Drums please.

The U.S. News law school rankings for 2012 are here, y’all. Time to pay tribute to that which is more important to legal educators in this country than anything else.

As is customary here at Above the Law, we will be posting a series of open threads, running through at least the top 100 law schools. These open threads offer you a chance to compare and contrast different schools, praise (or condemn) your alma mater, and talk trash about rival law schools.

We’re not sure what we’ll do with the formerly “tier 3″ schools that have now been graced with numerical rankings by U.S. News. And we have no clue how we’ll handle the formerly “tier 4″ schools, which are now being classified as “tier 2″ schools — but I’ll be a monkey’s uncle before I quietly accept U.S. News’s misleading attempt to recharacterize these schools as “second tier”….

In case you are suffering from some brain trauma like Guy Pearce in Memento, here are the top six law schools, according to U.S. News:

1. Yale
2. Harvard
3. Stanford
4. Columbia
5. University of Chicago
6. NYU

In previous years, we’ve started our open threads by looking at the schools ranked #1 through #5. This year, we’re expanding that slightly. The “HYS” (Harvard, Yale, Stanford) group still deserves top billing, but so does the “CCN” cluster (Columbia, Chicago, and NYU). It was silly to exclude Chicago from this top-tier discussion in previous years simply because our society enjoys lists of tens or fives. And it was stupid to exclude NYU from this discussion last year just because the school dropped a spot to make way for Chicago.

Some observers say that “HYS” are schools that you go to if you get into them (and worry about how to pay for them later), and “CCN” are schools that you go to if you can’t get into “HYS.” Based on this worldview, how U.S. News decides to jumble up these schools shouldn’t really matter to the discerning prospective law student.

Speaking of things that shouldn’t matter to prospective law students (who have something resembling a brain), let’s talk a little about U.S. News’s ridiculous decision to relabel what they consider to be the 50 or so worst law schools in the country by their own methodology as the “second tier.” What in the world is going on there? What does that say about the state of legal education? Instead of making their schools better, it seems the administrators of these f.k.a. “fourth tier” institutions lobbied U.S. News for a name change — and won? Didn’t Stringer Bell use this trick during that season on The Wire when Avon was in jail and their product was crappy? Didn’t this not work (and inadvertently lead to the street softness that allowed Marlo to rise)?

Well, if these people are so concerned about how things are labeled, I think we should help them out. They don’t want to be called “fourth tier”? Fine! We’ll give them a new name. When we get to the open thread that deals with these schools (and that’s weeks away), maybe we’ll have some kind of reader poll to choose a new name for the unranked schools. Place your suggestions in the comments.

Meanwhile, back at the top, everything remains the same. You know what the difference is between a school like Chicago and a school like one that isn’t given a numerical ranking by U.S. News? It’s that the dean of a school like Chicago doesn’t have to be unduly concerned with how a silly magazine ranks the school. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure that UofC Dean Michael Schill is happy that U.S. News recognizes Chicago as an elite institution for legal education. It certainly makes his job a lot easier. But he doesn’t have to spend too much of his valuable time obsessing over every minor change U.S. News makes from year to year.

But by the time you get into the 50s, you’ve got deans who believe that their jobs are on the line when the rankings come out. Somewhere around #100, you’ve got entire law schools whose ability to raise money can be tied to getting into the top 100. And past #150, you’ve got schools that are just trying to figure out how to keep U.S. News from dumping all over them.

That’s the real difference between the tiers: Can you stand on your own merit, or do you need U.S. News to make it look like you’re giving value to your students? When you look at it that way, it really doesn’t matter how U.S. News decides to label the tiers.

Earlier: The 2012 U.S. News Law School Rankings Are Out!


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