Law School Deans, Law Schools, Rankings, U.S. News

Third Tier Rankings?

The new U.S. News law school rankings are due out in March. And according to rankings guru Bob Morse, the publication is considering giving numerical rankings to the third-tier law schools.

This would be a big change. For those unfamiliar with the law school rankings (and if you are unfamiliar with the rankings, you must have ended up here looking for information on a Steven Seagal movie), let’s review. U.S. News currently ranks law schools from #1 to #100. After the first 100, U.S. News drops numerical rankings and groups the remaining schools into a “third tier” and a “fourth tier.” These schools are listed in alphabetical order within each tier.

Why? Well, for one thing, it becomes kind of silly to try to make a meaningful distinction between the 120th law school and the 121st. Doing it this way also benefits lower-ranked second-tier law schools. It arguably makes DePaul Law (ranked #98) look significantly better than all of the law schools in the third tier.

But do these distinctions make sense? The U.S. News people are examining that issue…

The National Law Journal has the latest brain nuggets from rankings overlord Bob Morse (spotted talking to Lat at the recent AALS conference):

U.S. News research director Robert Morse told legal educators during the Association of American Law Schools annual meeting in San Francisco last week that he is considering extending the numerical rankings in the new edition, which is due on March 15. The change would bring the law school rankings in line with recent modifications to the publication’s Best Colleges rankings.

“It’s something that we’re looking into,” Morse said. “We do have ranking scores for all law schools but, editorially, we didn’t want to say, ‘This is the 188th law school [representing last place].’ “

My question is this: Does numerically ranking the third tier give prospective law students more or less information about schools? We all know how much prospective students care about these rankings. Would knowing the difference between the 101st law school and the 131st law school really help students?

It’s not obvious to me that the new information would be helpful. It might be more helpful to say, “Look, these 30 or 40 law schools are essentially the same, matriculate at your own risk.” (It might be even more helpful to say, “If you can’t get into a top-50 law school, RUN.”)

Law school deans, whose jobs depend on these rankings, have strong opinions. There are deans who are against ranking the third tier:

New York Law School Dean Richard Matasar said he would prefer to see U.S. News reduce the number of schools it ranks numerically rather than expand it, since there is very little difference between the quality of education offered at most schools. The most prestigious legal employers pay attention to the rankings of the top schools, but make virtually no distinction between all other schools, he said. Thus, assigning numerical rankings outside the top 20 or so schools creates the false impression that there is a clear difference in quality of education or job prospects, Matasar said.

Not to disagree with Dean Matasar (full disclosure: I’ve met him and I think he is a decent fellow), but isn’t there a “clear difference in quality of education or job prospects” between Cardozo and NYLS? Or between Fordham and NYLS?

Meanwhile, there are deans in favor of extending the rankings:

Wayne State University Law School Dean Robert Ackerman welcomed the prospect for change. “I think we would prefer to be listed by rank rather than alphabetical order,” he said. He noted that the latter tends to place his institution toward the bottom of the list. “Psychologically, I think it makes a difference that we are listed at the end of the third tier,” Ackerman said. “I think people would make less of a distinction between schools ranked 1 through 150 than they now do between the second and third quartile.”

Isn’t it funny that both of these deans, sitting on opposite sides of the issue, seem to be making the same argument? They both seem to be saying that there’s not that much difference between second-tier law schools and third-tier law schools.

The problem with this third-tier debate is that third-tier deans are just trying to figure out which kind of ranking does the best job of masking the reality of going to a third-tier law school. They want whatever system will make students think that third-tier law schools look like a good deal, regardless of whether or not that is true.

Really, it all comes down to whether or not you believe there is a rankings “cutoff” below which you should reconsider your desire to go to law school. Obviously, there are a lot of students who don’t believe there is a cutoff — even the fourth tier schools are not struggling to fill seats.

So where do you fall? Take our reader poll below. Remember, U.S. News isn’t trying to sell a product to law school deans, the magazine is trying to sell something to you. So tell them what you think.

Do you think U.S. News should numerically rank third tier law schools?

  • No. (54%, 789 Votes)
  • Yes. (46%, 667 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,456

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‘U.S. News’ considering giving third tier law schools a number [National Law Journal]

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