in the business school world) rank law schools in different ways would help…

Northwestern Dean David Van Zandt

In the meantime, U.S. News offers a useful ranking for prospective law students. As I have argued for many years, the rankings help applicants make more informed decisions by supplying information about a school’s objective performance and perceived reputation, rather than relying so heavily, as in the past, on the advice of friends and relatives, which can be less reliable.

We need to keep in mind that our applicants are sophisticated and have the ability to give the rankings the appropriate weight in their decisions. For many prospective students, the rankings offer a starting point to begin the extensive process of researching undergraduate or graduate/professional programs. But serious applicants are not going to rely solely on rankings as a basis for their decision. They likely will use the rankings information in tandem with information gained through campus visits and individual research.

According to our own internal surveys that we conduct each year with our admitted applicants, both those who come and those who enroll elsewhere, the U.S. News rankings are a highly used source of information. However, when considered among other sources, the admittees have consistently rated conversations with practicing attorneys, current students, or law school alumni, as more influential in their enrollment decisions.

The more information they can get, the better, about such factors as the academic profile of current students, faculty-to-student ratio, strength of academic programs, career prospects upon graduation, faculty specialties, student and faculty diversity, law school facilities and best overall fit.

Whether you agree with me or not, rankings are valued by prospective students and undoubtedly are here to stay.

Instead of criticizing the rankings on a yearly basis, we legal educators need to do our best to make sure that our consumers have the best possible information about choosing a law school. And we need to spend more time on making our schools truly relevant to a changing marketplace.

Certainly, the U.S. News measures could be improved. Take, for example, U.S. News’ measuring of the number of volumes in a school’s law library, which is especially irrelevant in today’s digital age. The bar passage rate, computed on a ratio that equals the school’s pass rate divided by their state’s pass rate, also is problematic. Under current methodology, this artificially favors law schools housed in states with lower pass rates. For example, in our home state of Illinois, which has had a high overall pass rate, the best any law school can fare, assuming a 100 percent pass rate, is about 30th.

Some have expressed concern about the accuracy regarding the way schools report their employment rates and other factors, including the counting of students as employed who pursue jobs that may not require a legal education or law degree. To address this, some have suggested, and I agree, that it might be useful to have an outside organization collect or verify some of this information. Again, this is a common practice by the various business school rankings.

The way U.S. News measures law school reputations through the surveys filled out by academics, practitioners and judges could be enhanced. Each respondent is asked to evaluate each of the more than 200 ABA-approved law schools as “excellent,” “very good,” “good,” “satisfactory” or “marginal.” There is a “don’t know” option. But overall too many responders are providing ratings with limited knowledge on a very broad scale. Even with my extensive experience in legal education, I have little if any knowledge of the quality of most of the schools on the list. Besides, the survey response rate of practitioners and judges has been extremely low and most likely not statistically significant.

And U.S. News’s use of a single scale to rank all law schools makes little sense. Many U.S. law schools serve local regions and markets and do not compete with national schools. As it does with undergraduate programs, U.S. News should divide law schools by region served or perhaps by stated mission.

Rankings continue to cause controversy. Unfortunately, people who want to change the criteria of rankings often are dismissed, as are those that publicly support them, like me. But the answer is not to eliminate them; rather it is to encourage additional sources to create alternatives based on differing methodologies and to push those that exist to make improvements. We are beginning to see signs that competition is coming for U.S. News from independent publications such as the National Law Journal, Brian Leiter, and the Princeton Review.

In the end, a primary purpose of the rankings should be to assist prospective students in choosing the school that is best for them. Our goal is to make our law schools desirable to students and our graduates desirable to employers — in short, it is to produce a superior graduate for the marketplace. If we select our students well and provide them an excellent and market-relevant education, the rankings will take care of themselves.

David Van Zandt is dean of Northwestern University School of Law.

Earlier: Prior ATL coverage of the U.S. New Law School Rankings


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